Every process sector has its nightmare scenarios based on, what it is supposed, are its key vulnerabilities. Ask the average layperson where they see the dangers for the food and drink industry and it’s odds-on perhaps that they would opt for variants on the themes of food safety and delivery. But cyber security?
It’s unlikely to be on the radar for most consumers though how high does it figure in the minds of manufacturers and indeed Government? Darcy Simonis, ABB leader for food and beverage, has no doubt the answer is: not sufficiently.
“Unlike the banking and financial sector, food manufacturing is not widely regarded as a high-risk industry. Therefore, it is common that food and beverage companies lack comprehensive cyber security programs,” she recently explained.
“However, as evidence suggests, this can risk causing illness and fatalities through tainted food, thus incurring legal battles, fines and negative impact on the brand. That is not to mention the costly downtime associated with shutting down a production line until the problem is dealt with.”
The food and beverage industry has historically been a slow adopter of technology, but this is changing. This high-level of connectivity allows plant managers to gather and monitor multiple data points spanning all areas of the production line
Darcy Simonis, leader for food and beverage, ABB
Whitehall at least does include the food sector within its definition of Critical National Infrastructure (CNI): facilities, systems, sites, information, people, networks and processes necessary for a country to function effectively.
Yet, Parliament’s Joint National Select Committees on National Security Strategy hinted in late 2018 that Government attitudes to cyber security erred towards complacency. It noted there was “little beyond anecdotal evidence that the UK is at the forefront of international efforts” and demanded a more rigorous and methodical comparison with the country’s allies.
At the business end of the food and drink infrastructure, complacency is less of an issue. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ report to the Cabinet Office, Public Summary of Sector Security and Resilience Plans, was keen to acknowledge the sector’s “highly effective and resilient food supply chain”, stating: “Like many industries the food sector operates just-in-time supply chains which require sophisticated logistics operations and contingency plans to respond rapidly to potential disruption. The industry remains highly resilient owing to the capacity of food supply sectors and the high degree of substitutability of foodstuffs.”
If anything, explains Simonis [pictured], its problems have arisen from the sector’s desire to deal with another of its challenges – that of advancing itself technologically.
“The food and beverage industry has historically been a slow adopter of technology, but this is changing. This high-level of connectivity allows plant managers to gather and monitor multiple data points spanning all areas of the production line, including changes in temperature, eqzuipment performance and the quality of ingredients. This can reap multiple benefits such as increased efficiency, quality, profits and improvements to human safety,” she says.
There is however a downside: “Unfortunately, many automation systems like this are prime targets for cyber criminals looking to disrupt a business or industry.”
Data breaches in the food sector provide opportunities not only to impact business adversely but also to reach a wider section of the public – particularly through malicious manipulation of recipes.
Data insecurity is not the only unwelcome byproduct to emerge from food firms’ otherwise commendable attempts to modernise their processes and systems.
Fully automated factories operating 24/7 will conceivably become commonplace with a host of business benefits. Labour costs would be reduced as a proportion of expenditure, instances of manual handling would reduce and with it associated incidents of contamination and related downtime, plus some energy and light savings made.
Problem solving solutions designed to enhance business efficiency and sustainable practice can create issues of their own, notes the Society for Applied Microbiology (SAM). For example, the formation of biofilms on surfaces.
Biofilms are the coatings produced by some microorganisms when sticking to surfaces, providing protection for bacteria (including Listeria, E.coli and Salmonella) that may be chemical resistant.
Thus, tackling biofilms without the requirement for full disassembly remains a significant issue, warns SAM, but may be needed to improve efficiency whilst maintaining safety. The need for innovative approaches to tackle biofilms will become greater as 24-hour automated food production lines become more common and more advanced machinery is employed, such as robotics and 3D printers, observes SAM in its recent paper Food Manufacturing and Processing.
Commenting on the findings, one food scientist with many years’ experience of the food sector processing and retail sections remarked: “The benefits of full automation in the food and drink industry allied to Industry 4.0 are clear, particularly with regards to problems associated with manual handling: it becomes less labour intensive and reduces the incidence of problems caused by human intervention. So, you have fewer safety and contamination issues and a reduction in the downtime caused by these factors, not to mention the gains to be had from 24/7 production lines.”
