Process control and automation: Weathering the storm with smart solutions
Confectionery Production considers how the latest process control and automation technology can help offset myriad challenges facing the confectionery and bakery sectors. Daisy Phillipson reports
With consumers demanding a greater array of snacks and sweet treats, the confectionery and sweet bakery sectors have always strived to innovate with expanding product ranges and increasingly complex processes.
But maintaining agility has not been easy amid what’s being described as a ‘perfect storm’ of challenges.“ “Food and beverage producers in Europe have already been faced with price increases last year as a result of Covid-19, lockdowns, labour shortages and the stranded container ship in the Suez Canal,” says Roger Gaemperle, head of industry strategy and marketing CPG and LS EMEA at industrial automation firm Rockwell Automation.
“The situation has significantly worsened in 2022 with the Ukraine conflict and adverse weather conditions throughout Europe.” Gaemperle elaborated on the impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had on the food sector, including disrupted production and exports from one of the biggest suppliers of wheat, corn and vegetable oil. Energy prices have also skyrocketed due to Europe’s reliance on Russian imports.
“The result is that energy, fertiliser, packaging, raw material, transport and personnel costs all skyrocketed at the same time,” adds Gaemperle. “Many larger producers – like for example Nestlé, Coca Cola and Danone – have raised prices to combat inflation and rising input prices.” But what about smaller manufacturers? Amid the various challenges present today, they must find a way to decrease costs at the factory floor level by measures such as increasing sustainability, flexibility, productivity and yield, without the freedom of high upfront investments. While the adoption of automation and digital technologies are becoming increasingly prevalent in the confectionery and sweet bakery segments, there is still significant potential in utilising these tools further while opting for cost-effective solutions.
To achieve goals such as minimising energy consumption, maximising yield and producing a range of high quality products, the ability to make informed decisions is vital. “By leveraging an open and flexible control system like Rockwell Automation’s PlantPAx DCS in combination with the FT innovation suite for IIoT and analytics applications, manufacturers will benefit from all the features of a modern DCS such as easy integration, scalability and flexibility, as well as open and secure connectivity and native analytics-enabled automation layer,” says Giancarlo Scarturchio, EMEA process programme manager at Rockwell Automation.
“So, the control system is providing the ability to acquire data, contextualise and analyse it in real-time and ultimately drive actions out of the data, which is the key to driving efficiency and flexibility.”
For suppliers at the start of their digital journey, it’s important to identify the problems that need to be solved. Once these are outlined, it is smart to first make use of solutions with a high cost-benefit-ratio and relatively low upfront cost. For example, smart IoT sensors such as those offered by Rockwell Automation together with the right software can be used for predictive maintenance. “The investment is relatively low, but the impact can be huge if they avoid for example a major breakdown of critical equipment in a factory,” says Scarturchio. “Another example is software to collect and calculate OEE data.
The insight producers get from such a solution can potentially allow them to increase OEE by several percentage points and thereby dramatically lower the cost of goods sold due to both the higher equipment utilisation and higher output.” Another level of predictive maintenance can be achieved with artificial intelligence (AI) at the Edge. “AI at the Edge using a machine controller with an AI library, for example, allows companies to collect, process and react to data collected at line level in real-time,” explains Daniel Rossek, regional marketing manager at technology provider Omron UK.
“Although the scope of the data remains relatively large, organisations need less resources in terms of hardware, communication infrastructure or processing capabilities at enterprise levels.” Omron provides AI capability in a machine controller that operates at the Edge of the machine, enabling predictive maintenance in real-time. “In addition to microsecond response time to potential failures, the risk of potential security threats linked to the use of AI can be controlled more easily than with AI on the cloud,” notes Rossek.
For its part, Mecatherm – which develops equipment and production lines for this sector – has introduced digital solutions for predictive maintenance on its machinery, including M-Care. Accessible with a smartphone or tablet, M-Care services are available on an internet processing platform that offers a user-friendly interface to provide operators with readable content. To detect possible anomalies on an oven, sensors are used to collect data on critical functions. This information is sent to the processing platform and algorithms make it possible to detect the drifts of the critical parameters and spot any malfunctions before the machine shuts down. If an issue is detected, the operator receives an alert and is then supported with step-by-step guidance to correct it.
Offsetting energy costs
As discussed, high gas and electricity costs have pushed up the price of manufacturing, and now more than ever digital tools and smart solutions are integral to achieving optimum energy usage. “Rising energy costs have had a direct impact within the confectionery industry, where elements of the production and packaging processes are powered by electricity,” says Simon Hill, group solutions specialist, packaging at tna solutions Europe.
