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Digitalization in milling: A sustainable path to enhanced efficiency and performance

09 July 20246 min reading

Fabien Varagnac
Independent Milling Sector Consultant

Digitalization and AI offer transformative potential for the milling industry, promising enhanced efficiency, optimisation of raw material usage, and greater innovation. By embracing these technologies, millers can stay competitive, meet market demands more effectively, and contribute to global food security. The journey towards full digitalization is complex but essential, and those who undertake it will lead the industry into a more sustainable and prosperous future.

Digitalization is no longer a choice but a necessity for managing milling operations effectively and sustainably. Despite advances in integrating data management into milling processes, our industry still lags in fully embracing digitalization. Traditional, empirical methods dominate, particularly in generating deeper insights into the quality of wheat, gristing, and flour. For millers to achieve optimal efficiency and sustainability, it is crucial to adopt a more holistic approach, leveraging the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to connect all aspects of the milling process.

CURRENT STATE OF DIGITALIZATION IN MILLING

Milling equipment manufacturers have made significant strides by incorporating more sensors throughout the process, creating advanced dashboards and control panels to manage production indicators and maintenance parameters accurately. These innovations mark an essential step towards improving the industry’s efficiency and sustainability. Given the low-margin, high-volume nature of milling, every fraction of a percentage in yield, every kilowatt-hour, and every cent matters. To maximize the potential of their equipment, raw materials, and market opportunities, millers must adopt a comprehensive approach to the entire process.

AI: THE CATALYST FOR HOLISTIC AND SUSTAINABLE PROCESS MANAGEMENT

Artificial intelligence presents a promising opportunity to revolutionize milling by enabling a holistic, interconnected, and sustainable approach. AI can bridge the gaps between procurement, production, and quality departments, which often operate in silos with conflicting key performance indicators (KPIs). For instance, production might prioritize milling yield, procurement might focus on reducing raw material costs, and quality might aim for higher wheat grades to minimize customer complaints. AI can help millers weigh these interconnected indicators, helping management make informed decisions by balancing all factors and highlighting what solution really works as a whole for the company, thereby enhancing overall performance and supporting a more sustainable development of the company.

CHALLENGES IN IMPLEMENTING AI

Before AI can be effectively utilized, the industry must first achieve robust big data integration. This involves digitalizing all data into a centralized database, ensuring consistent language and input formats. High-quality data is paramount; as the adage goes, “your model is only as good as your data.” While production parameters are objective and increasingly easier to measure with connected equipment and IoT, evaluating wheat and flour parameters, especially baking performance, remains challenging. Standardizing and controlling these evaluations is crucial for long-term development, as the ultimate goal is to produce flour that meets consumer expectations for final products. Consumers might be looking for crispy or fluffy bread, for instance, without caring about the starch damage level or the gluten index of the flour. 


THE COMPETITIVE EDGE OF EARLY ADOPTION

Early adopters of comprehensive digitalization and AI integration will gain a significant competitive advantage. These forward-thinking millers will be able to improve and manage their efficiency but also foster innovation, responding more agilely to market demands, whether in term of product or in term of regulation. Moreover, the adoption of these technologies will lead to more sustainable practices, reducing waste and optimizing resource use, which will be key in keeping millers’ businesses relevant in the future.

THE FUTURE OF MILLING

Looking ahead, the milling industry may not undergo massive technological leaps but will continue to improve incrementally. The future mill will likely be a highly connected ecosystem, utilizing weather forecasts and other external data to optimize production and resource use. This connectivity will reduce waste, lower costs, and make flour more affordable on a larger scale, reinforcing the miller’s role in global food supply. Moreover, it will free up resources currently spent on routine quality and process adjustments, unlocking greater potential for innovation and sustainability.

NAVIGATING THE PATH FORWARD

To harness the full potential of digitalization and AI, the industry must address significant challenges. Staff must be trained to adapt to new technologies, developing a systematic approach to their expertise. Resistance to change is considerable, requiring comprehensive involvement and understanding from all employees to facilitate the adoption of new systems. As mills become more automated, the need for skilled technical staff will rise. Employees must understand their expertise deeply and communicate effectively with data scientists and engineers, guiding AI systems to ensure they align with industry operations.

Millers must also maintain control over AI, avoiding blind spots and regularly verifying the accuracy and efficiency of their models.

CONCLUSION

Digitalization and AI offer transformative potential for the milling industry, promising enhanced efficiency, optimisation of raw material usage, and greater innovation. By embracing these technologies, millers can stay competitive, meet market demands more effectively, and contribute to global food security. The journey towards full digitalization is complex but essential, and those who undertake it will lead the industry into a more sustainable and prosperous future. Integrating sustainability into every aspect of milling operations will not only improve performance but also ensure the long-term viability of the industry and its role in feeding the world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Fabien Varagnac, an independent milling sector consultant, offers comprehensive consultancy and support to the industry, covering wheat sourcing strategy, investment and operational strategy, R&D, and innovation management. 

With a background rooted in wheat and cereal farming in France, Fabien holds a degree from the French Milling School and vocational training as a baker. Starting his career at Mühlenchemie, a leading supplier to the flour milling industry, Fabien progressed from R&D Baker to Area Sales Manager, overseeing significant business growth before concluding his 15-year tenure at Mühlenchemie as Head of Strategic Development.

This last role allowed him to use his full range of skills and knowledge to develop new services to add value to millers around the world, mainly through deeper insights into the wheat market, new market development and digital solutions, among others.

With over 20 years of experience, he brings a holistic approach and extensive industry knowledge to benefit the wheat, flour and bread sectors.

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