October 8–11, 2019    McCormick Place    Chicago, IL USA    Pure Processing. Proven Results.

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Maintenance technician with mobile device

The answer to almost every challenge facing the food industry these days has to do with technology. Need to boost productivity? Implement continuous systems. Improve food safety? Automate your production lines. Cut labor costs? Hire robots.

These are all part of a much larger change known as the digital transformation. From plant floor operations to transportation and logistics to tracking products from the source directly into consumers’ hands, digital technology is revolutionizing every aspect of how the food industry works.

To learn more about the state of the digital transformation in the food industry, we spoke with Jay Wright, the VP of Sales at Somax, a company that makes a computerized maintenance management software (CMMS) designed for food processing and manufacturing. In short, their innovative platform plans, schedules, and documents day-to-day maintenance and sanitation activities.

Wright has had a long tenure in the food industry. Twenty years ago, after working in maintenance in the bakery industry, he moved to Somax. At that time, the company provided maintenance management software for manufacturing as a whole, but now they focus primarily on food. Somax currently offers the only CMMS that’s both designed for the industry and can be integrated with sanitation and food safety management systems.

As several industry experts have noted in previous interviews, the food industry lags other industries in adopting new technologies — about 5 to 10 years, Wright says. But that’s changing as processors struggle to maintain growth in a low-margin environment. “Everything is focused on the digital transformation of the shop floor and the plant floor,” Wright says. “We help processors bring in automation, modernize their operations, and manage their plants more effectively.” Wright sees two main technologies underlying this transformation: mobile apps and the Internet of Things.

Mobile apps, because maintenance personnel should never be sitting behind a desk

Have you banned smartphones from your plant floor? If so, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to use these tools to boost efficiency, especially for maintenance activities.

Let’s take a typical example:

A machine goes down on your production line. The operator notes the error on a paper downtime log and then calls the maintenance technician. The technician diagnoses and repairs the machine, and then goes back to their desk to enter what they did into the computer. Then, a sanitation worker comes out to clean and sanitize the machine, noting their work on a sanitation log. Finally, a QA/QC engineer is called to verify that everything was done correctly.

By the time the machine is back up and running, four people have interacted with it, each keeping their own notes in their own system. If an auditor comes and asks to see the maintenance records for the machine, keep your fingers crossed that you can find all of the paperwork and it’s all filled out correctly!

Mobile apps can make this process much more efficient, as well as improve the accuracy of the documentation, which is critical in today’s regulatory environment.

Somax’s CMMS is a cloud-based solution that operates via mobile apps (tablets and smartphones, iOS and Android). It allows operators and technicians on the plant floor to record things in real time, with no paper necessary.

Here’s how the example above would look using the CMMS:

A machine goes down on your production line. Somax automatically generates a work order and sends it to the technician’s mobile device with step-by-step instructions for how to fix the problem, including performing food safety checks and verifications. The technician records their work in real time, and then the system sends a notification to sanitation personnel with details about the cleaning procedures that need to be done. Finally, the system notifies the QA/QC engineer, who can easily verify that all required steps have been completed.

The machine is back up and running in significantly less time, and all of the work is documented in a single system. When the auditor comes, you hand them a mobile device running the software, and with a click of a button they can see what maintenance was performed, how sanitation responded, and what checks were completed to verify that the machine is food safe.

In addition to consolidating everything into a single system, automating maintenance management solves some of the biggest problems plant managers deal with every day:

  • It bridges the gap between having a procedure and implementing that procedure. Wright explains: “It’s one thing to have a standard procedure and another thing to get that procedure into the hands of the person doing the work.” When a work order is generated, Somax sends maintenance instructions directly to the technician, helping to ensure that the procedures you’ve defined are actually performed.
  • It provides documentation that work was performed, validated and verified. This is critical for compliance, especially with FSMA.
  • It overcomes the technological barrier often present with computers. “Historically, maintenance people haven’t been particularly computer-savvy,” Wright says. “They’re often hesitant to use software because it’s intimidating. Since we moved to mobile apps, everything is different. People are used to playing on their phones, so they’re much more comfortable with mobile apps. It only takes about 15 minutes of training for technicians to learn how to use the app and start receiving work orders straight to their mobile devices.”

The Internet of Things, because the future is predictive

The next big step in the digital transformation of the food factory floor is leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT). This is another area where Somax is leading the industry by helping companies move from reactive or preventive maintenance to predictive maintenance.

Once again, let’s look at an example:

Your approach to maintenance is sometimes reactive, sometimes preventive. One area where you’ve focused on preventive maintenance is the temperature monitoring of your gearboxes.

