Food manufacturers can gain real competitive advantage through the implementation of digitisation and the establishment of a smart food factory – and the means to achieve this are easier than companies realise with many of the technologies needed already in existence.

This was the key message of a presentation by Mathew Simpson of food and drink IT specialist CSB-System at the recent seminar Digital Technologies for Improving Productivity in Food Manufacturing, organised by the Centre for SMART (Sustainable Manufacturing and Recycling Technologies) and the Internet of Food Things Network Plus (IoFT).

Mr Simpson outlined how in a smart food factory information is able to flow up and down the supply chain much faster, with a company’s ERP system acting as the central nervous system.  This means the shop floor and senior management are fully connected and transactions between the consumer, the retailer and the producer are more easily managed.

For example, orders placed via a smartphone can be directly received into the manufacturer’s or retailer’s ERP system and production demand can be generated before retailer stock is fully consumed.  Manufacturers are able to remotely control and monitor their production lines, including individual machine’s service requirements, and finished goods can be automatically booked and entered into the ERP system.

Full connectivity and automation bring greater efficiencies and consistency and help to ensure supply is more accurately matched to demand.

Companies’ existing systems and equipment can be utilised in the move to the smart factory, explained Mr Simpson.  The use of EDI for sales order entry will significantly reduce manual entry and keying errors, while weighing systems and scales can be connected to the ERP system to directly confirm and record weights.  Similarly, automatic temperature loggers will capture data directly into the system, and vision and inspection systems can distinguish between good and bad products for immediate action to be taken.

While many food manufacturers consider digitisation will have a huge role to play in the future of the food sector, CSB’s most recent industry survey found that the majority still see a number of hurdles that need to be overcome in order to maximise the opportunity.  Working with a suitable IT partner is one way to overcome this, said Mr Simpson, and he outlined several projects undertaken by CSB that had delivered tangible benefits to its customers.

Based at the University of Loughborough, the Centre for SMART was established in 2004 to develop new strategies, methodologies and supportive technologies to deal with challenges in sustainable production and consumption. The IoFT was created by the Engineering and Sciences Research Council to support and promote research activity relating to food production and manufacturing in the UK.

This latest seminar was devised to provide attendees with the opportunity to learn from companies and technology providers on best practices to successfully implement current digital technologies in food manufacturing, and to discuss policy and regulatory changes to the uptake of such technologies within the UK food sector. A resulting briefing document, based on thoughts brought forward during facilitated discussions conducted throughout the day, will be published and disseminated in June.