A changing digital landscape

08 March 202217 min reading

How the food industry needs to adapt

The future is digital to help the food sector face some of its most demanding challenges to date.  


Two constants have always dominated food production. Consumers want their food to be safe and of the highest possible quality. What has changed over the centuries is how this is achieved. Ultimately, the digitalization of the food industry is just the latest tool with which to achieve these goals.   

While quality and safety still underpin all aspects of food processing, today’s challenges for food producers also revolve around the highly competitive and complex nature of the industry they operate in. They face ever-changing demands around profitability, sustainability, transparency, shifting consumer demand, food waste reduction and skilled labor shortages. Digitalization enables the food industry to meet these further challenges, some of which are being driven by climate change, demographic shifts and global population growth.   

Today digitalization is shifting towards ever-increasing plant automation. It also provides digital platforms, linked to the Internet of Things, capable of hosting digital services that are informed by complex algorithms to maximize quality, safety, productivity and profitability.   

Digitalization of the food sector 

The digitalization of the food industry started with the development of cheap and sophisticated sensor technology that transformed “dumb” machinery into machines capable of imposing increasingly complex production parameters on the food production process. Next came what many have described as the fourth industrial revolution. In recent years there has been an unprecedented growth in computer processing power allied to vast data storage capacities and lightening inter connectivity. The speed at which this all started to happen has revolutionized the way industries across the world operate and the food industry was no exception. By using this new processing power to analyze the vast amounts of digital data being generated by the sensors and then connecting all this data from different sources, the digital revolution was set to transform the food industry. The challenge for food businesses, an intrinsically conservative sector that is not always as technologically developed as some other industries, is how to keep up.   


With a global reach stretching over 140 countries and over 160 years of experience in the food processing industry, Bühler is in a position to support. Bühler’s longevity means it has supported clients through the past two industrial revolutions. First through electrification and then, in the mid-20C, the combination of electrification and information technology resulting in automation. Strong client relationships born out of generations of supplying machinery to the food industry means Bühler has earned trust and is in a position to lead change and support clients through this fourth industrial revolution. 

Data analysis  

The real step change came when Bühler teamed up with the software giant Microsoft. The collaboration led to the launch of Bühler Insights, a digital platform capable of analyzing the food production data being generated through sensors, machines and automation solutions. Using sophisticated algorithms and the Internet of Things, the platform provides clients with real time analytics in the format most useful to them to maximize production quality and yield.  

Of course, Bühler is not alone in developing digital solutions for the food industry. “Designing digital solutions are not the strategic differentiator, delivering customer value derived from data science is,” explains Bühler’s Digital Officer Stuart Bashford.  

“We can maximize that value by combining our data science capability with the in-house domain knowledge and process expertise - this is where we can really derive value and benefit for clients by developing state-of-the-art digital solutions that can increase our customer’s production yield, improve their quality and cut their waste. The key point is you have to know what to do with the data.” 

Factory automation 

In addition to the real-time analysis of production parameters, automation is another key benefit of digitalization to the food industry. Which is why Bühler has developed the Mercury Manufacturing Executive System (MES), a next generation factory automation platform.  

By automating a production process, it is possible to maintain premium quality by consistently controlling the exact composition of each raw material added to a product or by monitoring sorting criteria and efficiency to ensure poor quality raw materials are stripped out and the end product is free of contamination.   

In a world where audits are a constant requirement, whether for food safety requirements or client quality controls, automation is able to monitor a process from end product to raw material, through second-by-second digital traceability, along with audit logs of each user interaction. “It is possible to access this traceability data with just three clicks,” explains Ruppert Gernot, Bühler Head of Business Development Customer Services. “In the field I have seen operators struggling with Excel spread sheets or even using paper folders lying on tables when digital automation systems are able to reduce the workload around traceability by 80 percent. In a world where the demand for audits is continually increasing, doing it manually can easily become overwhelming.”   

Digital automation also enables more accurate sampling and the ability to integrate data from different sources. An example is being able to digitally feed sales and customer orders into production parameters. 


Digitalization means being able to eliminate the variables and unknowns that impact quality and efficiency by knowing what is happening in real time at every point of your food production process. Digitally recording and analyzing production data makes it possible to see how parameters directly impact your end product. Comparisons can then be made with data sets from past production cycles to build a deeper understanding of how best to optimize outcomes with different qualities of raw materials.  


Being able to present customized data sets remotely, provides the kind of transparency that supports well informed collaborative decision making. Applying algorithms to your production cycle based on industry-wide data sets and analytics means always having the smartest operators in charge of your production process all day, every day. Companies are discovering new benefits to digitalization daily but there are some challenges currently being faced by food producers that digital solutions are ideally placed to address. These include:  

Skill shortages 

Some sectors of the food industry, such as milling, are currently experiencing severe skill shortages. It is only through years of learnt experience that a master miller will acquire the skills to improve processes and efficiency. But the industry is struggling to recruit the next generation of master millers as young employees shy away from the challenging work conditions of the traditional mill. Without digital solutions this skill shortfall is set to become a major challenge for producers. 



