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Manufacturing conditions in the food and beverage industry vary immensely, from artisanal candy makers to global multi-product manufacturers. As facilities become larger and more complex, operators often lack the tools to troubleshoot problems. This is a bigger security risk in today’s fast-paced digital environment, where regulations increasingly demand tighter visibility into every process. Manufacturing and product managers need full visibility into their entire process and utilize optimal food and beverage alarm management practices to gain a full understanding of every event.

Let’s delve into the increasing digitalization of the US food and beverage industry, the risks and challenges of this new landscape, and the resulting pressing need for optimal food and beverage alarm management practices.



Digitalization of the food and beverage industry

Tasked with feeding 330 million people (in the US alone), the sector has several challenges: 

  • Precision is necessary. The central process revolves around the correct mixture of numerous ingredients at exact measurements at exact times, temperatures and other parameters.
  • Products can be compromised. The ingredients and finished products are generally perishable and subject to bacterial or other contamination. Problem discovery, reporting and corrections must be immediate, or else spoiled product costs can quickly pile up. There are no “factory seconds” in food and beverage products.
  • The supply chain is complicated. Because of the diversity of ingredients, ranging from flour to pomegranates, the supply chain is long and complex. Inventory control is crucial.
  • The industry must follow strict rules. This industry is heavily regulated. Over 3,000 federal, state and tribal agencies have varying jurisdiction in the US. (Covering the regulatory terrain would take a separate article.) Suffice to say that any food and beverage manufacturer must be vigilant about compliance. From the FDA alone, fines for each offense can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. Moreover, consumer lawsuits and criminal prosecution can result.

Where digitalization comes in 

The digitalization of processes is the logical solution to address the challenges for food and beverage alarm management. Over the past five years, the industry has moved heavily into process automation with SCADA and other similar systems. Alarm monitoring has also grown.

A survey by Automation World indicated that 52% of alarm monitoring systems were less than five years old, and 44% of them were replaced along with the process control system. However, this trend has caused issues with companies leaving control system factory default alarm settings in place, without tailoring them to their unique needs with a separate alarm management system.

Digitalization, while yielding enormous efficiencies and increased visibility, still introduces new risks. If operators have complete visibility into their process, so can others. Cyberattacks in the recent past have led to ransom demands. Plus, the rise of remote operation monitoring and control due to COVID-19 has increased cybersecurity risks as well. 

The pressing need for better alarm management post-COVID-19 

The pandemic resulted in widespread staffing shortages in the manufacturing sector, aggravating an existing shortage of skilled operating labor. Thus, remote monitoring of process control systems and alarms expanded.

 The distant viewpoint of remote operators requires complete visibility across the entire manufacturing process through an alarm management system. Just imagine an operator in Tampa trying to understand the context of an alarm in Des Moines without technology to help.

Besides operator visibility, technology is crucial for other reasons. For example, if an event occurs, operators must be able to trace it back to the cause of the event – what else was going on at the time in the plant?

Regulators will want to know. Operators need to be prepared with well-documented answers. To have them, they need technology enablers to provide a clear view across all processes and develop an effective plan. 



Food and beverage alarm management planning 

Alarm management must be carefully planned and implemented by a multi-departmental team including production, IT and operators. To establish a solid plan, the team must: 

  • Develop a clearly written alarm management strategy. They must decide on what makes sense for their plant in particular.
  • Clean up their alarms. Eliminate the obvious nuisance and unnecessary alarms right away. The Automation World survey found that 61% of companies still felt that excess alarms were causing alarm overload.
  • Rationalize the remaining alarms. Operators need to make sure that control systems’ alarm settings are tailored to their facility, not on factory defaults.
  • Make it a standard practice to review any process changes, plant additions or technology modifications to integrate them with alarm management.
  • Conduct regular audits of alarms and reaction settings.

Considerations to stay mindful of in alarm management

Cost implications

The budget for alarm management technology may be limited. Ideally, the system needs to be scalable – to fit a business’s small plant now and grow as it expands. Otherwise, it may over-commit to unnecessary costs today or limit growth in the future. In addition, operators want the implementation to be simple and economical, so compatibility is essential.

The need for tighter security and controls

As mentioned previously, digitization has exposed manufacturing to cyberattacks.

With its expansive supply chain and extensive vendor network (raw materials and factory equipment services), the food and beverage sector is especially vulnerable to such attacks. Third-party consultants providing advice also may have access to the network.

It follows that bad actors can penetrate the systems by first attacking service providers or suppliers. Remote monitoring and control due to COVID-19 introduced more penetration points for mayhem. Finally, the trend toward integration of IT and OT (operations technology) has made manufacturers’ operations more vulnerable to attack.

Therefore, it is crucial that secured remote access is in place, with each supplier having strict and clear network permissions, with regular audits.

Reducing operator workload

As mentioned earlier, a majority of respondents to the Automation World survey reported that operator overload remains an issue despite the addition of new alarm management systems. The survey also found that while 45% of respondents regularly review alarms for necessity, only 28% have reduced the overall number of alarms, and 27% still add alarms without re-evaluating.

While there is not enough data for solid conclusions, it is possible that alarm strategies were not sound, rationalizations were not carried out effectively or they were not followed up.

Again, it is also possible that new control system alarm points were left at factory default settings rather than tailored to the facility’s needs.

In any event, simplifying the operator’s job with graphic monitoring, clear and simple response actions, and a solid, well-rationalized alarm database flowing from a coherent, integrated alarm strategy remains a challenge that requires technology, careful planning and solid execution to overcome.

How TiPS LogMate® can help

To mitigate risks and enhance visibility, operators need an accurate baseline to start. The TiPS LogMate® Capture module gathers all the data from the control systems into a single Microsoft SQL database, from which operators can review, clean up and rationalize alarms.

To help ease the burden of analyzing alarms and reduce operator load, LogMate® also offers analytical tools to identify alarm interrelationships, chattering alarms and alarm floods.

Furthermore, LogMate® offers a suite of products that enable operators to take control over their alarm management: 

  • The KB Agent module of LogMate® vastly simplifies rationalization. It automates the re-population of the Alarm KB (TiPS’ master alarm database) and is compatible with numerous control systems.
  • The Signal module can send notification emails containing reports or response instructions for a situation to designated personnel
  • To provide full graphic visibility into the alarm system, TiPS netView provides an easy-to-read grid view, making operators’ lives easier.
  • TiPS TRAC tool can help operators evaluate their alarm management performance against their KPIs. What’s more, TRAC also provides analytical tools to perform root cause event analyses, giving operators visibility across all alarm processes.
  • ACE (Alarm Configuration Expert) provides analyses of alarms and events, and simplifies the ongoing audit and reconfiguration of alarms and settings, making regular reviews easier.

The LogMate® suite is fully compatible with standard browsers, it easily adapts to existing processes and it offers a wide variety of control systems. It is fully scalable with your facility.

To learn more about how we can help with your food and beverage alarm management, contact us today for a free demo.