“Coupled with the rising energy costs, raw material prices have skyrocketed, with the price of sugar effectively doubling since 2020. This has put pressure on confectionery manufacturers to look at ways to increase efficiency and reduce overheads.” the defined parameters to the individual CO2 emissions, identifying consumption in a holistic and customer-specific manner. “Our analysis covers the machines’ lifecycle, from manufacture and transport to use. The latter accounts for around two thirds of the entire equipment lifecycle,” explains Steffen Carbon, responsible for eco-friendly product design at Syntegon. “
Confectionery equipment business Winkler und Dünnebier Süßwarenmaschinen (WDS) also focuses on the life cycle of its machines, having recently announced the launch of its LifeCycleCare service concept. As part of the company’s focus on providing optimum after-sales services, the business notes that LifeCycleCare is essentially a promise to support its customers for the entire lifetime of a machine and ensure the sysHill highlights two innovations that are capable of decreasing the energy consumption on its bagging machines, including tna’s rotary jaws and the power save function.
The power save function automatically turns off elements of the tna robag (above) including the heater, servo motor controls and the user interface within typical sized lines of ten or more bag makers, which adds up to significant energy savings. Meanwhile, tna’s unique rotary jaw technology saves energy as the free motion of the jaws rotate continuously with no friction. “Holding off on updating equipment right now is effectively a gamble, as the instability in the market means we’re unsure of when the energy crisis might end, and how much worse it might get,” adds Hill, reflecting on the company’s systems for the sector.
“But having the equipment in place can reduce costs in the long term and help mitigate this risk as the payback will compound as time goes on,” he concludes in advising on appropriate investment strategy. In addition to costs, concern for the environment has driven the need to meet sustainability objectives. For its part, to offer food manufacturers, including those in the bakery and confectionery segments, full transparency on the carbon footprint of its machines, Syntegon (below) recently announced a certified CO2 calculation offering. Developed by the processing and packaging machines provider, the software-based approach covers parameters such as electricity, compressed air, media and packaging materials.
The flexible methodology relates the defined parameters to the individual CO2 emissions, identifying consumption in a holistic and customer-specific manner. “Our analysis covers the machines’ lifecycle, from manufacture and transport to use. The latter accounts for around two thirds of the entire equipment lifecycle,” explains Steffen Carbon, responsible for eco-friendly product design at Syntegon. “ Confectionery equipment business Winkler und Dünnebier Süßwarenmaschinen (WDS) also focuses on the life cycle of its machines, having recently announced the launch of its LifeCycleCare service concept.
As part of the company’s focus on providing optimum after-sales services, the business notes that LifeCycleCare is essentially a promise to support its customers for the entire lifetime of a machine and ensure the system is as digitalised as possible to improve efficiency. The comprehensive contractual support consists of four components including operating support, expert care, analytics and reporting, and managed security.
Robotics for all levels
In times when margins are being squeezed even more than usual, solutions that can help to reduce waste and minimise product and packaging giveaway are proving to be of vital importance. Machine automation and digital services provider ABB provided a real-life example of these benefits in the case of Kraft Foods, which commissioned CKF Systems to design an automated re-circulating distribution system with four ABB 4-axis IRB 660 robots for its Cadbury Roses and Heroes products.
Located in three production areas and over two floors, the sophisticated solution comprises an automated robotic system with high level delivery and return alongside vision controlled distribution that automatically feeds the two packing plants. The wrapped units are handled in open plastic tote bins that can be reused as opposed to cardboard boxes that were previously crushed and removed from the packaging area, therefore eliminating cardboard waste.
The four enclosed robot cells, which are defended with in-floor induction loops, light guards and secure gate access, have six pallet-feed conveyors to receive product and to discharge the re-palletised empty tote bins. System control is via a Rockwell PLC with Ethernet communication and safety controlled via a GuardLogix PLC, while seven HD cameras capable of identifying both colour and shape ensure the right product is routed to the designated hopper.
The operation of the equipment also needed to be relatively easy and uncomplicated. This was achieved by an HMI interface located at three control suites, with specifically developed software providing a flexible and user-friendly interface for automatic operation and manual override options. “Significant benefits have been realised by the success of this project,” says David Moreton, BD&E project manager at Kraft Foods UK. “Given the volumes of these two packing plants, we have improved operational efficiency with additional positives brought about by the reduction in material movements, vehicle activity and cardboard usage. The automation has enhanced our environmental programme and, importantly, decreased the plant’s carbon footprint.”
The success of the project certainly demonstrates how automated lines and robotic technology can deliver significant benefits and savings to a confectionery business. But for manufacturers that do not have the revenue to complete a factory overhaul or embark on a huge project, there are other options available. “ In times of low cash flow, subscription-based services, in particular in software, are increasingly popular as there usually is only a small upfront investment required with relatively low monthly or yearly fees,” comments Rockwell’s Gaemperle. “In addition, producers typically don’t have to take care of updating these solutions or ensuring cyber security themselves with such a business model, as that is taken care of by the solution provider.”
Similarly, Omron Financial Services offers manufacturers a range of leasing options for technologies including mobile robots and cobots, as well as an online calculator tool to provide a quick idea of the monthly cost. “Our leasing solutions enable companies to acquire our latest technologies, so that they can continue to maintain a competitive edge and increase their return on investment,” says Almudena Marcos Bardera, EMEA services business development manager at Omron Industrial Automation. “Our complete lease service package takes away much of the initial financial burden and enables them to focus on their core business activities.”