You have 80 gearboxes in your facility, and a maintenance employee who manually takes a measurement of every gearbox every day. This takes up almost the technician’s entire day, but it’s worth it so you can identify and fix problems before they cause unexpected downtime.

Now, with the help of the IoT:

You install 80 sensors in your plant, one on each gearbox. The sensors sample the temperature once per minute and send the data to your CMMS. If a problem arises, a work order is automatically sent to the technician with instructions about what’s wrong and how to fix it.

The second scenario results in immediate cost savings because it frees your technician up to do higher-value work than running around all day with a temperature gun.

“Most companies with a preventive maintenance program don’t check their equipment every day,” Wright says, “Typically, they’ll send a technician out once a week or once a month to service the equipment, including replacing parts. But parts don’t always need to be replaced simply because the calendar says it’s time. And maintenance technicians are the highest-paid hourly employees in a plant. What happens if you do your checks on Sunday, but a problem starts on Monday? Your equipment would run for a whole week before the problem is fixed, and by that time it could cause additional damage.”

Moving to a predictive maintenance model, where sensors monitor machines in real time and send alerts right away when something’s wrong, saves you money on labor and on replacement parts while also ensuring that problems are identified and fixed as soon as they’re detected.

The potential savings is huge. A recent MIT study determined exactly how much. The researchers added up the total horsepower of all motors in a plant and found that, over the course of a year, reactive maintenance costs $18/hp, preventive maintenance costs $12/hp, and predictive maintenance costs $6/hp. Running a single motor can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year — moving to predictive maintenance can cut that cost by about 66%.

These examples focus on maintenance, but Wright emphasizes that the same principles can be applied to food safety. Sensors can monitor the temperature, moisture, and humidity levels in different zones of a plant. If these levels start to increase or decrease, Somax’s software can send out a notification and a work order. Essentially, the system tells the technician, “We have a problem. Here’s what you need to do about it.”

Addressing misconceptions about new technologies

As we mentioned earlier, food processors and manufacturers are a few years behind in their adoption of new technologies. Wright identifies two misconceptions driving reluctance about moving to a predictive paradigm.

First, many people think implementing a predictive analytics systems is prohibitively expensive. That’s because it used to be. “Predictive analytics used to require massive PLCs, middleware, and other technologies that required a huge investment in infrastructure,” Wright says. “But with cloud computing and the Internet of Things, the infrastructure is already built. What used to be a $100,000 project that involved the IT department is now a $1,000 project that can be completed in a day or two.”

The second misconception is the idea that you need to do everything at once. “People tend to get bogged down in the details,” Wright says. “They think they have to set up every asset with every possible maintenance procedure before they can do anything at all. This isn’t true. In fact, we recommend you put sensors on 10 to 25 of your most critical assets, turn the system on, and start using it. You can always add more sensors and functions down the road.”

The future of the digital transformation

Looking forward, Wright believes the digital transformation is going to pick up speed. “It’s taken 50 years to move to preventive maintenance,” he says. “But it will take only 5 years for the industry to realize the benefits of predictive maintenance. In the near future, using sensors will become the primary mode of taking care of maintenance activities in plants.”

Part of the driver toward this change will be interest from OEMs, which Wright says Somax is seeing now. “OEMs are very interested in what’s going on with their equipment on the plant floor. We’re looking at adding OEM portals into our platform so that they can visualize their equipment in order to provide service bulletins, product updates, recommended procedures, and so on. For example, if an OEM detects a certain level of vibration, they can alert the customer and provide them with the parts they need to fix it. This helps OEMs on the warranty side and is also much more efficient for their customers.”

Wright believes that the cost of IoT implementation will also continue to decrease. Sensors currently cost about $50 each, but he expects they’ll come down to about $12 in the next 3 to 5 years. “Putting a $12 sensor on a critical piece of equipment so it can start monitoring itself is much more cost-effective than paying a maintenance technician $50/hour to check it once a week or once a month. It’s also much more efficient.”

Ultimately, Wright says that the biggest benefit of the IoT will be enabling food processors to “move beyond documentation to a system where you can actually do something with it, and at a fraction of the cost.”

If you missed Somax at PROCESS EXPO 2017, check out their website or head to YouTube to watch a video that explains how their IoT implementation works. In any case, be sure to visit them at next year’s show. “PROCESS EXPO was one of the best shows we did last year,” Wright says. “We met great people, got to reconnect with existing customers, and found a lot of new leads. We will definitely be back!”