Digital transformation has impacted every industry, and the food and beverage industry is no exception. Yet, while technology can deliver some astonishing benefits to the industry, many food companies have been slow to seek change. Inside most facilities, it’s still common to see clipboards and binders, and where technology is being used, it’s often in the form of siloed programs and systems which can’t effectively communicate with each other. While this is unfortunate, it means there is a vast area of opportunity for food and beverage companies to embrace the Digital Age and use data to start improving safety, performance, and profits. The catch is that most business leaders aren’t sure where to start. We’re here to help. We’ll break digital transformation down into manageable steps, so companies of any size can start leveraging their data. In the coming pages, we’ll cover:

  • What digital transformation means for food and beverage companies today
  • The divide between the promise and reality of digital transformation
  • How to start collecting the data your company really needs
  • Strategies for integrating systems and getting data to the right people
  • Ways to make your technology more efficient
  • How to leverage the cloud to maximize your digital transformation further


First, let’s look at how modern businesses are approaching digital transformation today.

6 Steps to Transforming Your Food Facility with Technology


What Is Digital Transformation in Manufacturing?

According to ARC Advisory Group, digital transformation is:

“The transformation of industrial products, operations, value chains, and aftermarket services that are enabled through the augmentation of people and knowledge through the expanded use of sensors, data, and analytics.”

Simply put, digital transformation allows organizations to leverage vast amounts of data generated across operations by turning it into understandable and actionable information. For instance, most food manufacturing facilities have thousands of sensors and are therefore producing hundreds of thousands of data points regularly. To make the most of that data, organizations must be able to turn it into actionable insights quickly and store it efficiently over time. Digitalization technologies facilitate the ability of an organization to transform its operations. 

In addition to digital transformation, there are two other similar but distinct terms that are critical to understand:

  • Digitization: Digitization is the process of converting a non-digital, physical item into a digital representation.
  • Digitalization: Digitalization is the act of facilitating processes using digitized information and digital technology.


How Is Digitization Transforming the Manufacturing Industry?

Converting a non-digital item into a digital representation is as straightforward as moving from mail to email or binder documents and spreadsheets into Google docs and Excel files. When carried out across a broad scale, digitization can significantly affect overall operations. Digitization is the catalyst that puts an organization on the road to effective digital transformation. Digitization can have far-reaching effects, including:

  • Accelerated manufacturing: Digitization is directly linked to enhanced productivity. In a time of unprecedented competition on a global scale, significantly improved productivity is enough of a driving force for many organizations to attempt digitization. The key is to apply the process methodically.
  • Unified processes: Many organizations find out how differently their various plants are operating when they begin the digitization process. Not only does digitization help organizations align their own facilities, but it can also help organizations share data within the industry and across borders.
  • Innovation through iteration: Not only will digitization speed up the manufacturing process, but it will also drive organizations to achieve faster solutions more efficiently through better and more accurate data sharing.
  • Closing the loop: Data collection and interpretation can happen on a much larger scale with digitization. This process is a significant step organizations can take toward closing the loop of continuous refinement, including the ability to change, redirect, or alter a process automatically. 


What Are the 3 Key Elements of Digital Transformation?

While the details of digital transformation look different in each industry or sub-industry, three overarching themes drive digital transformation for most organizations:

  1. Effective collaboration: Digital transformation can highlight the most significant resource within an organization—its employees. New technologies are making it easier than ever before for employees to contribute critical knowledge and skills and facilitate more effective and efficient teamwork.
  2. Better communication: In a time when people are more connected than ever, it is a missed opportunity not to leverage those connections for better communication. Maintaining a multichannel approach can ensure that every employee has a way to communicate ideas and concerns, whether via email, by phone, through an app, or in person.
  3. Increased flexibility: As global markets become increasingly competitive, the ability to pivot and move quickly is critical to supporting a thriving organization. Integrating remote office tools and mobile and cloud technologies can support a far more dynamic workforce.


What Are the 4 Main Areas of Digital Transformation?

While digital transformation has already made a significant impact across the food industry, many businesses still struggle to realize its full potential. Sometimes digital transformation is also referred to as:

  • Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT),
  • Industry 4.0, or
  • Industry X.0


Often, as business leaders approach digital transformation, there are two main questions:

  • How long is it going to take to transform?
  • How will we cope with the disruption?


