Approaching a critical mass

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has been underway for over a decade and its impact on the food industry is beginning to be felt. But change has been slow, and some companies are only now deciding whether to jump on board. So, what are the benefits and how is it changing the industry?


If there is a specific moment  when the Fourth Industrial Revolution was born it was, arguably, at Hannover Messe in April 2011. The then director of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, Professor Wolfgang Wahlster, opened the conference by describing how the Internet was driving a profound shift in industrial processes. 

It was the first time many had heard of Industry 4.0. Today, the term is used as shorthand for the interplay between the physical machine and digital technologies, cloud computing, ultra-fast communication, blockchain and the Internet of Things, among other advances. Over a decade later, how has the food industry been impacted by Industry 4.0? 

This is not the first time the food industry has gone through radical transformation. Changes in food technology over the past 300 years have mapped the world’s four industrial revolutions. In the 18th century it was steam mechanization, in the 19th century it was electrification, and the 20th century brought information technology, robotics, and automation. Today, it is digitalization that drives the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


Profound changes don’t happen overnight

“It’s easy to look back at these profound changes to global economics and society and believe they happened overnight, but of course they didn’t, they happened over decades,” says Stuart Bashford, Digital Officer at Bühler. “When it comes to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, digitalization is a phrase we use a lot but, at Bühler, we appreciate that this is in reality a long journey - for us and for our customers. Our job is to recognize where individual customers are on that journey.”

Bashford believes it is important to demystify what Industry 4.0 really means. Amid all the rhetoric about technological change it is sometimes easy to forget that food is still being produced the way it has been for hundreds of years. “We still make machines that are modern versions of the big pieces of stone that grind the grain. Bühler has been optimizing these basic processes for decades, but they are not that different from the way they have always been done. All we are doing with digitalization is what we have been doing for decades: We are wringing that extra percent of productivity out of the process that provides higher quality, safety, and efficiency,” explains Bashford.

It’s easy to look back at these profound changes to global economics and society and believe they happened over night, but of course they didn’t, they happened over decades.

STUART BASHFORD, Digital Officer at Bühler

In a highly competitive sector like food, where we all expect to eat the highest quality and safest food possible for a competitive price, it is those incremental increases in efficiency that are fundamental to improving productivity and so profitability. By extracting more from resources than your competitor, you are adding to your bottom line. Even today, these may not always be digital solutions. The incremental increase in productivity can be achieved in many ways: through energy savings on traditional processes, retrofitting machinery, providing on-site technological expertise, or efficiencies in plant design. However, digitalization is one of the most effective levers available to producers who want to improve efficiency. 

Gernot Ruppert, Program Manager SmartMill at Bühler, is at the cutting edge of technological change within the food industry. He points to a major financial benefit of Industry 4.0 compared to previous technological advances. In the past, adopting a new technology, such as electrification or robotics, meant buying and installing a lot of new equipment. “This would require a large capital expenditure and all the risk that goes with that and so the returns you make have to be worthwhile,” says Ruppert. “Digitalization is a completely different way of investing in that you pay as you go because you are paying for a service, so it comes out of your operating costs rather than capital expenditure. It also means you can transition to digitalization at the pace you choose. It is very realistic for a customer to build a digital solution one year and then decide to introduce another solution the next year.”

Stuart Bashford Stuart Bashford Stuart Bashford, Digital Officer at Bühler

Ruppert points out that once a customer has the basic digital platform, such as Bühler Insights or Mercury MES, adding new functionality is relatively simple: “The flexibility of a digital service running in the Cloud is huge compared to the traditional way of upgrading your service, which required new hardware or installing software on-site. With the Cloud you can just add new solutions by selecting from services in your digital portfolio builder.” By its nature, a technological revolution needs to reach a critical mass. It is only when enough companies have taken the decision to digitalize their production processes or drive efficiency using cloud-based algorithms that a revolution can truly be said to have taken place. We are close to that happening in the food sector as companies increasingly adopt varying degrees of digital solutions. As more companies make the transition, it is changing the industry. 

