Using the Digital Thread of Food Production to Prevent Recalls

We’ve all seen the headlines: Contaminated peanut butter; metal fragments in cereal; Salmonella found in eggs and tomatoes; and melamine in milk. Food safety concerns continue to be at the forefront of public attention, which have led to high-profile product recalls.

In today’s age of globalization, ever-increasing consumer awareness and evolving government regulations, there is a legitimate urgency among manufacturers to be more proactive for food safety to protect consumers and their brands.

While response and communications to recalls are still critical, the primary focus needs to shift toward the prevention of recalls—building safety upfront before products reach consumers. The food manufacturing industry has the opportunity to take advantage of current automation technologies that will put them on the path to true brilliant factory status. Brilliant manufacturing solutions can be used to gather and connect data from every aspect of a production facility and then put into action to continually improve the food production process. This “digital thread” is the seamless flow of data across the food product’s lifecycle that can be captured, analyzed, and acted on.

Today, manufacturing is being redefined by the digital thread, which promises to increase the power of productivity well beyond what anyone can even imagine. Enabled by the Industrial Internet, today’s technology solutions allow companies to connect their equipment and systems to bring together disparate data for increased operational visibility, leverage insights through advanced analytics, and achieve plant optimization for utmost productivity, quality, and sustainability.

According to Grocery Manufacturers Association, the financial impact of more than half of all recalls cost greater than $10 million. Frost & Sullivan estimates that a total of 76 million food-related illness cases occurred in 2013, with the U.S. spending $40 billion dollars on treatment rather than prevention.In fact, Frost & Sullivan estimates that a total of 76 million food-related illness cases occurred in 2013, with the U.S. spending $40 billion dollars on treatment rather than prevention. Tracking the digital thread from product to manufacturing to services will have a significant positive impact to both food manufacturers and consumers financially. Improving quality and food safety also leads to higher productivity—a critical advantage that’s imperative for manufacturers to stay ahead in today’s highly competitive environment.

Beyond the obvious financial benefits for food manufacturers who utilize the digital thread, there are other benefits as well, including product quality, safety, production flexibility, meeting compliance, and positive brand reputation.

Product Quality

By gathering data on food production processes, manufacturers can analyze data and identify the best production runs, and then use this “golden batch” as a template for which subsequent production runs should be measured against to ensure the best quality.

Utilizing the digital thread in food manufacturing provides greater company control of the entire process. Thus, operators can monitor the progress of a batch and control the execution of a recipe, as well as the status of the process from the same supervisory and control environment. The digital thread empowers engineers to quickly and efficiently deploy batch automation, regardless of the underlying equipment—enabling a complete batch solution for small, medium, large, or multi-site applications.

Software that offers rich digital thread traceability capabilities allows companies to trace a product throughout every step of the manufacturing process and identify its exact materials and quality characteristics. It also allows food producers to control the flow of product between equipment and manage in-process inventories in real time with greater transparency between production orders. This optional capability provides manufacturers with the ability to optimize batch production, utilizing time series and historical analysis tools. These results enable consistent reproduction of the “golden batch.”

Food Safety

When food contamination happens, it can take a while for manufacturers to root out the cause of the incident. Leveraging software technology, often aided by barcodes or QR codes, manufacturers can track and trace a food product from its sale all the way back through its production process to its raw materials. By following that thread, manufacturers reduce downtime by pinpointing the source of contamination and address it so that food production can resume as soon as possible.

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