Closing the gap between today’s legacy plant equipment and the highly automated food facility of the future need not be painful leap into the dark for smaller manufacturers.
That was the message from panellists at yesterday’s Future Unpacked LIVE summit in Sydney, put on by Food & Drink Business + PKN Packaging News.
The promise of Industry 4.0 to deliver highly automated processes and equipment can be a daunting prospect for SMEs, panellists agreed.
However, there are “small steps” manufacturers can take today to begin laying the foundations, said Mark Dingley, chief executive of Matthews and chairman of APPMA.
“Industry 3.0 has been about computing and automation,” said Dingley.
To move beyond this into ‘Industry 3.5’ and beyond means tapping further into existing plant data to enable better decisions.
“The biggest challenge for smaller manufacturers is time,” said Dingley, a reality that he says is not conducive to investing in new technology.
However, manufacturers can limit risk by launching smaller ventures that can be expanded plant-wide if successful, such as adding a layer of low-cost sensors to critical plant equipment to boost predictive maintenance capabilities.
“My advice is to get a small pilot project that you can start off with.”
Robert Marguccio, business manager of packaging & inspection systems at Heat and Control, said equipment suppliers will also help them to pave the way to Industry 4.0 by building intelligence into process equipment and offering remote monitoring services to manufacturers.
“For example, some metal detectors are becoming self-optimising,” he said.
Assessing the brand reliability and support structure of equipment suppliers is becoming an increasingly important factor from both a skills and technology perspective, he said.
“We can offer a very strong support structure as an operator is learning [to work with] new equipment,” he said.
Brett Wiskar, innovation director at process plant designer Wiley, said that sensing technologies that can be retrofitted to extract data from plant equipment is already available to help transition legacy equipment into the Industry 4.0 era “until there is a solid business case to replace it with connected units”.
He said with all new technology there is an adoption curve where the price eventually reaches the point where smaller companies can invest.
“We are at a relatively early stage in robotics,” said Wiskar, who anticipates an affordability tipping point within about two or three years from now.
Addressing the skills gap, he also predicted that a new business model may accompany future equipment sales.
So instead of buying equipment, we would be “buying an outcome [from suppliers], so how a machine executes will no longer be the operator’s problem but the responsibility of the supplier’s remote engineers.”
Doug Smith, chairman of Robot Technologies-Systems Australia, said that in the short term, finding skilled robotic technicians could prove challenging, particularly for remote facilities.
However, he said engineers from other disciplines were re-skilling into the field, and training in the field of mechatronics was emerging for new entrants.
“Certainly there is some investment to skill up the next generation coming through,” he said.