Food manufacturers advised to plan for Industry 4.0

By Eugene Smethurst

- Last updated on GMT

Food and drink manufacturers should prepare for Industry 4.0
Food and drink manufacturers should prepare for Industry 4.0

Related tags Data Future Forecasting

The food and beverage industry is changing fast, with connectivity and boundless data catapulting it into a new digital age.

The sector is on the brink of what is being described as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or ‘Industry 4.0’. That is the term coined to describe the increasing digital connectivity of customer, product, process and factory through the use of emerging technologies.

Some countries are already making significant investment in Industry 4.0. So there is a real opportunity for the UK to step up and look at what it needs to do to remain competitive.

At present in the UK, a lot of data collected is not used to its full advantage because many companies are still coming to terms with navigating a new digital landscape. In order to use data, businesses should consider introducing a cloud system or data discovery platform. That way, businesses will be able to optimise processes and benefit from the numerous solutions to issues that Industry 4.0 brings.

Shelf life

One area where Industry 4.0 can help is with food quality. Shelf life is undeniably a real issue for many food manufacturers and where businesses are making products the same day they are being shipped out, it is important not to over-produce.

Electronic traceability can help solve this issue, allowing producers to track items from delivery to supermarket shelf. This is about connecting engineering to production to IT, allowing the capability of joint systems and more efficient planning.

Other benefits include supply chain integration. Industry 4.0 allows businesses to take a product to market more quickly by connecting the supply chain to the production facility through interoperability. Uncovering patterns in data also allows businesses to anticipate customer demand – enabling businesses to harness information and refine their processing solutions.

The food and beverage industry can look to other sectors such as automotive and banking as examples that are more advanced in this area, both of which are using data to help with customer retention.

But today, there are a number of reasons why the food and beverage industry has not fully embraced the data revolution. One of the main challenges the industry is facing is recruiting, developing and retaining a workforce capable of understanding and running complex data business operations.

The skills transition required at all levels, particularly within senior decision-making terms, will be challenging.

Another hurdle businesses may face is achieving good communication between IT teams and engineering and operational teams. It is important that IT staff looking after data give other teams the opportunity to analyse it.

Global production market

Although arguably the biggest challenge of Industry 4.0 will be convincing people to change the way they have always worked. All of these factors will affect future success and how well manufacturers can compete in our increasingly global production market.

Given such challenges, it is important for businesses to start considering their next steps. A priority will be to invest in people and the necessary skills to analyse and interpret data. AECOM is already employing young engineers and training them in the skills they will need. We are also working with colleges to help them consider the vocational training they should be providing, such as data discovery and ICT.

Businesses should also consider creating a digital roadmap, to help define their future data and technology requirements. This involves conducting a detailed audit to understand the data and technology already being used, and considering what kind of systems will be needed in the future to meet customer, product, manufacturing, data capture and employee training needs.

Businesses should devise detailed ‘what if’ scenarios around their data and technology roadmap to consider and decide on the best Industry 4.0 options for them, including the costs involved, as well as expected inputs and outputs. It is important to consider what is going to add the most value, drive the greatest efficiencies and help the business remain competitive in the long term.

Early Industry 4.0 adopters will be the first to reap the rewards of a more digital, connected future that brings improved forecasting and more efficient production. As with any emerging opportunity, there is no established path to follow but planning ahead is the best place to start.

A long-term recruitment strategy and examining what infrastructure a business needs to support emerging technology is certainly required. But convincing employees that a whole new way of working will bring future success may take some time.

  • Eugene Smethurst is head of process and automation control services at AECOM​.

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