Anyone working in the food sector knows how competitive it is. As competition increases so profit margins are driven down requiring every aspect of the production process to be run at optimum performance. It is only through digital automation that this optimization of production standards can be achieved.     


Consumers are becoming ever-more demanding about the provenance of their food and want to know that it has been produced sustainably and to ethical standard. Demands on food producers around food safety standards are also becoming more rigorous requiring a level of auditing and traceability that is becoming difficult to achieve outside a digital framework.  

Machine integrity 

One challenge for all food producers is how to best avoid production down time caused by machine maintenance. By digitally monitoring key machine performance indicators it becomes possible to see trends in equipment effectiveness, energy consumption, down times as well an interpreting, recording and analyzing incidents that cause production losses. By building up a digital picture of machine performance it is easier to anticipate problems before they arise and schedule maintenance when it is least disruptive.          

Digitalization supports sustainability 

In October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned we have until 2030 to curb our carbon emissions or face the dire consequences of failing to limit warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. We have already increased temperatures by 1C. Food waste is responsible for around 6 percent of CO2 emissions. To put this in the context of national emissions only China (21%) and the USA (13%) emit more. 

More efficient food production is also going to be needed to feed a swelling global population set to rise to 9.8 billion from the current 7.7 billion by 2050.  The United Nations estimates we will need to produce 50 percent more food than in 2012 to feed this growth. Our food system has to become more efficient. A third of our energy resources goes into food production, a third of food goes to waste and 71 percent of our fresh water is used in the food sector. Digitalization is key to finding solutions. One example is the use of digital technology to protect grain storage in silos.   


“When you look at the whole value chain from field to fork, besides food waste during consumption most losses occur in grain storage due to improper grain handling,” 

explains Michael Härteis, Bühler Product Manager for Automation and Digitalization. 

“In emerging markets and areas with extreme environmental conditions, it is possible for 50 per cent of a batch of grain production to be lost in spoilage and if we hope to be able to feed the planet, we just cannot afford this level of food waste.” 

Digitalization means being able to drop sensors throughout the storage silo to monitor temperature and moisture in real time and make adjustment to protect the stored raw material. By recording and analyzing conditions throughout the silo it is possible to build up a precise understanding of how to optimize the quality of a stored product and so cut significant food wastage.  

Another example is the digitalization of sorting technology so that when sorters start rejecting too much material resulting in food waste, algorithms can immediately adjust performance criteria rather than waiting until the end of the sorting process  

Other areas where digitalization can support sustainability include ensuring maximum energy efficiency and reducing water wastage. Bühler sees the digitalization of the industry as key to achieving its sustainability targets of cutting energy, water and food wastage by 50 percent in customer value chains by 2025.                


Mercury Manufacturing Execution System (MES)  

Mercury MES is the platform by which producers are able to automate their production process. At the heart of the platform is the Base System able to seamlessly exchange information being generated throughout the production process, to display production parameters in real time remotely and to provide automated control of the complete plant process.     

Different modules then automatically control different aspects of production, including recipe management, maintenance, warehouse management, food safety or the data analysis.     

Mercury MES gives the producer control of the whole production process in terms of the composition of different raw materials and the ability to monitor the quality and quantity of raw materials being added at all stages. Sampling is a key part of the quality process. Mercury MES allows the seamless incorporation of sampling at all different stages and the automatic storage of historical data for both food safety and client auditing. This, both cuts the time-consuming labor of manual data collection and provides more precise and speedier laboratory analysis.   

Bühler Insights 

Bühler Insights is a flexible digital platform that provides customers with Internet of Things connectivity while connecting with a range of modular digital systems that monitor different aspects of the production process. Customized dashboards then present this real time data remotely and store all data in the cloud for further analysis and historic retrieval. By ensuring all key data can be accessed across a business in real time, customers are able to make far more informed and faster production decisions. Greater transparency also allows Bühler to help make industry-specific recommendations to improve productivity.   

Analyzing historic data means the customer can detect trends and set up benchmarks across multiple plants or production lines. Complex algorithms facilitate machine learning, predict production outcomes and provide proactive recommendations about optimizing production parameters. Bühler Insights is a dynamic platform through which clients are able to access a growing portfolio of digital services designed to increase and fine tune product quality and food safety.  

Bühler Insights and Mercury MES are both complementing each other in order to create a complete digital portfolio.


Silo Monitoring 

All food production starts with a raw material and the silo is where it is typically stored. Bühler Insights Silo Monitoring enables the food producer to see what is happening in the silo at any moment and to have that data presented in real time on Bühler Insights. Sensors attached to cables are dropped through the silo, feeding data to Bühler Insights for every storage segment.    

