Shifting consumer preferences and an ever-increasing diversity of products are changing the rules of manufacturing in the food industry. Consumers today run the gamut, from those who want better-for-you choices to others who want more convenient packaging, unique flavors and a range of price points.

As retailers struggle to meet consumer expectations, these changes put enormous pressure on the production operation. Traditionally, manufacturing plants were designed for long, single runs of a small number of products, with the luxury of being able to build up a stock. Today, manufacturers are forced to produce multiple varieties of complicated products on demand, keeping stock low and plants at optimum utilization to maximize profits.

To address these rapidly changing demands, manufacturers have implemented lean manufacturing techniques to improve operational flexibility and agility. When they are successful, these efforts can lead to a temporary competitive advantage, but not necessarily a sustainable one.

To achieve more substantial, long-term gains, a holistic approach to manufacturing is needed, not just on the factory floor. This all-encompassing approach should involve every party in the manufacturing process, from the end customer, to automation partners and back to the suppliers.

At the heart of this holistic manufacturing framework is an integrated information and control architecture based on standard methodologies. With an integrated, plant-wide infrastructure, companies can connect islands of information together into a single manufacturing enterprise to deliver significant benefits, including repeatable quality, effective compliance and improved overall efficiency.

For business planning and supply-chain systems to flourish, they need regular care and feeding of information from their counterparts at the automation layer. Unfortunately for many companies, the gap between those systems means that the systems aren’t getting the information they need, when they need it or in the form that they need it, to get the full value those investments promised to deliver.

A good example is within a company’s raw-material receiving process where materials are brought into the facility as quality-assured from the supplier. The information is usually stored in an enterprise resource planning (ERP) or stock management system.

If acceptable, the material is released into the process, but often the analysis and material specifications are shared no further. Any variability in the specification and the resulting effect on downstream operations such as processing or packaging cannot be associated with the original quality analysis.

Although the data are both high-quality and plentiful, they are contained in separate systems, and manufacturers cannot associate the data with other variables or compare historical results. Successful companies require the ability to connect and manage this data as actionable information — the key to driving sustainable manufacturing performance.

The good news is that today’s plant-wide automation systems have removed the barriers that have prevented true integration between the plant floor and the rest of the enterprise. This opens manufacturers up to new opportunities to provide valuable information on-demand to other areas of the company in ways that create immediate benefit.

With a more holistic, integrated manufacturing system, companies can more easily link the transactional database environment of enterprise business systems, relational data from maintenance and quality systems, and the object-oriented, time-series world of automation and control systems in a single, coherent environment. This provides context for plant-floor data, so that people at any level in a company can make faster and more informed decisions. It also makes it possible to codify the art of decision making on the factory floor, taking away the subjective element and driving consistency and quality into the process via the manufacturing execution system.

One area where holistic manufacturing can deliver significant benefits is in maintenance. By gathering and analyzing vital data from across production facilities using condition-monitoring tools and networked drives linked to central controllers, engineers can help maximize their asset availability, usage and efficiency.

Not only can operations be better tracked and audited, but ambiguity and subjectivity are removed, mapping the processes together and then driving manufacturing intelligence through the connectivity of systems. This means more production uptime, reduced the raw materials used in producing replacement parts and optimized energy efficiency.

Once integrated throughout the enterprise, plant-level data can then become the source of accurate information right up to corporate-level key performance indicators (KPIs). There are huge benefits from doing this. Increased control is gained as plant data is transformed into information. Supply-chain delivery is increased, inventory is reduced, stock-outs are avoided and productivity is increased, thus reducing unit costs.

To design a holistic manufacturing system, understanding the overall process is crucial. This includes understanding the needs of the system end-users and how to serve information to the various layers of the organization, as well as making sure that the information is compiled from one core set of data.

Working in concert with your internal team, your automation technology partner can lend valuable insight into the best strategies for integrated automation solutions. If they’re truly enlightened about the value of manufacturing information and its role in driving business value, it is likely they’ve seen situations similar to yours and can help your efforts run more smoothly.

Companies implementing holistic manufacturing strategies are achieving quantifiable benefits. A leading snack food manufacturer, for example, achieved significant cost savings in a project involving its blended oil processing and distribution systems. The oil blends used for its unseasoned products, are typically made from corn, soybean and sunflower oils.

Before the project, each oil was put in its own storage tank connected via a site-specific piping header to feed to the required production line. When a blend was needed, the plant would secure it from one of the company’s several oil-processing facilities located throughout the US and have it shipped in. Pre-blending required double-handling of at least one of the oils, shipping it to a second processing site, blending and then shipping it to the plant. As a result, shipping-related fuel costs and carbon emissions were higher and delivery times extended.

The manufacturer realized it needed the means to do its own blending. The solution had to be implemented with absolute minimum production disruption, minimal capital and still produce blends that maintained the quality and flavor expectations of the consumer.

The company ultimately implemented an in-line blending system that was integrated with multiple generations of process control systems among the company’s more than 30 manufacturing plants. To meet the requirements of the various plants, each of differing age, the company needed one plug-and-play solution that would fit all of them, that didn’t raise flavor issues with the consumer and was self-monitoring.

To help meet its needs, the company selected a Rockwell Automation integrated blending solution. The system includes modular code, which provides uniformity of blend system controls but also addresses the uniqueness of each plant. The company can now manage the availability of the oils on a site- or line-specific basis, based on price and availability of the various oils. In addition, by reducing the need to transport oils from various sources across the country to the processing site and then to the manufacturing plant, the snack food processor reduced both its fuel costs and related carbon emissions.

All 18 sites in the original project scope are installed, operating and meeting or exceeding the company’s original expectations. Before the project was completed, the company extended the scope to include even more sites. Today, it has 27 sites operating with the new blending system.

By recognizing the immense value that factory-floor information brings to the rest of the enterprise, manufacturers can reap the benefits of seamless integration to help meet the needs of their most demanding customers. Those companies with a well-planned and well-defined technology strategy — along with a reliable partner to help implement these solutions — will be the ones that forge a sustainable competitive advantage in the years to come.


Steve Kelley is responsible for market development solution delivery for the Rockwell Automation Services and Solutions business. He is based in Milwaukee, WI.



This article can also be found in the digital edition of Baking & Snack, June 1, 2009, starting on Page 47. Click
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