(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the April/May 2019 issue.)
Food safety is one industry that stands to gain significantly from cloud computing and storage, mainly because this approach to handling data leads to more accurate traceability for continually improving food safety through its ability to accumulate data and make it readily available for analysis and response. Given the endless number of variables in food processing from the loading dock to the receiving dock, cloud computing enables the process of keeping food safe to go to more of a granular level. This ability gives significant opportunities to analyze product status en route and to intercede the moment adverse conditions are detected.
The use of cloud computing at a plant automatically means the operation has moved on from pen and clipboard recordkeeping, or at least at some locations, has to. Many operations still use this means, though computing devices are gradually retiring these manual methods.
The problem is that writing down data and then transferring it onto some form of a ledger is in a word, routine. Even the many operations that were using IT to accumulate and analyze data, the means of collecting it were rudimentary.
Humans don’t do routines well; they can get bored with them and often neglect to do the job correctly. Computers, however, are made for routine.
The Place for PCs in the Collection Picture
Naturally, the kinds of computing devices that food processing operations use for data collection are transformative. At first, management discouraged smartphones and tablets on the plant floor, regarding them as distractions. Over time these devices became regarded as business tools for their ability to on-the-spot enable technicians and inspectors to send data into the enterprise, analyze that data and anticipate problems.
Over the past few years, a growing number of operations use stationary panel PCs along the production path. Indeed, though infinitely more costly than the clipboard, the payback on panel PCs is the heightened ability to avoid the mega-costs of being among the roughly 200 recalls that can take place in a given year while protecting the company’s investment in its valuable reputation.
Industrial panel PCs are the backbone of modern processing data collection and data analysis. Built to reliably withstand the rigors of long-term operation in even the most extreme work environments, the design of these devices enables them to be a versatile solution for data collection while being useful for years regardless of advances in computing technology. Panel PCs bring many benefits to the food processing operation.
Ready to Do the Same Job Repeatedly
In many food processing operations, mobility is not necessary, except in the case of preventative equipment maintenance or for inventory in the warehouse. Say for example a receiving dock door location can expect a steady flow of thousands of pounds of bananas. The operation needs a computer at that location to ensure the product arrives in perfect condition. The panel PC needs to be at that place to do the same function over and over again.
Proximity to the Operation
Panel PCs can be located near the site of the action, whether it is the loading dock, the production line, or packaging. This proximity to the action puts anyone in the facility in the know what’s going on at any location at any moment.
If the product is using barcodes, RFID tags, or QR codes to implement traceability, that data can be captured right on-the-spot, right when the action takes place. These tags might be right on the product and affixed to tubs or containers.
There are processing plants that connect to readers using a USB connection. With Bluetooth, the manufacturers can totally enclose these PCs with no exposed ports for use in very damp areas.
Ability to Increase the Volume of Data
I’ve heard from management of companies who want to stay competitive in this industry and need to improve the amount of data they are getting. What I’ve found is that as the facility uses the four or five panel PCs they have, management sees the benefit of having more computers stationed along the processing path. By adding more panel PCs, the operation has more data points for a much deeper quality of metrics for traceability.
The increased population of panel PCs and the various forms of product IDs allows for batching. If a problem is detected, plant floor employees can identify the product batch causing the issue. The technicians can then connect with the vendor where the product came from, giving a complete picture of that product’s life.
These data input points where panel PCs should be depends on the unique operation taking place. Take meat processing. The process starts with the raw product, which for most processing operations arrives live. From the slaughter room, the meat is broken up into various cuts, then perhaps cooked or chilled. The hundreds of pounds of meat can end up in one-pound packages which go on to be palletized, stretchwrapped, and out the door.
At all of these points, a mounted panel PC should be at that location to send the data connected with each process to the cloud. As the saying goes, if you don’t document it, it didn’t happen.
Improved Failure Diagnosis
When it comes to data, the more you can gather, the more you know. Of course, it’s not just the panel PCs interacting with cloud storage that paints the picture of what’s happening with the operation. Having this information provides a healthy level of visibility into the food handling process for up-to-the-moment responses to any irregularities, and especially crucial feature for those plants that have FDA inspectors on site.
Besides, other inputs find their way to the cloud including room environmental data from the HVAC system and in the case of refrigerated product processing, the chiller system. All of this information is vital for more accurate root cause analysis when a problem does occur in the food processing system.
PCs for the Plant Floor Environment
Food processing facilities put many demands on equipment. These requirements mean that just any PC out of a big box store is not going to cut it. Here are features that panel PCs require to enhance visibility for food traceability in these facilities.
Swiss Army knife design. Unlike consumer grade PCs, panel PCs are capable of data capture from many devices, especially those with Internet of Things technology. The ability to take input from a barcode scanner, for example, enables employees to log in, so you know what they are doing and at what time.
Water/chemical resistance. Though washdowns constitute a significant part of the routine for sanitation, one of the toughest are meat processing plants where every 12 hours these computers can be hit with a combination of high-pressure water and harsh chemicals. To withstand this shower, industrial grade computer PCs typically have an IP65 rating or greater on the whole enclosure. In most areas where washdown is needed, IP65/NEMA 4x stainless steel computers are used.
Ability to run different operating systems. The range can include Windows-based systems, Windows Embedded, Windows Professional, Windows RT, along with Linux and POS-ready systems. The device should be ready for any updates.
Touchscreen design. Food processing grade waterproof panel PCs should have resistive or capacitive touchscreens, with options such as high resolution, LCD lit panels, TFT panels, CCFL backlight, high brightness, wide viewing angle, and a long lifetime. The screen must be able to respond to gloved hands.
Ready for Blockchain
As an article in the January 2019 issue of Food Quality and Safety stated, “The hard work ahead to advance public health protection is much more than instantaneous lot tracking based on distributed ledger technologies (now often and more generically referred to as blockchain) or alternative open-participation traceability platforms.”
An increasing number of processing plants are using blockchain to provide visibility into food traceability. When considering the route that goes from farm-to-table, the processing plant is one link of the supply chain, but a crucial one because of the many processes and exposures that take place as food goes from raw product to packaged goods.
The blockchain is made more robust through the quality of locations and quantity of panel PCs connected to real-time inputs such as scales and scanning guns. As the article pointed out, “of the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day across all industries, only 1 percent is collected, analyzed, and used.”
The issue goes beyond how are we handling data to what are we missing? Panel PCs are the on-ramp to the blockchain to provide the information necessary to stay on top of the process. Panel PCs give accessibility to mission critical data.
Talking to customers who use panel PCs extensively, they have told me that their ability to implement blockchain is a result of having these devices stationed all along key points in their process. For these and other businesses, the type of panel PC to use is dependent on operational use and environment the computer will be in.
Keeney, who has a degree in technology management from Missouri State University, has worked as a product quality manager for four years. Currently working for Teguar Computers, he frequently consults with product engineers to customize onsite solutions for clients. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org,