– Are you frustrated with all this talk of Industry 4.0, while you are struggling to keep the lights on?
– Are you being asked to produce more products and product variants while grappling with reductions in staff and budget?
– Is it getting harder to find replacements for those antiquated PLCs on eBay?
If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you are not alone. Virtually all F&B sectors are experiencing similar pains, with small to mid-sized dairies being especially vulnerable. The dairy process is complex, very regulated, and due to a variety of internal and external factors, margins are tight. Add to that, changing consumer preferences and it’s getting tougher and tougher for the smaller guys to compete and keep up.
And, while some dairies have experienced a financial bump as a result of COVID, most have had no time to breathe. Production demands have increased and there has been little downtime to implement improvements let alone perform needed maintenance. As a result, many in the dairy industry have fallen further behind.
COVID has also accelerated the advancement and deployment of technology in factories across all industries – everything from robots and cobots, augmented and virtual reality, artificial Intelligence and machine learning. For the most part, however, only the larger dairies have been able to capitalize, further extending the distance between them and their smaller competitors.
Despite these headwinds, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are ways for smaller dairies to improve without breaking the bank and/or incurring significant downtime to the detriment of production. The benefits of automation and integration are within reach – improvements to food safety, quality, reliability, flexible production, and traceability.
The key is to not get hung up on the formal definition of Industry 4.0. You can achieve Industry 4.0 results without upgrading and/or throwing out your entire infrastructure. Small changes and simple additions can make a big difference.
One easy and benign target area is analytics. Chances are, you have the ability to and/or are already collecting some valuable data. But are you doing anything with it? With a small amount of time, effort and dollars, you can gather insights from that data to improve your operations and produce returns for your business. Is your CIP process maximized or is it bleeding costs? What is your OEE really and how can you use it to improve? Are your PID loops tuned to reduce waste and improve quality of control? In many cases, the data you already have can be used to shed light on these and other areas of inefficiency.
Implement improvements with quick payoffs and use them to fund the obsolescence upgrades. Start replacing those unsupported PLCs with those that provide increased functionality. Look to upgrade drives with more efficient and durable units. Upgrade those panels that have failing touchscreens. And, don’t forget about the network. Move toward getting all your devices connected in order to simplify, support and enable information sharing throughout the enterprise.
Even if you have very little automation now, there are low-cost products and technologies that can be deployed to get you moving in the right direction and also lay the foundation for future improvements. For instance, there is process control software available with SCADA and MES built in. Start with the controls automation and then add on layers of improvement later. With every implementation, keep the future in mind. Take the extra step to better position yourself for the future. Any time you touch a PLC, think about data. What can you save off to your historian for a future analytics project?
The threats and corresponding opportunities to the small to mid-sized dairies are real. Don’t wait and continue to fall behind. Start small. If you are having difficulty figuring out what to do first, contact an integrator. They can help with everything from prioritizing improvements, helping develop business cases, to providing a digital transformation roadmap. Don’t get hung up on deep and all-encompassing planning. The key is to act for business benefit and improve then align from there. Start with what you have. Identify and implement small projects with quick payback and significant ROI and get moving on that Industry 4.0 journey. Any step, no matter how small, is forward progress.
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