The vision of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and how an intelligent, connected automation infrastructure can dramatically reshape operations is something on the mind of most food manufacturers today. They are focused on the transformative potential it offers, and like other industries, are even referring to it as the “next industrial revolution.” However, this term isn’t quite right. In order to realize this vision, the path to the IIoT for food manufacturers will instead be an evolutionary one.

Why an evolution?

First, let’s understand what constitutes a “revolution.” The cloud migration technology shift fits this description in the sense that there was no transitional state. It was truly all or nothing – applications either ran in the cloud or they didn’t.

For food manufacturers, achieving the full potential of the IIoT will instead be an evolutionary process, as a full blown “rip and replace” implementation is not realistic. A simpler (and more gradual) solution is using IIoT technologies to connect and supplement the automation systems that already exist in the plant. This will aid food manufacturers in more efficiently doing things such as minimizing manual and paper-based processes or delivering new insights to operators’ handheld devices to guide their work via real-time data.

As manufacturers start to see the benefits from these smaller changes, they can integrate new automation capabilities that will help them continue to move toward a “smart” supply chain.

There are three key steps that naturally build toward this final goal.

  1. Update and modernize existing systems

The first necessary step in the evolution toward the IIoT is the need to update and modernize existing OT systems. This means getting away from paper-based systems and linking unautomated portions of processes together. Since the food industry is still partially under human control, as opposed to more automated industries like oil and gas, the IIoT can help bridge automated and manual production processes. This will help enforce good manufacturing practices and help prevent mistakes, such as immediately identifying a contamination issue and stopping production before ending up with a warehouse full of unusable products.

As companies begin to modernize their systems as they migrate toward the IIoT, the collection, sharing and analysis of data will become central to their operations, making it significantly more valuable. Maximum availability, reliability and security become essential, as these business-critical systems become more automated. However, another top priority that is usually overlooked is the concept of serviceability. As more intelligence moves to the network edge, systems need to be easily serviced. OT teams in the food industry typically run very lean, so the ability to remotely service production lines is essential when dealing with thinner staffs.

2. Make sure devices are connected

A critical pillar for a successful IIoT implementation is the exchange of data to and from devices and sensors, as well as the delivery of that data to the cloud. The food industry currently has the majority of the sensors they need already in place for ensuring product consistency. But, they lack the ability to tie in qualitative data to analyze what they have produced. Furthermore, food manufacturers also need to more quickly link supplier information and analysis together. The advantage of connecting their systems would allow them to take the sensor information from their materials and tie it into their products. For example, do the products actually have the right moisture and vitamin content as they say they do?

One reason food manufacturers have been slow to connect their automated devices is due to concerns that it will open up their systems to the risk of being hacked. Although a legitimate concern, there are ways to address this. When selecting connectivity approaches and solutions, it is important to prioritize those that support appropriate levels of security between the automation systems and IT resources they connect with, such as ERP systems, data warehouses and analytics engines.

3. Leverage analytics in real-time

Tremendous value for food manufacturers lies in real-time analytics and the promise of using data generated by the connected infrastructure to help optimize operations. Efficiency gains, however, are not the most exciting possibility for real-time analytics. It is instead being able to increase the company’s top line growth (vs bottom line) by extracting the critical insights from the information that the analytics provide.

If manufacturers can analyze demand in real-time and translate that all the way through to how it’s being delivered to anyone from consumers, to retailers, to warehouses, to plants and raw material suppliers, the manufacturers are giving themselves options. By using real-time analytics, they can choose which suppliers they want to use for each link in the supply chain, which can help to make the entire supply chain leaner and more efficient.

Taking a stepwise approach to the IIoT

By breaking this journey to the IIoT down into definitive steps, the food industry will be able to transition gradually while still seeing the rewards from their investments during each phase, as they modernize their systems, connect their devices and leverage real-time analytics. Looking at this process as an evolution will help food manufacturers put their overall migration into a more realistic perspective, which can help them get on their way toward realizing the full potential of the IIoT.