How ABB is spearheading a digital revolution in the food and beverage space

Laura Mullan
- Technology - Dec 19, 2018

As technology disrupts industries across the globe, the food and beverage sector hasn’t been forgotten. We talk to Darcy Simonis, Industry Network leader for food and beverage at ABB, to learn how the technology giant is transforming the sector.

The food and beverage industry is not only the European Union’s largest manufacturing sector, but it is also intertwined in the economic, political, and social fabric of the continent. Revered across the globe, EU food and drink exports have almost doubled in the last decade, reaching over EUR€90bn (USD$102.6bn), according to the European Commission.

Yet, whilst business may be booming, Europe isn’t immune to the challenges facing the global market. The United Nations predicts that we will have over 2mn more mouths to feed by 2050, and as the environmental toll of food production enters the spotlight, consumers are increasingly demanding more sustainable produce. Many firms have hedged their bets on technology to tackle these challenges and now, success — and even survival — in the food and beverage industry could be dependent on emerging innovations like artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and more. One such company making waves in the sector is technology behemoth ABB. This year the firm was once again named among the Top 10 in Forbes magazine’s ‘Change the World’ list, a ranking that highlights firms that “help the planet and tackle social problems”. Whilst the company may be better known for its technological innovations, ABB has recently redefined its vision, aiming not to sell products, but to sell custom-tailored solutions.

With around 16 years of food and beverage experience under her belt, Darcy Simonis, Industry Network leader for food and beverage at ABB, is all too aware of the hurdles facing the industry.  

“Some of the key pressures facing the sector today include the expanding global population. We need to figure out how to feed the world,” she reflects. “The expectations of our customers are also changing every day and now the customer is king. There was a time when the manufacturer essentially determined what was going to be produced and that’s changed. We’re seeing an increased demand for more variety and convenience in the market driven by food trends, lifestyle choices, and dietary restrictions. Because of this customer-centric approach, food and beverage companies now have to meet the same key performance indicators (KPIs) they've always maintained (cost, quality, sustainability, safety) while also contending with these new considerations. Technology is key to solving these challenges, but the food and beverage sector has historically been conservative when implementing new technologies. That’s why determining the digital maturity of a company is vital before you implement any additional solutions,” says Simonis. “Manufacturers move at different speeds, so we first analyse where they are in their digital journey and then figure out what their next step could be.” For ABB, to achieve this involves a holistic plant assessment or a digital plant assessment. “We have teams who visit the food and beverage facility and work together with the customer. They spend anywhere from one to five days analysing the entire factory, from power to palletizing. We then outline opportunities where companies can increase productivity and efficiency.” Simonis explains.

It’s important to note that technology can not only help with food and beverage production but could also help to bring supply chains to the next level. “With ABB, we provide solutions starting from the power grid to your plug,” Simonis continues. “For food and beverage, we can provide solutions from the natural resources entering the factory all the way through your production.” One technological innovation that Simonis highlights is ABB’s Smart Sensors which can quickly change the thinking on motor maintenance. These are wireless, pocket-sized sensors that can be attached to almost any low-voltage motor, adding the benefits of IoT to unconnected, analogue equipment. “It’s an easy way for people to see how important data collection is,” she says. “It’s helping our customers move from being reactive to more proactive. Companies can predict what maintenance is needed during scheduled downtimes, for example. It makes them a lot more efficient, and it's a very easy, inexpensive fix.” The solution has gotten the backing of big names like Olam International, a leading agribusiness that supplies products like nuts, grains and coffee to over 22,000 customers around the world. The firm’s production capacity is enormous — it has around 30,000 motors across 70 factories globally. These motors are often constantly running (they help products move along conveyor belts, for example) and so their reliability and performance is critical.

The global food robotics market is expected to reach $3.35bn by 2025, and this is another niche where ABB has made its mark. “We're not only looking at robots from a packaging perspective, but we’re also investing more into what we call co-bots, or collaborative robots, whereby people and robots are working side-by-side to deliver more flexibility.” Take the firm’s robot YuMi, for instance, which works shoulder-to-shoulder with employees to enhance productivity at Finnish confectionery company Panda. Recognising its potential, ABB has heightened its investment in the robotics field. In October, the company revealed it would invest US$150mn to build what it touts as ‘the world’s most advanced robotics factory in Shanghai’, a nod to the mushrooming use of robotics in the food and beverage sector.  

The advantages of technologies like these are endless. Simonis points out how ABB’s innovations can help food and beverage firms use raw materials such as water more effectively, how they can help to reduce energy use, and how they can help to cut costs. Not one to rest on its laurels, she says that perhaps ABB’s key competitive advantage in the market is how it is constantly innovating. “Not only does ABB have the necessary know-how, but they’re also looking 10 steps ahead and figuring out what the next big thing is going to be,” she says. “I would say we’re definitely pioneers in technology. We invest USD$1.5bn into R&D every year to remain cutting edge. One of the biggest challenges is making sure you have the best people on board and I think ABB gets that right by promoting from within, paying attention to the huge talent pool and also recruiting people from industries such as food and beverage, where needed.” ABB is also keeping a finger on the pulse of the latest food and beverage trends such as vertical farming, forging key partnerships and investments in these areas. “As people are moving into the cities and there's more urbanisation, we're starting to see more farms appearing in cities. This requires greenhouses and vertical farming, and, for example, we've partnered with a company called Heliospectra, that provides LED lighting for greenhouses to help tackle this,” adds Simonis. “In the future, I feel we will continue to collaborate with and invest in start-up companies that can enhance or work well with our technologies.”

Food and beverage has proven to be a key industry for ABB. Looking forward, it seems the technology giant will continue to explore the latest trends shaking up the sector so that it can remain a major contender in years to come.

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