“It means two companies in the same market suddenly find themselves facing completely different challenges,” explains Ruppert. “A company that has not digitalized may find that they are struggling to find the right skilled staff to improve their quality standards, whereas their competitor, who has adopted digitalization, is now focusing on new challenges like how to acquire sustainability certification, become CO2 neutral, or provide greater transparency to their customers. By degrees companies that adopt and those that don’t will start to diverge.”


Digitalization is a different way of investing in that you pay as you go. It means you can transition to digitalization at the pace you choose.

GERNOT RUPPERT , Program Manager SmartMill at Bühler

These changes are driven by innovations designed to meet new market challenges. Customers are more demanding about the provenance of their food and want to know it is being produced sustainably and to the right ethical standards. Regulatory bodies are requiring higher auditability and traceability. Both these demands are being met through digitalization, along with the future potential application of blockchain. 

“The challenge for the industry is to think differently,” Bashford explains. “What most of the industry currently has in place is not going to allow the level of transparency needed at scale because it is paper based. We are already working on projects where we are tracing the product right back to source in areas such as cocoa and coffee. Digitalization is the only way to produce the sort of traceability being demanded.” 


Sustainability drives digitalization

Food waste is responsible for 6 percent of CO2 emissions. In some emerging markets it is possible for up to half a batch of grain production to be lost in spoilage. Digitalization offers the opportunity to radically reduce that food waste as well as cutting water wastage and maximizing energy efficiency. The United Nations had warned that more efficient food production is going to be needed to feed a swelling global population. It estimates the need to produce 50 percent more food than in 2012 to meet population growth by 2050. 

Skill shortages are still a challenge for the food industry with knowledge passed down the years through learned experience. Recruiting the next generation of master millers into the industry is proving a challenge. Working with digital solutions is one way to make the industry more attractive for younger people. 


But, that’s not all. The bane of a food producer’s life is production downtime caused by machine maintenance. By digitally monitoring machine performance it is now possible to plot trends in equipment effectiveness, energy consumption and down time. Building up a digital picture of machine performance means being able to anticipate problems before they happen and schedule maintenance when it is least disruptive. This is a relatively new application of digital technology, but the rewards are already starting to be realized.

Digitalization is also the driving force behind innovation within the industry. With its broad customer base, Bühler is well placed to carry out the necessary research and development, rather than individual food companies having to make the costly investments themselves. “With our knowledge we can dig more and more into digital services and optimize processes. The sooner customers adopt digitalization the faster they can adapt and the more they can benefit from the research and development that we are carrying out daily,” explains Ruppert.

As digitalization improves efficiency and sustainability while meeting consumer demands for ever greater traceability, it also comes with new risks. Recent world events have given rise to concerns about cyber attacks on civil society. Manfred Goetz, Chief Information Officer at Bühler, believes cybersecurity will be one of the key areas that needs to be addressed over the next few years.

 MANFRED GOETZ  MANFRED GOETZ Manfred Goetz, Chief Information Officer at Bühler
We already have the highest certificate for security in the form of iso 27001, but we will be looking at providing add-on services that use the latest data security so that our customers’ plants and machines are even more secure.

MANFRED GOETZ , Chief Information Officer at Bühler

Bühler has many long-standing relationships based on trust and has supported its customers through electrification in the 19th century, and automation in the second half of the 20th century.  Bashford believes that this history puts Bühler in a prime position to offer support and guidance to its customers through the current paradigm shift in technology. 

“We want to position ourselves as the solution provider for our customers,” explains Bashford. “We want to keep our customers as up to date as they can possibly be. That could be either in the form of a simple digital application or a total solution such as Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things. Our role is to help every one of our customers and we can do that best by taking into account where they are on their digital journey.”


Content Block

How can we help?

Gupfenstrasse 5