Overcoming short-termism

Food plant managers could learn from Aesop’s fabled race between the tortoise and the hare. Intensified competition can cause companies to focus on short-term results, like the losing hare, rather than invest in long-term goals like the winning tortoise. Here, Sean Robinson, service leader at industrial automation expert Novotek UK and Ireland, discusses the issues surrounding short-termism and how these can overcome with automation.

Short-termism — or the tendency of businesses to excessively focus on short-term performance measures at the expense of long-term benefits — has created issues in the food and beverage industry. It’s difficult for plant managers to think about longer-term goals when they face shorter-term competitive challenges like short innovation cycles, increased costs of raw materials and ever-changing consumer needs.

New era of flexibility

One of the main challenges that food and beverage manufacturers need to overcome is the intensified demands from consumers online. Consumers have more purchasing power and are more socially-informed about food trends than ever before, because of advances in technology. Consequently, consumer spending has become more globalised, increasing competition in the food and beverage industries.

Increased demand is a bigger issue for managers of large-scale plants. These systems and equipment were usually setup to deliver certain products and levels of throughput, and have proven inflexible against today’s changing consumer demands. The question is: how can plant managers modify their operations to be flexible and overcome risks of losing potential profits?

Fortunately, answers lie in automation. On the system level, more production flexibility can be achieved through fewer complex interfaces. Modular systems to connect plant processes can be crucial and typically include an industrial display, industrial PC and systems controllers.

Meanwhile, keyboards and mice can be scrapped in favour of more responsive human machine interfaces (HMIs) and full plant visualisation. This allows managers to optimise plant manufacturing and maintenance based on real-time performance data, which is essential to boost productivity.

Modular designs are more flexible and can make the most of the space that’s available on the shop floor — it’s possible to stack modular units, for instance. That also goes for flexible, modular industrial displays like the RXi – Panel PC modular viewing screens from Emerson, which can be used both in indoor of outdoor applications. The screens range from seven to 24 inches in size, or seven to 15 inches for the outdoor model, with multitouch screens that are used with personal protective equipment and are as sensitive as the latest smartphone.

Because it’s widescreen, the display provides operators with vivid, clear images for enhanced process visualisation. The RXI Panel PC has the highest of temperature and environmental ratings — it can be used at temperatures as high as 65 degrees centigrade and as low as -20 — and is designed to last in various harsh conditions.

Faster than humans

Managers should make continuous improvements to technology already on site to resolve productivity issues while they occur.

Implementing a platform such as GE Digital’s Predix, as offered by Novotek UK and Ireland, is one way to improve productivity. The platform predicts issues and outages before they occur by monitoring data and normal working patterns. Managers can then implement safeguarding measures more quickly than human detection methods allow, which limits unforeseen downtime and prevents future repetitive issues.

Continuous improvement

With new technologies, plant managers should not only focus on short-term but also the longer-term future, and do so through continuous improvement.

Ageing or complex interfaced systems can make a food processing task more difficult — for instance, decades-old systems can lack the communication capabilities of higher-level enterprise resource planning (ERP) and quality systems.

Two key issues when updating systems are: firstly, a lack of available replacement hardware; secondly, non-supported computer operating systems. Older systems are incapable of running some advanced control algorithms — like model predictive control — that are vital in tracking the use of ingredients or overall product quality to protect the bottom line.

Manufacturers should look to simplify complex interfaces and older systems with new technology that will safeguard the company’s long-term future. This seemingly impossible task — of balancing present needs with future benefits — can be achieved though maintaining innovative and sustainable control systems, automations and the IoT. Cost and efficiency savings are the ultimate result.

An ethos of long-termism should be applied before the equipment is installed, as installing a new system is more time-consuming than replacing a motor. A planned obsolescence study can be essential for avoiding week-long shutdowns, or allowing added lead time in case of unexpected redesigns. Above all, system upgrades should be implemented proactively, not in response to a crisis such as system failure.

Companies looking to invest in short- or long-term goals should remember that, like the tortoise in Aesop’s fable, a steady and long-term approach can win the race.

If you’re ready to enter the continuous improvement race, you can download Novotek’s food and beverage automation whitepaper here for more information. Alternatively, contact a specialist via the website to book a consultation.