Today’s food manufacturers face extremely complex challenges in planning and logistics. There are the predictable fluctuations brought about by the change of seasons and holidays—from frozen turkeys for Thanksgiving to spikes in ice cream demand around the Fourth of July. Add to that the fluctuations that manufacturers cannot predict—an early freeze in the orange groves disrupting supply or a new competitive offering suddenly arriving in the marketplace. Finally, there are shifts in consumer preferences that can have significant strategic implications, such as an increasing emphasis on healthier choices.

How can manufacturers prepare for these challenges, both predictable and unpredictable? It requires careful contingency planning and proactive management of critical production assets. Today’s emerging Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies can play a valuable role in a number of key areas.

Ensuring asset availability

Keeping critical production and packaging assets up and running at peak efficiency is critical for meeting spikes in production demand. Deploying IIoT sensors throughout the production and packaging environments and using advanced analytics to process the collected data can help manufacturers predict equipment issues before they disrupt production—or at least speed a diagnosis of the problem to minimize downtime.

This visibility can also be extended to partners across the supply chain to avoid disruptions. If a raw material producer’s IIoT analytics is predicting a problem that could cause a hiccup in production, this information can be made available to the downstream manufacturer in near-real-time, giving them a valuable head start in activating a contingency plan.

Enhancing staff coordination

As the pressure mounts on food manufacturers during spikes in production, keeping operations and maintenance teams well-coordinated is essential. These critical team members are constantly on the move throughout the plant, making coordination challenging. Leveraging IIoT sensors and analytics, cloud-based data aggregation and mobile technologies enables operations and maintenance personnel to have shared access to real-time information about both critical asset performance and production capabilities.

This connected IIoT strategy enables rapid collaboration across disciplines in order to quickly understand the source, extent and impact of a problem, and if required, coordinate an effective response, with everyone clear on their role.

Safeguarding product quality

Product quality and safety are paramount, placing increased pressure on quality processes as production tempo ramps up to meet increased seasonal or spike demands. The IIoT can help by enabling real-time, in-line quality analysis. Samples can be tested on the production line in real time using chemical and spectroscopic analysis, with test data made immediately available to centralized quality systems via the IIoT. This allows manufacturers to catch potential quality issues early, limiting the potential risk and cost of a quality problem and the resulting damage to their brand.

IIoT technology can also improve product tracking and traceability, gathering data throughout a product’s journey through the process to improve both real-time problem response and historical trends analysis and corrective actions.

Predicting market dynamics

The growth of online shopping is a clear trend with an increasing impact on the food industry. Witness Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, merging an established brick-and-mortar food retailer with one of the world’s largest e-commerce players. The online space is increasingly crucial to food manufacturers, as well. Analyzing data on what consumers are searching for online or discussing on social media can provide valuable insights on emerging consumer demand and preferences for certain products.

The IoT is even reaching into consumers’ homes with the growing popularity of “smart” refrigerators. This opens the door to collecting and analyzing data to generate new insights into consumer buying patterns—insights that can inform food production planning in ways never before possible. More and more of these types of linkages between consumer IoT and the industrial IoT are starting to present themselves as new use cases for optimizing consumer-oriented businesses.

The ultimate goal: greater agility

The need for greater business agility will only increase in the years ahead. Taking advantage of IIoT technologies and data analytics can improve management of critical assets, as well as quality assurance, forecasting accuracy and logistics coordination. And, as these systems combine intelligence at the edge of food manufacturing plants with cloud-based applications, it is critical that the plant-side systems are continuously available and can be easily managed by existing plant staff without requiring sophisticated IT support. This will help ensure practical operational agility for large and small food producers alike.

With greater visibility into every nook and cranny of the supply chain and production processes—delivered as actionable information in real time—food manufacturers will have the intelligence needed to compete in today’s increasingly unpredictable, consumer-driven marketplace.