Digitisation has long been touted as a disruptive force in manufacturing. Since the development of early electronic computers in the 1950s, forward-thinking producers have been searching for ways to implement advanced technologies, as a means to increase efficiency and improve reliability of businesses. But while buzzwords such as ‘industry 4.0’, ‘smart factories’ and ‘the internet of things (IoT)’ have gained popularity, for many food manufacturers, the reality of a digitally enriched factory has yet to reach the physical production line.

Now, this may be about to change. At the 2017 Hannover Messe exhibition in Germany, Sweden-based packaging giant Tetra Pak unveiled a new suite of digital systems that harnesses the disruptive force of digitisation to help manufacturers optimise operational efficiency and reduce food safety risks. Powered by Microsoft technology, the company began a six-month trial in early 2016, supporting 11 customer lines with the new service. According to the company, results from this period showed downtime was reduced by up to 48 hours for each packaging line, saving up to €30,000 for clients.

Tetra Pak’s vision can be broken down into two core components: a cloud-based data monitoring platform that enables manufacturers to identify potential failures, and innovative communications equipment that empowers service members when performing maintenance tasks on-site.

Predictive maintenance: filling a digital void

Packaging lines for food products can be complex, comprising a variety of intricate components that need to be monitored and maintained in order to run smoothly, and deterioration of an individual component can lead to costly breakdowns and repairs. Scheduled maintenance can help control wear but identifying the optimal time requires precision; replace a component too early and accrue unnecessary expenses, yet wait too long and risk breakages, downtime, product waste and reimbursement costs. At present, it amounts to a somewhat informed guessing game.

As one of the largest industries in the world, food production generates enormous amounts of data on a daily basis. But, where other industries have been quick to take advantage of progress in Big Data, food manufacturers have been slow to adopt advanced analytics platforms.

Tetra Pak’s new suite of digital services aims to fill this digital void. Harnessing the potential of Big Data analytics, the company has partnered with Microsoft to develop a cloud-based predictive maintenance platform that can help manufacturers identify critical failures before they occur.

“We worked intensively with Microsoft for 18 months,” says Tetra Pak services vice president Johan Nilsson. “These things typically start as an exploration of an idea before they turn into a real project, of course, because you work with the unknown a little bit.”

The Microsoft Azure condition monitoring platform uses a combination of historical and real-time performance, error, and service data collected from IoT-enabled sensors to track how machines are operating along client production lines. Using uniquely developed machine learning algorithms, Tetra Pak systems can calculate the remaining usable lifetime of components and predict failures a month in advance. When real-time performance data begins to deter from optimal levels, Tetra Pak can use the information to advise clients of their maintenance needs in a more timely and effective way, allowing them to order parts in advance, schedule service events and better manage food safety risks during production downtime.

Adding further value, the information collected by Tetra Pak can be access and updated by on-site service members. Using a smartphone, workers can add issues and solutions to maintenance logs which can then be accessed during future service events. “For example,” Nilsson explains, “If a service member has a quality problem or a technical issue, he logs that issue and he logs what he did. So the next person who has a similar problem starts with the knowledge of the previous one and he can use that knowledge of that problem was created or solved.”

Digital twins for factories: virtual technologies are crucial

While Tetra Pak’s advanced analytics platform may help manufacturers avoid unnecessary maintenance downtime, machines still require regular servicing to repair faulty or failing parts. In the past, when an on-site engineer was unable to resolve an issue on their own, they would have to call or email a specialist for assistance. This could be a lengthy process, costing manufacturers both time and money.

Downtime caused by gaps in communication is problematic for any manufacturer, but for manufacturers of perishable food products such delays can compromise food safety and result in mass product waste. In contrast, creating a digitally connected workforce by improving communications between on-site workers and expert technicians makes it easier to respond to safety risks quickly and reduces the downtime required to complete maintenance tasks.

For Tetra Pak, virtual technologies are key for empowering and connecting workers, providing them with the tools they need to resolve issues in a quick and efficient manner. Armed with the Microsoft-powered HoloLens mixed-reality headset, on-site service members in remote locations can use Skype to contact one of Tetra Pak’s global specialists when performing maintenance tasks.

“Our customers operate in a complex landscape where quality is essential and production lines are sophisticated,” says Nilsson. “Using the disruptive innovation of Microsoft HoloLens, customers around the world can now access the whole network of our specialists wherever they are, through the Tetra Pak service engineers. This completely transforms the delivery of our support and enables quick resolution of quality issues.”

Unlike virtual or augmented reality headsets, Hololens creates an immersive user experience by blending objects from the user’s physical surroundings with digital projections. This allows the user see, hear and interact with tools and machinery in their environment, while also viewing digital images and receiving video support from remote Tetra Pak experts. Using the the advanced mixed-reality technology, off-site specialists can help troubleshoot complex issues by creating a ‘digital twin’ of the physical on-site equipment. This holographic view enables Tetra Pak to provide guided interactions as they can show the on-site service member exactly which piece is registering as faulty.

Industry 4.0: connected production lines

With three separate industrial revolutions in its history, manufacturing is no stranger to the impact of technological innovation. Each wave of development has helped to shape the production line we have today, and Tetra Pak’s venture into digital is just a sample of how this wave of disruption could influence manufacturing moving forward. Digitisation is already transforming the way food manufacturers operate through the implementation of more sophisticated data analytics or development of advanced field equipment and there are no signs that this trend is slowing down.

“Anyone who runs a manufacturing plant today, no matter what they manufacture, is aware of industry 4.0 and internet of things,” says Neilson, adding that, “Many are aware of the buzzwords but they don’t really know what it means. They know it’s something that is going to happen to them and think that they need to be part of the journey.”

As growing numbers of manufacturers in the food industry recognise the benefits of digitally connected production lines for the future, technology is playing a crucial role in preventing failures that could compromise food safety today. Tetra Pak’s suite of digital systems taps into this trend, with more than 20,000 pieces of equipment showcasing the potential benefits of technology in manufacturing. But while the developments demonstrated by Tetra Pak indicate an innovative and connected future for food manufacturing, this is just the first step towards a digitally advanced manufacturing line. As Nilsson explains, “I think we’re still in the situation where our imagination is causing more limitations than the technology.”