 By setting alerts it is possible to instantly know when, for example, the temperature is too high in any silo segment so the operator can start an aeration or cooling process. By being able to store and analyze data historically it is possible to pick up on trends and see how silo conditions change depending on variables such as climate, filling level or raw material moisture content. Thresholds can then be set, including temperature increases over time, depending on the raw material being stored.     

Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) 

OEE is designed to provide operating transparency at all levels of a company from board member to operator. It gives oversight of a whole plant or individual machines by feeding real-time data into Bühler Insights relating to machine utility compared to its usage at full capacity. Data feeds monitor availability, performance and quality across plant production lines. This data can then be distilled into a key performance indicator that gives an instant indication of machine integrity. For larger producers this high-level overview also allows managers to compare between plant efficiencies over time to see where there may be production shortfalls.   

Temperature Vibration Management Service 

Aimed specifically at the milling sector this service is able to monitor both the temperature and vibration of the roller that grinds the grains to produce flour. Too high a temperature at any point in the roller can lead to quality degradation. Algorithms also alert the operator to a potential problem and what action should be taken to address a temperature imbalance across the roller or to reduce wasteful energy consumption. Before using the Temperature & Vibration Management Service millers could easily be unaware of a significant failing taking place at the heart of their milling process.  

ISorter Monitoring System

Designed to remove defective food from product such as coffee, grains or nuts by color, texture and shape or to recognize a piece of foreign material, Bühler’s range of optical sorting solutions combine very high-quality camera and lighting technology with machine learning software. Accuracy and sorting speed are critical in the food business and Bühler machines are able to sort 30,000 to 40,000 grains a second highly accurately. In the past the efficacy of the sorting process could only be judged after the event by the purity of the end product.  

However, in recent years these sorting machines have been designed to link into digital technology platforms such as Bühler Insights and plant automation systems. Sorting data can now be collected, stored, analyzed and displayed in real time on customized dashboards. Sorter Insights is able to report on a client’s customized KPIs through Bühler Insights while the Bühler SortControl solution allows the customer to connect control all their sorters centrally. 

Continuous monitoring means early detection of operational issues or machine wear to avoid critical downtime. Alarms can be set when sorting targets are not being met or spikes in sorting performance, that in the past could lead to high rated of wastage, can be ironed out as soon as they occur. By continuously monitoring what is being ejected it is possible to quickly detect abnormal ejection patterns. Digital oversight of the sorter’s operating mode makes sure it has been properly set up to eject the right material for a specific product throughput.  Bühler digital solutions combined with our industry expertise improve efficiency, quality, and traceability enabling operators, managers and owners to improve performance and achieve higher returns on investment.  


Pasta production is a complex process involving tight controls over variables such as protein, ash and water content along with color and drying parameters. Traditionally this has been a labor-intensive process requiring strict controls and so is ideally suited to digitalization. 

Bühler PastaSense allows the producer to see in real time that the right composition is in place to achieve the desired end product. Visualized data at the digital dashboard help achieve optimum moisture content and provide insights when deviations from the drying curve are likely to result in structural defects. Again, digitalization means being able to assess historical production data to inform future pasta making processes.

Digitalization in the feed sector 

Feed mills operate in a very similar way to flour mills. Raw materials are stored and then a recipe is applied to optimize animal nutrition and the ingredients are added together to produce animal feed in pellet form. The same digital platforms exist in the feed industry with Bühler Insights providing the analytics and Mercury MES providing the automation.  

Similar to the food industry Bühler offers feed mill operators the same support through its Companion Service when transitioning into digitalization or to achieve optimum production once digitalized. 

One digital service that is generating interest is Bühler Insights Replay. This service allows the customer to record all their production data and display it visually and then replay production parameters to see exactly what happened historically. This replay function allows faster diagnosis when problems arise as well as the ability to analyze past production to optimize processes. It also provides a record of historical scale data so the producer can look back and see where there has been an overdosing or underdosing of an ingredient. Scales have to be operating at optimum efficiency to ensure the right quantity of ingredients are in the product. Overdosing of expensive ingredients will have a detrimental impact of the plant’s bottom line.  

Companion Service 

Bühler realizes that it is creating services that may be completely new for its customers, so it has created the Companion Service to make sure every business receives the right level of support while making the transition to digital solutions. Bühler also offers a service that provides Insight Reports created by an industry specialist to help customers interpret the significance of the data being provided on dashboards. These reports can be produced monthly and are used as the basis for person-to-person support either through a site visit or virtually.


Cheaply available sensor technology along with ever-increasing processing power, data storage and communication capacity have facilitated a fourth industrial revolution. Like other industries, the food sector is having to adapt to a changing technological landscape and Bühler, with its years of industry experience, is on hand to help guide the transition. 

Commercial pressures along with challenges around climate change require consistent control and exact composition of materials to maintain profit margins and cut food waste. Machine automation, data harvesting from the Internet of Things and specific digital solutions are all key to helping address food industry challenges around skill shortages, profitability, traceability, machine integrity and sustainability.  

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