While there is no set answer to either of these questions, exploring some statistics may provide some insight. For instance:

  • 84% of business leaders expect the IIoT to disrupt their operating models within the next five years.
  • Yet, just 7% of these leaders have a comprehensive IIoT strategy.


More concerningly, 73% of these leaders admit to having no IIoT strategy at all. Clearly, there’s a problem here. Many business leaders aren’t sure how to get started, primarily due to the disconnect between the promise and the reality of digital transformation.

Whether due to fear of change, intransigence, or complacency, many organizations find themselves paralyzed in the face of what appears to be a monumental change. As Desmond Tutu famously said, “There is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.” By focusing on specific areas, organizations can create effective change and integrate digital transformation as part of continuous improvement. The four main areas of digital transformation are:

  • At the organizational level: Jumping headfirst into digital transformation without a plan or process in place could leave the organization floundering. Prepare for change by creating a roadmap. It’s common for people to craft SMART goals at the personal level, but the same tenets can also apply at the organizational level. The continuous improvement cycle can provide a framework for developing the path forward with a methodological approach.
  • In the digitization of the data: Recall that digitization is the process of converting a non-digital, physical item into a digital representation. Many organizations have already dipped into this area, often without stopping to create a roadmap first. Once the plan is in place, the organization is in a better position to systematically digitize the data in a more uniform fashion. This step sets the organization up for introducing automation and can also greatly enhance process transparency.
  • In the integration of the technology: This area includes integrating cloud technology, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI). Once an organization has begun tackling digitization, that data can go to work and deliver time-saving and cost-effective automation and data-informed insights. 
  • In process transformation: While the concept of process transformation may not be new, it’s crucial to understand the importance of the data in ensuring a process transformation is successful. After digitizing the data and integrating the technology, an organization is set up to execute a much more satisfactory process transformation that targets specific areas and perpetuates the continuous improvement cycle.

IIoT pie chart manufacturing digital transformation


The Promise vs. The Reality of Digital Transformation

Many at the enterprise level believe a top-down approach should drive digital transformation. Often management thinks that modern tools like advanced applications, machine learning, and analytics can help the organization access all of the data from the plant floor that is necessary to support better decision-making. However, while it’s true that digital transformation can indeed achieve the dream of providing greater visibility into the operational data, the reality is that a top-down approach limits the ability of an organization to implement technologies efficiently. 

Instead, the transformation has to begin at the operational level. While cloud platforms can deliver a great deal of functionality and value, it is important to ensure the organization is sourcing the operational data needed to support better decision-making and then connecting it to the infrastructure. This process starts with an in-depth look at the plant floor and any data-collection devices currently in place. Organizations may still collect data manually in binders and on clipboards, have some digitized data collection in limited areas, or focus on limited collection sets. Both of these scenarios can easily result in incomplete or incorrect data. If the data isn’t complete, the organization must determine how to access it.

Of course, accessing operational data isn’t without its challenges. The operational infrastructure consists of:

  • Protocols
  • Physical communications (RS-232, RS-485, RS-422, TTL, Ethernet)
  • Infrastructure topology (VSAT, radio, cellular, etc.)
  • Proprietary mixes of SCADA/DCS/MES/OEE
  • Legacy device knowledge
  • Data formats
  • Security

An effective digital transformation plan must work with the infrastructure of the organization. It also requires a migration strategy that implements the digital transformation and meets all operational technology (OT) requirements.


What Is an Example of Digital Transformation?

Let’s take a look at one example of how digital transformation could play out. If an organization’s operators manually track machine downtime, the organization could benefit from tracking this information through a centralized system. Using technology to track this data solves several challenges. For instance, an operator might not be present at the exact moment when a machine goes down. It’s common for operators to estimate the machine malfunction time and round up or down the duration of the downtime. However, this approach compromises the accuracy—and the integrity of all data reliant on this metric. Plus, even experienced and well-meaning operators can also make mistakes or miss events.

Because minimizing downtime holds significant potential for increasing production and profits, equipping machines with sensors that accurately track downtime is a simple but powerful way to improve performance. Sensors can send insights into a centralized system and automatically record them into a database. Insights into machine downtime can provide the visibility needed to identify issues with increased accuracy, which can then support decisions that help to reduce downtime and make a plant more profitable.

Simply collecting data isn’t the only piece of the digital transformation puzzle. Many different teams must be able to access this data with ease.


What Are the 6 Steps to Digital Transformation?

