The global spread of COVID-19 has created an unprecedented situation for the manufacturing sector, resulting from the mandated lockdowns across the global ecosystem and it has been no different for food manufacturing industries. Initially, supply chains were disrupted, stopping the flow of materials, intermediate parts and finished goods. However, the packaged food business managed to recover early because of the essential nature of the product categories and the increase in home consumptions with panic buying.
In the post-COVID era, global manufacturing and supply chains are likely to be much more digital, as is already evident in the immediate response to the crisis. It was evident that COVID-19 has had a lower impact wherever factory automation had already been incorporated in food production lines and a high impact in places where there is operator-intense work due to norms of maintaining social distancing etc. So, in a way, the onset of the pandemic has accelerated the Industry 4.0 revolution and has brought many innovative solutions by integrating the machine data and analysing them for efficiency improvements.
For manufacturers working to produce essential supplies and equipment with a reduced labour force, IoT-based technologies can help support their goals. The smart farming, smart robotics & cobotics, smart utility & energy system, digital supply chain & logistics and IIoT platforms are the current trends in many food industries, from farm to fork process. These solutions are made smart with the use of AI/ML technologies by building the right algorithms models to predict the early conditions & warnings and helping in making right decisions. Edge computing with factory data centres are increasing as an alternate to cloud computing due to network latency challenges. The Machine Asset Advisor apps & Logbook Digitization is another such force multiplier. The level of automation maturity will increase from open to closed loop controls with self-optimising decisions.
While new innovations and technologies are springing up in the market, challenges of barriers of automation remain, which include the lack of OT-IT standards across industries & machine OEMs. Data integration is not easy with legacy machines, multiple communication protocols & old automation hardware PLC, SCADA, Drives, HMI, switches & relays etc. Cybersecurity has to be addressed while integrating OT-IT systems with the use of firewalls, VLAN, DMZ architecture. Automation & digitisation (A&D) will set new operating efficiency benchmarks, provided the data governing committees in companies put clear strategies and policies in place to support & accelerate the A&D journey.
My recommendation for the A&D journey is to identify the major business challenges, take a problem-solving approach and build digital solutions to solve these key business challenges. This will add value significantly, either by cost savings, efficiency improvements or process controls. Also, one must understand that all initiatives will not lead to results and some projects might fail initially, so proof-of-concept is a must for knowing the nuances. An integrated motivated team consisting of project managers, data translators, process experts, data scientists, automation engineers, software developers with continuous brainstorming of new innovative ideas & improvements and constant monitoring & drive from management will make this A&D journey a success.