If You’re Not Digitizing Production Data, it’s Time to Start

The new year is shaping up to be an inflection point for food and beverage operations.

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You can hardly go a day without reading a story on digitization in the food and beverage industry.

Digital transformation came to marketing and R&D years — and for some, decades — ago, but more recently, we’ve seen increasing digitization across the F&B supply chain, from tracking inputs to real-time visibility of consumer products on store shelves.

But one area with increasing promise: digitization within the actual production and manufacturing of F&B products. 

That’s changing — fast; 2023 is shaping up to be an inflection point for the digital transformation of F&B plant operations. Here’s why:

Increasing automation creating a Big Data problem

Modern F&B plants are highly tech-driven, relying on incredibly sophisticated, automated equipment. And as the industry faces one of tightest labor market in history, automation is becoming an even more critical labor strategy in F&B production. But all of that automated tech generates a torrent of data—and creates enormous data silos that bring more confusion than clarity to those looking for data-backed insights. 

F&B production operations need integrated, centralized data management platforms to break down those silos, pull the data together—and understand the relevant signals amid the daily digital noise. 

Case in point: With increasing automation, plant managers — along with food safety and QA teams — can’t just walk the floor and talk to human operators to get a pulse on performance. They can’t rely on experienced people to tell them when something is “just a little off” but nothing’s broken yet. Plant leaders need to be able to interpret the incredibly precise data their equipment is generating every second. Moreover, they need platforms that automatically hone that data into meaningful alerts around trending risks and emerging issues — before they turn into downtime.

Retirement wave leaving institutional knowledge gaps in its wake

Most F&B plants are in the middle of a once-in-a-generation workforce turnover: Veterans with decades of experience are retiring or leaving the industry. Plants are taking the opportunity to find new leaders who are more digitally savvy—but they can’t fill the gaps in institutional and industry knowledge. 

Adding to the problem, many plants are currently relying on ad hoc reports and homegrown systems that run on Excel or simple databases. No matter how meticulously prepared, these can’t provide a full picture. Instead, plants with retiring skilled workers need data management platforms that are easy to learn and easy to use. They need platforms that automatically visualize KPIs, benchmark performance and surface the insights that matter most—so the next generation of F&B leaders can readily see and understand what they need to do next to protect quality and safety, and drive performance.

Macroeconomic climate increasing pressure to find efficiencies

With the unprecedented convergence of record-high inflation and an economic slowdown, every F&B plant is feeling intense margin pressure. Business leaders are pushing operational leaders to find (or create) new efficiencies to maintain margins and build a competitive edge. Of course, smart plant leaders have already picked the low-hanging fruit. 

But the savviest ones are leveraging digital platforms that harness all that data and use embedded analytics to uncover things that are hard (or impossible) to see from close up. They’re using these analytics tools to immediately surface emerging issues, benchmark performance (by line, by shift, by plant and against their peers), and build data-driven strategies to increase production and optimize costs—without jeopardizing food safety or quality.

A new wave of purpose-built F&B platforms changes the digital transformation game

Digital transformation is an economics equation for plants, and while demand is rapidly increasing, supply has traditionally been the biggest barrier. The first wave of digital platforms pitched in this industry was never meant for F&B production operations. These solutions were either generalist platforms or built for a different industry and shoehorned into F&B plants. Both cases led to the all-too-common horror stories of long, painful and costly implementation and customization periods — and F&B businesses taking forever (if ever) to realize value from this big headache and bigger investment. Most F&B operations intelligently opted out. 

Now, we’re seeing a new generation of digital platforms purpose-built for F&B, designed by people who actually understand how F&B plants work. For example, at Ecolab, our Food Safety & Quality (FSQ) Supervisor Platform enables web-based, phased deployment, so plants can implement without disrupting day-to-day operations—because no one can afford extra downtime right now. We’ve carefully built out-of-the-box workflows and functionalities specifically for F&B plants, so time to value can be measured in weeks instead of years. And we’ve got real, live experts behind the technology—helping our customers create and deploy solutions, and go from insight, to action, to measurable improvement, faster.

See how leading F&B production businesses are using Ecolab FSQ Supervisor to build a data-driven competitive advantage here.

Rick Stokes is an area technical support manager in Ecolab's Food and Beverage division.

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