Like a new pair of shoes that pinch until broken in, food manufacturers are slowly getting comfortable with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
Two years ago, mention of IIoT provoked blank stares or rolled eyes from the people who manage and run America’s food and beverage production facilities. Today, they are warming up to the concept. In a recent Food Processing-ABB joint survey, "What’s Driving Automation Investments in the Food and Beverage Industry" only 43 percent of food professionals indicated their plants weren’t engaged in any IIoT-related activities.
Some of the early stage work is driven by economics. Software that resides in a third-party server and essentially is rented is cheaper than licensing and maintaining the same software. Rented programs and the data they generate require third-party hosting, commonly referred to as cloud computing, and 22.4 percent of survey respondents say their organizations are engaged in cloud-based computing.
Data availability through mobile devices is described as IIoT’s second wave (connected PCs are the first), and progress is being made on that front. Whether it’s a portal to a machine’s controls that allows remote access or a web browser that connects a mobile phone to machine data through the aforementioned cloud, 20-25 percent of respondents report their companies are leveraging those capabilities.
Wireless connection of field devices to a database for real-time reporting of what is actually happening on the production line is an element of the IIoT infrastructure. It’s also the area with the most activity, with three in 10 food facilities utilizing wireless networks, the survey found.
Interest in further development of the IIoT infrastructure is building, a study commissioned last year by MESA International suggests. One-third of manufacturing professionals said their companies were investigating how the connected plant would benefit their organizations, up from one in five the previous year. Almost one in five said they see value in those investments, primarily because of the customer-service enhancements they could provide.
IIoT enthusiasm is greatest among IT professionals and top management, less so among engineers and operations personnel. Customers are clamoring for greater supply chain visibility, including status reports on order fulfillment and any quality issues. Less clear is how providing that information will positively impact production.
In the parlance of automation vendors, benefits will be laid bare by an “IT/OT convergence.” To the ears of seasoned operations personnel, that sounds suspiciously like a positive spin on the IT/engineering gap that emerged in the wake of Y2K spending. Food companies spent heavily on ERP systems in the run-up to the computer calamity that wasn’t at the dawn of the year 2000. Investments in plant automation suffered when capital expenditures focused on ERP implementations that were sold as helping manufacturing as well as the front office. As the new century got under way, engineers were asking, “Where’s the beef?”
Who’s your daddy?
Some of IIoT’s beef resides in the chop suey of Big Data. In the internet world, data is the new currency, and organizations like Google, Amazon Web Services, Oracle and Microsoft are trading hard currency for more data. “Companies are purchasing other companies just to get their data,” points out Rob Light, a research specialist with G2 Crowd (www.g2crowd.com), a Chicago-based business software review service.
Part of the promise of massive databases is a transformation of process analytics, first to predictive modeling and ultimately enabling adaptive change. That transformation likely is years away, however. It will require many more data scientists than are currently available, says Light, and higher education is just beginning to create the data science curricula needed to fill the skills gap.
A recent report by Harvard Business Review (HBR) Analytic Services decries the lack of business investment in Big Data development. Most Big Data projects are done on an ad hoc basis, the report notes, with fewer than one in five organizations pursuing them as part of a comprehensive strategy.
That may be more a reflection of most companies’ inability to invest millions in infrastructure development with long-term paybacks than a disinterest in the technology itself. Automation vendors’ poster child for IIoT investment in the food industry is Sugar Creek Packing Co., a pork processor that christened a new facility in Cambridge City, Ind., in 2015. Sugar Creek invested $6 million in networking hardware and software. The technology was a necessary foundation for a high-performance work team system that executive management introduced at the new facility. Eliminating workflow bottlenecks provided the return on investment.