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How factory automation can improve food safety outcomes

Factory automation solutions are often called manufacturing execution systems (MES).  For those of you frustrated with getting your manufacturing teams to comply with your food safety management system, do not take the above literally.

An MES is a factory-based system that automates plant operations.

It does this by providing factory employees with detailed instructions throughout the steps of the production process and by automatically recording associated activities. It interacts with factory control systems such as weighing scales, CIP systems and ERP – thus reducing manual administration and paperwork.

Food businesses with high numbers of products or complex manufacturing operations stand to gain the most benefits. The main business drivers for installing an MES include:

  • Improved quality control procedures.
  • Improved traceability
  • Increase ability to capture greater detail around factory activities
  • Less reliance on individuals
  • Interaction with other systems
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What does an MES typically do?

MES manages all production and warehousing areas for raw materials, work in progress and finished products. It can also talk to ERP systems for production record keeping and capture additional information not captured by the ERP systems such as the containers, bins, knives, buckets, trays used etc. All of these items can be set-up and traced on an MES system.

During the production process the MES assists operators by guiding them through their work instructions step by step, telling them which equipment to use, capturing scanned details or item numbers of equipment used. As a result the MES can alert users if they are trying to use the incorrect equipment or if the equipment they are proposing to use introduce an allergen cross contamination risk. Linkages to factory specifications and finished product specifications can ensure that all customer specifications are complied with. Quality problems can be captured and fed back to supplier monitoring systems.

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Traceability is built on the above so instead of seeing traceability of materials only, MES shows for each production run, what materials were used, by whom and into which containers they were put, what equipment was used, the cleaning records of the equipment resulting in a full chain of events from start to finish.

Where ingredients need to be weighed, dispensed or mixed the MES can link to scales and guide the operator step by step and track the weighing to a target weight or counting down to zero.

Links to finished product specifications and pack copy systems can ensure that the correct labels are applied to packaging.

Conclusion

MES will not be suitable for all sites. Where MES is suitable it will require interfaces with various systems including ERP, food safety management systems such as QADEX, factory systems such as scales etc.
There are substantial benefits, but cost benefit needs to be carefully evaluated as a full factory wide MES will require a substantial investment and senior management commitment over several years.

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