Water bottles in beverage manufacturing plant

For food and beverage manufacturers facing tight profit margins, there’s nothing worse than unplanned downtime. Except perhaps a recall. Or discovering that your warehouse is full of unusable products because of a contamination issue that wasn’t identified early enough.

Fortunately, technologies are available today that can help companies avoid all of these situations. And at the foundation of those technologies is the computer systems that keep everything running.

To learn more about the computing needs of modern food companies, and about how new technologies like the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) are driving top-line growth, we spoke with Jason Andersen, the VP of product management at Stratus Technologies, which provides failure prevention solutions to always-on availability of critical applications.

Stratus got its start 40 years ago providing application protection for high-end computing environments, like the ones needed at banks and telecommunications companies. Today, food and beverage companies are looking for similar protections, especially as regulations, as well as the consequences of incidents, increase. “Computer systems that support food and beverage companies are increasingly mission critical,” Andersen says.

Andersen has been in the computer and software space for over 20 years, and at Stratus for four. In that time, he’s seen considerable change, and he predicts even more change in the future.

Solutions at “the Edge”

Stratus provides traditional data center solutions, as well as cloud computing solutions. But, lately, the trend has been moving toward the Edge.

What that means is that more operations are taking place outside of centralized data centers. Instead, applications run at the edge of the network, for example, on a particular piece of machinery. As you can imagine, these distributed systems present significant challenges because there isn’t just one place applications can fail (i.e., a data center), there are many places they can fail (each connected machine).

Stratus has two types of solutions to help processors ensure their critical operations remain always on, even in a highly distributed system.

First, they have a hardware solution called ftServer, which is unique because it’s a fully redundant system. Andersen explains: “With a traditional system, you buy a server, and to protect it from failover, you have to buy another server. With ftServer, everything is contained in a single box on a single rack.”

One of the big advantages of this setup is that, unlike most servers, it’s a turnkey solution that’s extremely easy to maintain. In fact, the server does much of the maintenance itself. “If anything goes wrong, the server calls Stratus directly to say ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem’ or ‘Hey, I think I might have a problem.’ Then we can troubleshoot over the phone or send out parts, which are hot-swappable [meaning you can replace them without having to power down the system].”

Stratus’s other solution is a software, everRun, that does much the same thing, but works with existing hardware. Companies like Johnson Controls, Tyco, and Schneider frequently bundle everRun into their own solutions. As a result, Andersen notes, many companies that use the software aren’t aware it’s from Stratus. Those companies span the food industry from end to end — Stratus solutions are currently in place in dairy farms, materials and warehousing facilities, frozen food manufacturers, breweries, and more.

Current challenges processors face with their computing environment

Andersen identified two main conditions that provide the impetus for food and beverage manufacturers to rethink their computing environment.

The first is a familiar situation in processing plants (and in life): operations become more complex. One of Stratus’s brewery customers explained it like this: “One day, I woke up and I had 13 servers.”

Andersen says, “Things happen, for example, you decide to change out your HMI, so you buy another server. Many people we talk with today find that their computing environment grew over time in an uncontrolled way. Now, it’s costing them time and money to maintain a bunch of servers. And those servers are getting old, which means they might not be able to meet today’s high security challenges. So, we find that people come to us either when they have an incident where something breaks or they realize it’s time to upgrade because their systems are too old.”

The other challenge Andersen sees is among forward-looking processors realizing that the systems they have can’t provide the value they need. He gives an example of a large U.S. dairy farmer that wanted to take advantage of the IIoT and advanced analytics to make data-driven business decisions. But, they couldn’t, because their legacy systems didn’t support these technologies. These types of companies are looking to get ahead of the next trend and also simplify their environments with a more reliable solution.

The business value of advanced computing

The food industry is not typically on the forefront of new technologies. And when it comes to ideas like the Edge and the IIoT, Andersen notes that manufacturers often resist because they don’t believe that these technologies can have much of a business impact.

Part of the reason for this, he suggests, is that the benefits many technology companies are talking about don’t align with the type of value food manufacturers want to see.

Case in point: preventive maintenance. Many companies are trying to get IIoT buy-in by highlighting its ability to help processors move from a reactive maintenance approach to a preventive one. “There’s absolute truth to the fact that preventive maintenance is possible,” Andersen says. “But because of the way capital expenditures work, it’s not a great hook for the food industry.”

But the IIoT has many benefits beyond preventive maintenance, and this is where Andersen sees people get excited. For example, the IIoT can help processors track their products across the entire supply chain, from the farm all the way to the end consumer. That way, if a problem or recall occurs, “they can manage it with a much higher level of precision than they ever could before.” Other processors are looking at the IIoT as an opportunity to better understand the supply side, gaining better visibility into what’s coming into the factory so they can manage it for spoilage, just-in-time inventory, and so on.

In other words, it’s the top-line impacts, not the bottom-line ones, that have the most appeal. Andresen notes that this is a recurring trend with new technologies. “Every time there’s been a big shift in technology, the first use case is always saving money. But it’s the ones that make money and help companies grow that ultimately usher in the new technology.”

He gives the example of the internet. When it first came out, everyone thought it was cool because you could browse websites. But companies didn’t jump on board until the advent of email, which is what really impacted the top line. “Help the top line, not the bottom,” he says. “Then you’ll get the executives to invest.”

Future directions: People and technology

Looking toward the future, Andersen sees big developments coming on two main fronts: people and technology.

On the people side, he notes that the new talent coming into the industry is “more technical and more self-empowered to drive technology and innovation.” He sees a transformation of the operational technologist from someone thinking about applications to someone thinking about data and analytics. After all, it’s what you get out of the applications, not the applications themselves, that helps you make smarter decisions.

On the technology side, he says, manufacturing and other industries are moving into the Edge and the IIoT because traditional data center solutions simply won’t work for them. Their environments have a different set of requirements in terms of the people who maintain the system, the way it needs to scale, latency demands, and so on.

As an example, he notes that new solutions need to be tailored for the next generation of workers. At the Edge, the employee responsible for system maintenance isn’t your regular IT person; it’s a machine operator using a handheld device to run diagnostics and access data. “So, we need to design for that user. The solutions need to be simple and intuitive, which most computers today aren’t. They also need to be serviceable. In these environments, things do break, and breakdowns can cost millions. So the systems need to be able to be fixed proactively.”

Andersen believes that the model that meets all of these requirements is a hybrid cloud solution, where some applications run at the Edge and others run in the cloud. He’s also keeping an eye on machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). “Ultimately, the Edge is the source of these,” he says. “AI will become an Edge-based application in terms of where the collection and initial processing of intelligence happens. We have some unique ideas on how we’ll be able to help people do that.”

If all of this sounds like Greek to you, you’re definitely not alone. The Edge is not only at the edge of a network. It’s also at the edge of most people’s understanding of technology. To learn more about these concepts, read some of Andersen’s recent work in food industry publications:

Stratus Technologies will also be at PROCESS EXPO later this month, and Andersen and the team will be happy to answer any questions you might have. Find them in Booth 3619.