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Seven reasons to invest in smart factory technology

Making a major investment – particularly when it involves transformative technologies – can be daunting. Seven reasons for making the push to smart factory technology are highlighted.

By Andy Macpherson August 9, 2021
Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

There is no doubt businesses need regular investment to thrive and survive. Budgets, though, are finite and trading conditions are always fluctuating. Deciding where and when to inject cash can be a tough call.

Within the food processing sector, two key drivers for technology adoption include the looming skills shortage – particularly for manual tasks – and the constant pressure to produce high quality, reliable and healthy foods with total traceability. Increased automation has the potential to remove inefficiencies and overheads by reducing human interventions – particularly where the work is repetitive and low-skilled – in addition to improving traceability and reducing waste.

Smart factories combine automation and digitalization. Together, sensors, open communication and networking can create data and actionable insights in increase productivity.

Seven reasons to invest in smart factory technology

It is important to understand automation and digitalization do not just improve production and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), together they also offer numerous ways of giving you a good return on investment. The following factors should be considered when making the business case to invest:

  1. Increased uptime: Digitalization reduces unplanned downtime by predicting device failures before they happen. This can save up to 20% in maintenance time as errors are identified faster. It also reduces consequential losses due to unplanned stoppages. Open communication protocols can also save time installing, commissioning, and adapting production processes. Complex plant is easier to use and can be more easily networked with other equipment.
  2. Improved reliability: Digitalization enables the monitoring of parameters such as vibration, noise, temperature and energy consumption, providing insights to make your plant more reliable and less costly to run. Production lines can therefore run effortlessly at higher performance levels for longer periods of time with less human interaction.
  3. Optimized production: Digitalization enables continuous improvements that enhance production cycle times, optimizing daily output. More accurate and streamlined production results in less waste, improving the bottom line.
  4. Enhanced quality: Automation and digitalization reduces human error. Recipes and processes are pre-determined, and processes are monitored as they pass through each stage so any deviation can be assessed and corrected quickly. The ability to deliver consistent, traceable product is a key success factor for major food retailers.
  5. Reduced waste: Using automation and digitalization, product defects can be identified quickly and rectifications made before packaging. Identifying defects early, before value has been added, reduces waste, avoids recalls and maximizes profits. Automation digitalization reduces waste right through to final packaging. What would reducing “give away,” eliminating overfill and underfill, by just 1% mean to the bottom line?
  6. Improved agility: Automation and digitalization will make your company more responsive to changes in demand. For example, it will be easier to increase production efficiency, enabling the business to adapt to seasonal demand spikes without the need to employ processing plant that sits idle for most of the year. It offers the potential to increase agility, making “individualization” of products much easier to achieve.
  7. Retained staff: It sounds counter-intuitive, but automation and digitalization provides a good opportunity to up-skill staff. It frees them to learn more value-added tasks, contributing to staff wellbeing and career satisfaction, as well as reducing the exposure to injuries through repetitive movements, or inattention due to boredom. Engaged and motivated employees are a valuable business asset.

One of the most common barriers to adoption of the smart factory approach is based on the misconception “We can’t afford a new factory.” However, it isn’t necessary to build a new factory to start investing in – and benefiting from – automation. Upgrading existing machinery is an affordable and manageable place to start. By automating just one production line, it is possible to start collecting data and insights to identify where process improvements can be made and then this knowledge can be replicated on other lines.

Wherever you choose to start, it is important to be clear about why you want to implement a more automated approach. Are you solving a particular problem, or making the most of new opportunities? And who is driving the project – is it a bottom-up or a top-down process?

It is important to start the process with proof of concepts, pilots, easily-understood projects that can be scaled up when proven. Phased adoption enables companies to take employees along in the process: Investments in technology can be negated by resistance from colleagues who do not fully understand the benefits or the overall vision. The smart factory journey is best achieved when the entire organization has the knowledge and confidence to implement the necessary changes. With the team fully on board, ensure all elements are in place before committing any resources. Applying digital twin simulations to model production line changes, for example, can help provide evidence that the changes will work before interrupting production.

Food processors should not wait until they are building a new facility to implement automation digitalization. The benefits of adoption, in terms of process improvements, return on investment and the ability to be more responsive to market fluctuations, are compelling.

However, there are a number of factors to consider in order to ensure the investment is successful. These include having a clear vision and purpose, communicating that vision to the team, and sense-checking the proposed investment will achieve the desired outcomes. By following these steps, decision-makers can be assured their automation strategy will be a lasting legacy, delivering all the benefits of a smart factory and giving the organization business a competitive advantage.

This article originally appeared on Control Engineering Europe’s website. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.


Andy Macpherson
Author Bio: Andy Macpherson is industry manager for Food & Beverage at Festo.