The relationship between innovation, process improvement and problem solving is, says Susan Sogunro, a symbiotic one: “However, as the SAM report emphasises, innovations that help reduce or eradicate existing problems in the production process can produce new challenges in their wake – for example that of biofilm detection versus machine disassembly, which itself impacts downtime. But it underlines too the importance of new approaches that harness automation, AI and microbiology in tandem.”
As the SAM report emphasises, innovations that help reduce or eradicate existing problems in the production process can produce new challenges in their wake
Susan Sogunro, food scientist
Examples cited by microbiologists are the use of Whole Genome Sequencing (WSG) allied with Big Data to profile the DNA of harmful organisms. This enables more detailed tracking of the source of safety risks as well as identification of what constitutes a normal microbiome for different ingredients – making it simpler to spot aberrations along the farm to fork process.
Expect too, predicts SAM, more interest in bacteriophages – viruses that selectively infect bacteria without harm to animal life, including humans. While Europe has been slower than America’s FDA to endorse ‘phages’ there are signs of movement, buoyed by the potential value for food decontamination and fighting animal diseases.
The all-embracing issue of sustainability is one in which the food sector has often been a process industry leader, attracted by the environmental and business cases for saving on waste.
Sense and sustainability
Successes include the development of integrated, multi-tasking products and systems, such as Mettler-Toledo’s GC system and Thermo Fisher’s Sentinel 3000 metal detectors.
The latter is claimed to be the first multifrequency metal detector specifically designed for metal detection checkweighing combination systems in food production, ensuring a smaller footprint by halving the numbers of equipment required.
Likewise, the GC’s integrated conveyorised metal detection system provides far greater benefits than merely the identification of metal contaminants, describes Mettler-Toledo product inspection specialist Mike Bradley.
“With a complete solution from the same supplier, manufacturers can rest assured their metal detection system is fully compliant with food safety legislation and retailer requirements and be confident that it delivers the best possible mechanical integration for maximum production uptime.”
The challenges of bulk handling and product diversity have increased the demand for cost effective and adaptable modular systems. Speedy output though can fall foul of human error, resulting in downtime and wasted resource.
Contrinex is among the companies pioneering the use of RFID tags for hose coupling on pneumatic conveying systems. Mark Weymouth, MD of Contrinex UK and Ireland Plus+Automation explains human error can result in hoses being connected to the wrong outlet, causing costly errors if undetected.
“Systems designers require real-time confirmation that the correct hose has been connected to each outlet, or, where no connection is specified, that a blanking cap is in place.
“Bulk handling and pneumatic transport system designers use RFID technology to eliminate connection errors at manual hose-coupling stations for fluidisable materials. Coupling stations, with IO/Link-enabled read/write modules (RWMs) mounted on each outlet pipe, use manual quick release hoses to feed materials to multiple machines.”
PC-based control can help minimise the wall thickness of PET bottles while still creating a product that meets consumer expectations for usability, convenience and price. This opens possibilities for reducing the weight of PET bottles to minimise wasted raw material
Stephen Hayes, managing director, Beckhoff UK
RFID tags, mounted integrally within each hose coupling and blanking cap, identify the mating parts uniquely, adds Weymouth, allowing individual outlet/hose combinations to be verified at the time of connection.
Conversion to sustainable practice has, though, produced its share of own goals, suggests Beckhoff UK managing director Stephen Hayes.
He cites the recent efforts by food giants McDonald’s and Coca-Cola to endorse the move from non-sustainable plastic waste with the development of paper straws and bioplastic bottles respectively.
Straws could not be recycled effectively because conventional waste-sorting technologies were unable to separate the product from conventional landfill. Whereas bottle material was sustainable but behaved and biodegraded “like a typical PET (polyethylene terephthalate), or regular plastic, bottle”.
It serves, he says, as a reminder that there are “no sustainable materials, only sustainable systems”.
PC-based controls such as Beckhoff TwinCAT software, that converts most compatible personal computers into a real-time controller, provides a solution when plastics must be employed still, asserts Hayes.
The technology can limit usage by responding quickly and precisely – for example, placing products more closely together in blister packs. The same amount of food can be contained within less packaging and less sealing foil, with reduced waste.
Sealing temperature can also be set to allow for thinner plastic films or permit packagers of high-volume products to better approximate minimum fill levels – aided by the control software’s many libraries that can meet all standard requirements in packaging machines.
Says Hayes: “PC-based control can help minimise the wall thickness of PET bottles while still creating a product that meets consumer expectations for usability, convenience and price. This opens possibilities for reducing the weight of PET bottles to minimise wasted raw material.”