Food and Beverage: Cloud Storage

Published by Graham Foss on
Cloud Storage is a method by which data is stored over one or more servers and locations.

Cloud Storage and Cloud Based Systems

Put simply Cloud Storage is a method by which data is stored over one or more servers and locations. Typically this is offered as a service by a hosting company, who maintains the data, its security and its availability to its owners.

As a concept it has been around since the 1960s, but has only entered common everyday use in the last ten years. As industry becomes more interconnected, increasingly data storage and entire systems are becoming cloud based. To many in the Food and Beverage sector it may feel as if they have only just adopted a new way of doing things, only to find that something more advanced and innovative is around the corner. Driven by legislation and technology, terms such as Block Chain, Farm to Fork Traceability and the Internet of Things have entered the debate.

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software is now largely cloud based. ERP can be software, or suite of software that offers an interconnected set of tools for dealing with manufacture, ordering, inventory, customer relations and personnel management. ERP often goes hand-in-hand with a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) which is used to manage, track and monitor plant operations in real-time.

With cloud storage now cheap and available it makes sense to keep the data generated by ERP and MES there, not just the applications themselves. Software backups, administration data, label compliance data, recipe data and the like can be made available anywhere to anyone with access.

Options range from simply renting server space to store copies of critical documents and software backups, to a fully integrated cloud based ERP/MES system. However, the Food and Beverage sector, driven by food safety concerns, is heading towards a cloud based future based on the idea of integration and traceability.

The move to the cloud is not just limited to commercial software. In 2014 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched the OpenFDA project, in order to offer its large amounts of data to the public.

The Food and Beverage Industry is now being driven by big data and the cloud. The entire supply chain, from the field where the food grows, the vehicles that transport it, the warehouses it is taken to, the factories that processes it, the shops that sell it, and finally the consumers that buy it can now be monitored, analysed and  recorded as part of a cloud based system.

The Race to Trace

The need to show full traceability of a Food and Beverage product is growing increasingly inescapable. Driven by legislation, consumer demand and the availability of technology, systems are becoming more encompassing and dynamic.

Traceability can answer questions as simple as whether or not a product is correctly or fraudulently labelled, or which chemicals were used in its production, but also offer insight into any part of the supply chain. This might include ethical concerns, for instance, was slave labour used in the production of purchased raw materials?

Any issue concerning the supply chain and traceability can cause scandal, and increase the pressure on companies to be accountable for where and how their products are made. Traceability can also help reduce product recalls. A product being recalled due to foodborne illness can cost a company a great deal financial and also in terms of lost consumer confidence. With a closer eye on the supply chain, less products are discarded and less revenue is lost.

The need for traceability has been around longer than the technology that is capable of doing it. The US Bioterrorism Act of 2002 and the EU Bio-preparedness Green paper of 2007 include requirements for traceability methods to be used in all food related supply chains. Up until recently there has been no way of doing this cost effectively. How to collect, store and manage all the data required for full traceability? Cloud based systems provide the solution.

The latest supply chain software seeks to give a full view of the entire supply chain, from farm to fork, by integrating Cloud Storage, Big Data and The Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IOT) is not limited to industry, indeed there is also a term the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) to deal specifically with the industrial sector. Defining IOT is tricky, it is so overloaded with confusing terms that the jargon around is has become known as a ‘Terminology Zoo’.

Despite the vagueness around this emerging technology, broadly its aim is to, at the same time as interconnecting everything electronic to everything else, simplify our interface to them (i.e. provide a solution to the “basket full of remotes” problem).

This vision is seen to be part of the fourth industrial revolution (or Industry 4.0), the first three being, mechanisation, followed by mass production, and then automation. Industry 4.0 is the introduction of Cyber Physical Systems, designed following 5C architecture (connection, conversion, cyber, cognition, and configuration).

The great fear of increased connectivity is security. In response to these concerns the Internet of Things Security Foundation (IoTSF) was created in 2015, its goal to spread knowledge and encourage best practice in the implementation of security in the IOT.

There are still a lot of questions to be addressed in regards to IOT. Not only, is it secure, but is it future proof, is it environmentally friendly, is it even worth it? However it is viewed, it is undeniably the next step in a process of interconnectivity that started with the birth of the internet.

Cloud Storage in the Food and Beverage sector

A Food and Beverage manufacture, even with the best will in the world and a desire to introduce cloud based storage into their systems may find it difficult, due to being in possession of large amounts of equipment of varying age. As a consequence, parts of the process may only be partially connected to existing systems while others may be totally disconnected and work in isolation. It may also be the case that old equipment is incapable of interconnection under any circumstances and the only answer is to replace it.

Another issue is that some companies, working to stringent regulations must conform to certain Standard Operational Procedures (SOPs). A change in a cloud based system that affects one customer can affect all, and potentially cause a company to no longer conform to their SOPs.

That being said, with ever shortening product lifecycles and margins getting narrower and narrower, anything that could give a competitive edge needs to be considered, and as new legislation comes in and existing legislation is more thoroughly enforced it is ultimately going to be more cost effective to look to the future.

Despite concerns such as security, scalability and standards, businesses are moving to the cloud in record numbers.

The benefits of cloud bases systems include;

  • the ability to update and access data from anywhere on any platform
  • it is regularly updated and new full versions need not be purchased
  • improves efficiency by the simplification of processes and the automation of others
  • real time inventory keeping
  • it is adaptable, expandable and the customer need only pay for what they use
  • it is now considered more secure than keeping data locally on non-cloud based networks

There is more to setting up a cloud based system or ERP than “hooking up a few tags” to the existing plant or MES. There should firstly be an identified requirement for it, followed by a well thought out strategy to implement it.

For instance, it is often the case that known issues are the first to get targeted by maintenance and to be part of any ongoing improvement projects. Adding data collection to a known trouble area will only confirm what is already known. Data collection, processing and analysis, when done correctly can highlight underlying, hitherto unseen problems, and point to where improvements can be made.

The Need for Control

There is a lot to consider when making the move to a cloud based system, and maintaining it once it has been set up. When there exists the ability to store huge amounts of data, having a clear method of recording, archiving, validating and accessing it is of vital importance.

Consideration should be given to;

  • Are stored software, configurations and documentation under version control?
  • Is there a method for verifying the integrity of stored data?
  • Is the system multi-featured and fully integrated?
  • Does the system offer reports, analysis and meta-data on the information it holds?
  • Does the system keep up to date with changes to standards and regulations?
  • Are all actions taken recorded and are these records auditable?
  • Is the system customisable for individual customers and users?

There is no doubt that fifty years from now, considering how much things have changed in the last fifty, all of industry will be very different. The rise of automation transformed industry, and not exclusively for the better. As this next phase of automation interconnectivity progresses beyond infancy, the need for a controlled approach to change is more vital than ever.

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Written by Graham Foss. As one of AGSL’s team of Technical Consultants, Graham Foss is responsible for implementing the company’s product development and technology strategy. Before joining AGSL in 2016, Graham was employed for 12 years as a lead software engineer at Aker Solutions Subsea Ltd, where he worked on projects in the North Sea, North Atlantic and Norway. Graham holds a degree in Computing from Edinburgh’s Napier University in Edinburgh, where he graduated with distinction. A Chartered Engineer, he is a member of the Institution ofEngineering and Technology (IET).