Smart Industry: Stop putting out fires!
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Smart Industry: Stop putting out fires!

  • 11 October 2021
  • Door: Judith Witte

Our food production has to be more sustainable and fully circular by 2050, but also healthier, safer and more transparent. To achieve these goals, we need to produce smarter. Digitalisation is essential to achieve this. Without data and maximum connectivity, there can be no 'Smart Industry'. So get to work! But how?

"The Netherlands is in the top three of the most innovative countries. We develop innovative and ground-breaking robotics solutions and export these a lot," says Thijs Dorssers; manager Holland Robotics, technology cluster within branch association High Tech NL. "However, if you look at the degree of integration of the number of robots per employee, then we are far behind compared to our neighbouring countries. We are not even in the top 10. We are a knowledge country, not a manufacturing country like Belgium, Germany or Finland. The SME sector in the Netherlands has not yet taken the big robotising steps. 

Why do we have to make those steps, and what are the opportunities, possibilities and bottlenecks for the food industry? 

We discuss this with Thijs Dorssers, Erwin Kooke; Head of CSB-System Northern Europe, and Christian Hirschen; Senior Director Digital Strategy & Transformation of GEA Group.


Recently the 'Digitalisation Vision of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality' was published, stating in outline where the opportunities and bottlenecks lie in the field of automation, and how the Ministry wants to deal with them. "I can understand why the government is now fully committed to digitisation in the Netherlands," says Thijs Dorssers. "If the internal processes in a company are not properly digitised, you can hardly take the step towards robotisation and automation. Meanwhile, the urgency for that step is increasing. It is more difficult to find personnel due to the ageing population, the work in production is heavy and the working conditions are often bad due to the cold and humid environment. At the same time, it all has to be done faster and more efficiently, at lower costs, while the demands made on freshness, quality, food safety and transparency increase. The solution lies in automation and robotisation. But research shows that many companies have not even automated their CRM and sales processes yet!"
"I do recognise that," responds Erwin Kooke. "I still come across companies where the planning is done in Excel. However, due in part to all the quality labels, legislation and regulations, traceability requirements and BRC audits by major retailers, more and more data is being requested from food processing companies. As long as things are going well, you don't hear any complaints. Only when problems arise do they start to think seriously about how processes are organised and controlled. Last year, many companies found that their systems were not in order due to the limitations of the corona measures.

So what goes wrong as a result? 

Erwin Kooke knows countless examples: "Think of all those consultations because the right information is not available, of articles that are packaged incorrectly, or the information on the labels is wrong, or the best-before date is incorrect. So many products are returned because of this kind of calamity that you wouldn't want to know how many credit invoices are issued. That costs an enormous amount of time and money and damages your image. Companies can save a lot by preventing mistakes. The food industry really has to get rid of all those fragmented solutions that have crept in over the years.  

'The food industry really has to get rid of all those fragmented solutions that have crept in over the years.  

Christian Hirschen: "Many companies apparently have not yet realised that the digitisation of processes plays a decisive role in the optimisation and further improvement of quality and performance. Do you ever wonder: 'How much did I invest in maintenance and repairs of my machines over the past years? How can I further improve the performance of my equipment? Where could I find the corresponding documentation? What spare parts do I need, and how quickly can I get them? With all the information in one place, always available and up-to-date, you will have answers very quickly. A system with analysis and monitoring functions on clear dashboards, simple and efficient installation and maintenance management will help you. We have those solutions available."
Erwin Kooke: "A major innovation of the last ten years is much better integration of systems. Larger food companies now have automated customer, invoice and order registration: an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. There is also often a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) for all work floor registrations. This MES provides notifications, for example, as soon as a deviation is measured and, if necessary, production is immediately halted in order to prevent an accumulation of errors. But the ERP and the MES are not always connected. Then all sorts of things can still go wrong. Think of incorrect labelling of products, or stock systems that are not up to date, causing raw materials to be re-ordered even though there are still a few pallets somewhere. Based on experience we know that companies can save up to 2% with better raw material control. We have one system that links everything together; from customer registrations and sales orders, to controlling the conveyor belts, machines, labelling and packaging lines, right through to warehousing."
In terms of implementation, it does involve some work, he admits. "The recipe structure is the core of a food company. You have to invest a lot of time in it at the beginning. But in the end, it is very rewarding.

Such a system integration leads to major change processes within organisations. Is that a problem?  

