Whereas digitalisation is already well advanced in many sectors, the food processing industry is still in the early stages. Dr Marius Grathwohl, Vice President of Digital Products & Transformation at Multivac, explains how digitalisation can make a major contribution to a higher level of efficiency, process reliability, transparency and in particular pack and product quality.

What are the positive effects of digital change in the food industry?

“Digitalisation provides a higher level of transparency in all the processes, allowing their effectiveness to be measured and subsequently optimised. In terms of food processing and packaging machines, the main aim of this approach is to increase machine availability and reduce unplanned downtime.

In addition to this, the technology available today can also be used to increase food safety and therefore consumer protection. Process and production data can be saved, evaluated and traced on the basis of specific products, and this aids food processors with tracking and tracing in the event of production problems for example.

And last but not least, digital change enables coordinated operation to be achieved along the whole process chain and, by implementing appropriate platform models, this opens up new business perspectives, such as alternative sales opportunities.

However, in order to be able to operate this successfully, production and packaging processes have to be designed much more flexibly. Our digital solutions are generally aimed at simplifying and accelerating production and packaging processes, while also making them as reliable and efficient as possible.

By using our digital solutions, we have been able to ensure that, even in these challenging corona times, the availability of our machines has remained constant. Thanks to our Remote Assistance, an augmented-reality support facility, as well as the other Multivac Smart Services, our customers can gain access to the highly qualified service channels offered by Multivac, without our service technicians having to be on site. This also means that the heightened hygiene requirements can be met.”

And consumers are increasingly demanding …

Very much so. The market today is influenced significantly by the wide variety and individualisation of products, as well as by the increasing awareness of consumers as regards quality, sustainability, communication, and above all transparency.

This trend will continue to grow – and companies should see this not just as a challenge but also as a real opportunity. If the “information policy” within a company is improved, this strengthens the company image and helps to build trust, and it can even provide a competitive advantage – as well as being a logical consequence of other developments that have gone before.

A lot of product and company information, as well as event highlights or helpful tips on things such as cooking recipes, are today available on demand via digital channels like websites, apps or QR codes.

Many approaches to digitalisation are too much for small firms that make up most of the food industry. What solutions can benefit these companies?

Multivac is developing digital products specifically for this target group, allowing entry into digitalisation to be easier. The use of Multivac Smart Services, for example, does not require a large start-up investment, since the modular range of digital aids allows them to be tailored flexibly to the particular Multivac machine or relevant line components.

Higher-level networking of machines is also an important point, since many companies in the market tend to think more about lines and less about individual machines. This has also encouraged us to engage in overarching cooperation with other equipment manufacturers, for example, as part of the Open Industry 4.0 Alliance. This is because we want to ensure, that Multivac machines can be networked compatibly in our customers’ production environments, and that the entire production line is considered as one integrated whole.

Our customers also have the opportunity at any time of communicating their individual requirements to us, so we are able to take these into account when developing our services, and thereby offering our customers additional added value.

How has Multivac made the transformation to a digital company with digitalised machines and processes?

Multivac has been engaged intensively in this area for more than three years. In addition to the digitalisation of our packaging machines, such as the new X-line generation, and the expansion of our range to include digital products such as Multivac Smart Services and Multivac Pack Pilot, we have also made groundbreaking progress with the digitalisation of processes within our own company.

Of course, we also recognize digitalisation is a process of change. Change can be particularly successful, if we let our staff become actively involved in this process, and if they can help to shape it. This strategic groundwork has particularly paid off during the pandemic: Since 2020 the subject of digitalisation has increasingly gained momentum both internally and externally.

Sustainability is a core theme for the food industry. Can the high degree of digitalisation in machines open up new opportunities for saving resources?

Many digital solutions focus explicitly on aspects of sustainability. In an industrial-scale context, Multivac is already making an important contribution with its Pack Pilot. Since the optimum machine setting is calculated automatically, and the customer no longer has to aim for the correct forming and sealing settings by means of trial and error, it is possible to save considerable quantities of film, which would otherwise have been lost when optimising settings.

In addition to this, Pack Pilot can also help with determining the optimum gas mixture, allowing shelf life for the particular product to be maximised. Digital solutions also generally assist in raising awareness of the consumption of supply services to the machine, such as water, compressed air, power or packaging gas, since the consumption rates for machines can be measured and made visible.

Another major topic with the Internet of Things is predictive maintenance …

Since starting our projects in the industrial IoT context, we have been clearly communicating to our customers, that we regard predictive maintenance as a Polar Star.

The vision of wholly predictive maintenance for a machine leads us on the path of digitalisation, but we will be proceeding step by step: we would like to move further forward in digitally monitoring the critical machine components such as cutting units, lifting units, chains, drives and pumps, as well as learning more about the relationships between sensor values and physical states.

This will enable our customers in the medium term to better plan their maintenance schedules, and in the longer term it may be possible to prevent unplanned downtime altogether.

How do you see the willingness of your customers to upload data from their production lines to the Multivac Cloud? What assurances can they expect?

It is true that the willingness of our customers to use the cloud-based MULTIVAC Smart Services does vary considerably. Whereas customers in the medical sector are still somewhat critical towards cloud-based products, and the production processes in this industry are organised comparatively rigidly due to legal regulations, there is a greater willingness in the food sector to use cloud-based services.

Small and medium-sized companies tend to be more open to digital solutions, since internal coordination is often less complex and organisational responsibilities are usually more clearly defined.

We know all about the special security requirements demanded of digital solutions by our customers, and we take these into account when developing our products. For example, we decided at an early stage to have a functional separation of the IoT applications and the actual machine function.

Multivac Smart Services are operated on separate hardware and not on the actual machine control, so they can not endanger the operation of the machine at any time. All machines for which we offer Multivac Smart Services are also equipped with an encrypted outgoing internet connection. Therefore, machine operation is bound to remain unaffected, since the services are only assigned “read” (and not “write”) authorisation.

Transparency in data usage is ultimately very close to our heart. All Multivac Smart Services are therefore subject to a special Data Usage Agreement, in which we explain to our customers the purpose of collecting the data and how it is used. If customers are interested in viewing the data, they are invited to make a disk image themselves at any time of the stored machine data as part of a data audit.