One of the world’s most vital industries is ready for a technological upgrade.

That’s one of my takeaways from the food and beverage industry’s PROCESS EXPO trade show in September. Although the event focuses on “technology and integrated solutions,” from the perspective of a server vendor, it was hard to spot familiar IT technology. And unlike process control in many other industries, I didn’t see as much involvement in the industrial internet of things (IIoT).

Just the same, there were some compelling trends and technologies on display. Here’s what caught my attention:

1. Food Processing Shows its Roots

Food and beverages need to be safe, transportable, palatable, and readily available for daily consumption. Much of food processing is managed by Operational Technology (OT) professionals. As automation progresses, Information Technology (IT) professionals are becoming more involved. Getting OT and IT together to optimize automation techniques is still a work in progress and may take a while.

I watched two demonstration food processing lines which, while employing different means of automation, highlighted some opportunities to increase automation. A bakery line combined ingredients, formed cookies, baked, and packaged them. A second line processed raw turkey breasts: cut, brined, inspected for safety, and packaged at safe temperatures. I was surprised to see that key parts of each line were manual. Of the different vendors demonstrating their particular equipment, only a handful seemed to have a focus on integrating the varying steps in the process.

Exhibitors agreed that some sectors of the industry are slow to move beyond manual techniques or simple sensors with basic low-voltage signaling. But stick with me.

2. IIoT Integration is on the Horizon

While IIoT was not widely visible on the PROCESS EXPO floor, vendors were eager to discuss it. Not hard to see why. As highlights from a recent ARC Advisory Group and Stratus webinar show, the opportunity is huge. Here are some early examples of IIoT from the floor:

  • One vendor’s low-barrier approach interconnects existing heterogeneous sensors through a simple standard protocol, using gateways to aggregate the data for central processing.
  • Another vendor discussed building on their IIoT/Industry 4.0 experience in the metal fabrication industry.
  • A third makes complete integrated production lines for those designing new facilities.

The good news for food processors is that IIoT has proved its worth in industries like wastewater, manufacturing, and energy processing. As new food processing lines are configured, they can take full advantage of the latest technologies to increase food safety and drive up productivity.

3. Regulation Drives Additional Change

No surprises here: food safety is top-of-mind for producers and regulators alike. I attended three educational sessions about the impact of regulation.

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 focuses on a “war on pathogens” to dramatically reduce the potential for future outbreaks of salmonella, e coli and the like, and eliminate product recalls. There are new, severe personal repercussions up to and including incarceration for executives of companies found in violation. Compliance is more and more an essential part of doing business.

As the pharmaceutical industry has learned, flawless collection and preservation of process data is essential to demonstrating compliance (and avoiding unwarranted liability for false positives). The food industry will similarly benefit.

The fact that this critical industry has not been at the forefront of technological change to date could give them an advantage. Forward-looking food and beverage organizations may gain real value by emulating best practices from other industries. Naturally, Stratus would be happy to share our extensive experience serving these other industries with food and beverage firms as they move forward.

For more information on the key trends and operational challenges facing food and beverage companies, download our previously recorded webinar on How a Modern OT/IT Infrastructure Can Help Food & Beverage Manufacturing Challenges. You’ll gain great insight into current trends, need-to-know guidance, and best practice approaches used by your peers to address today’s most pressing production challenges.