Christian Hirschen: "It is essential that you look at the organisation holistically: the change applies to the whole, but also to the individuals. So analyse both the observable behavioural aspects and the non-observable cultural aspects. It is important to realise that when your organisation changes in one aspect, all the other aspects must transform as well."
Erwin Kooke adds: "The transformation will only work if all layers in the company are behind the digitisation and robotisation shift. Of course you need the commitment of the managers, but you also need to get the key users on board. That is why we let them think along and participate. Only then do we find out exactly where the obstacles are, where things often go wrong and what the company wants to achieve with the digitalisation. If a discussion about wishes and possibilities arises, we do not 'talk along' with the customer. That doesn't change anything, it doesn't help him. We give honest and rational advice based on our knowledge and years of expertise in the food industry." New at CSB are the web-apps and so-called 'workflows' that make it possible to start up processes remotely. "In the workflow, you can see better where the process stalls," Erwin explains. "You start working with notification apps instead of the yellow memos, reminders are sent automatically. If necessary, the system generates escalation e-mails. This method of communicating makes the process more transparent for everyone."

Doesn't this create a very formal organisation?

"No, not at all," he says. "It gives you the space to focus on your actual business and on the customer. There is still consultation, but no longer continuously to put out fires." 

Putting out fires

The fact that companies remain stuck in putting out fires is partly because there are still many concerns, for example, about the quality and reliability of data. For example, have the sensors used to collect data been validated and calibrated? Are there enough measuring points? Are the measurements taken for quality assurance within production processes and chains representative? Is the data used up-to-date, reusable and complete? According to Minister Schouten, these preconditions still receive too little attention. "Good quality and reliable data increase the willingness to invest in digitisation and robotisation," agrees Thijs Dorssers. "But it is also about money. Companies do not realise that robots are no longer so expensive. The payback time, if you compare it with the salary costs for a full-time worker, is about two years. But the robot does not get sick, does not suffer from back problems and can work 24/7. If you take that into account, the payback period is even shorter." 

Legislation and regulations

Although digitalisation clearly offers opportunities, the adoption of digitalisation in companies is not yet a given. This is due to the fact that there are even more (justified) challenges: on a technological, legal, ethical, geopolitical or financial-economic level. Society not only lacks trust in data architecture, data sharing (ownership and use) and data processing; it also finds it difficult to accept that new competencies and skills are required from employees. And there are bottlenecks concerning the financing of innovation and adequate legislation and regulations. Thijs responds: "Laws and regulations always lag behind the development of technology. Robots and cobots comply with the Machinery Directive. ISO standards such as ISO 12100 and ISO/TS 1506 are the starting point for safety. Industrial robots are in a secure environment, because they do repetitive work at high speed; cobots work a little slower and stop immediately when touched, for example. They are more mobile and are used for assembly line work and are becoming more advanced, partly thanks to sensors, vision technology and artificial intelligence. Cobots are safe as such, but keep using your common sense: look at how they are integrated in the line and include the people working next to them in the process: inform and instruct them. Cobots are just like colleagues; they also have their own instructions." 

'There are bottlenecks concerning the financing of innovation and adequate legislation and regulations'

Recommendations / Tips

At the end of last year Holland Robotics entered into discussion with NEN, TNO, iThanks and the NVVK in order to place the theme of work safety and robotics more emphatically on the map. This resulted in a series of meetings and webinars. "Our aim is to create awareness and share knowledge", says Thijs Dorssers. The interest group also carried out a roadmap study into the opportunities and bottlenecks of robotics. The report with the conclusions and recommendations will be published at the end of this year. He does want to reveal a tip of the iceberg: one of the recommendations concerns the organisation and content of the training courses: "The education system is old-fashioned and outdated", he states. "Innovations in technology move much faster than the educational system can keep up with. The result is that people leave school without the latest knowledge that is already being used in the industry. Training courses must become more commercial and much more goal-oriented. A radical change is needed.
Another spearhead is to stimulate SMEs across the board to take the step towards robotisation. Thijs: "Just like the CSB, we see that management boards are too busy extinguishing fires instead of focusing on long-term policy. Only 4 percent really think ahead and make strategic choices for the future.
"Also consider the main areas of waste, such as production losses, equipment downtime and so on, in order to prioritise the introduction of smart digitalisation solutions," Christian Hirschen tips in conclusion. "Reduce the number of interfaces and systems, opt for one central solution. You can save a lot of time and money with it."

Main photo: © Who is Danny/, photo orde/chaos: ©Creativa Images/

Source: Vakblad Voedingsindustrie 2021