Once an organization understands the concepts and motivations behind digital transformation, the next move is to develop actionable steps to move beyond fear and into true transformation. While it’s essential to have a clear and detailed strategy, organizations eventually have to move on to the practical steps that will lead to plan execution. A few key questions to ask are:

  • What are the objectives or target outcomes?
  • What technologies are best suited to the organization? To the industry?
  • Which technologies are most adaptable to rapid change or innovation?
  • Is there a commitment to making digital transformation an integral part of workplace culture?


Once everyone is on the same page, it’s time to roll up the sleeves and get to the more practical work of digital transformation, utilizing the following steps:


Step 1: Adding Sensors or PLCs

In a 2019 survey, 72% of respondents admitted that their organizations did not have a culture centered and supportive of data collection. An organization may already have the data collection sources needed to provide critical insights into its operations. Still, it may not be mindful of other areas of opportunity for adding new sensors or devices to start acquiring data in digital form. For instance, if there are places in company operations where the operators are writing information down and then manually entering it into systems, these present opportunities to leverage IoT devices or programmable logic controllers (PLCs). Many of these devices are low-cost and can pay for themselves very quickly.


Overlaying Sensors

Companies like Advantech offer IoT devices that can provide small, hockey puck-sized sensors that can easily connect to digital or analog I/O. For instance, a facility might use these devices to measure temperature, humidity, or vibration. They have magnets, and technicians can install the devices directly on the equipment. These devices require neither Ethernet nor power and provide a cost-effective way to overlay data. They collect the information and communicate it back to a central hub, allowing teams to quickly bring data into the relevant applications. If an organization chooses to implement overlaying sensors, it should be sure to select the type that supports open protocols. Otherwise, companies can get locked into specific products that don’t allow them to leverage the data across all applications.



Like IoT devices, many programmable logic controllers (PLCs) can connect to analog and digital input and output (I/O). PLCs can also be programmed using modern languages to increase safety and automate specific actions. For example, a team can set up PLCs to automatically turn a machine on or off or slow or speed up a line based on environmental factors. If the operators perform many tasks manually, using PLCs is an excellent way to add automation to the plant floor. Of course, once you’re confident you’re collecting the correct data, you’ll need to make it available through a centralized system.


Step 2: Collecting Data through a Centralized System

Digitization provides central visibility, storage, alarms, key performance indicators (KPIs), and more. But to deliver the most significant level of benefit, an organization must aggregate data from many different sources, including:

  • PLCs/IoT devices
  • Databases
  • Third-party systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), maintenance management, and laboratory information management system (LIMS)
  • Operators (mobile devices, clipboards, and whiteboards)

Ideally, a centralized system has the ability to connect to all of these sources. This capability will allow for the seamless transfer of data. Again, this is where the importance of choosing nonproprietary tools comes in: if the systems can share information, it opens up greater visibility across the facility.

centralized system diagram - manufacturing digital transformation


Step 3: Getting Data to People

The people on the floor are an essential asset to your operations, and the more data they have and understand, the better they can make decisions. Thus, the visibility and clarity of the data are vital. Think beyond operations when thinking about who will need access to the facility’s data. Maintenance staff, executives, and even external vendors may also need to access data.

Nowadays, an organization can leverage many modern technologies and devices to provide key parties with access to data. For example, PCs, touch panels, TVs, phones, and tablets all make data accessible from virtually anywhere. The more the company can start leveraging the value of the data by making it available in as many places as possible, the more it can begin raising the return on investment (ROI) of digital transformation.

It’s important to think about how a workforce will access data. New generations of employees expect to be able to use mobile devices and tablets, so choosing technology that supports mobile use will be essential to staying competitive. It’s now easier than ever for food companies to find a single application that’s mobile-responsive and optimized for the device chosen by the organization to deliver access. 


Phone technology has also come quite a long way in recent years. Built-in GPS can automatically bring up a person’s location in a facility, allowing them to access relevant data for that key area. Employees can also use phones to take pictures and log them for remote troubleshooting. Some facilities are even using phone-operated barcode systems so operators can quickly pull up relevant information for key stations across the floor, such as procedures, manuals, and videos.

Of course, when thinking about making data more accessible, it is crucial to consider security. Organizations can and should leverage measures such as two-step verification or multi-factor authentication to help safeguard the company’s sensitive data.

Once an organization is collecting the correct data, connecting it through a centralized system, and making it available to the right people, the next step is to integrate its systems.


Step 4: Integrating Systems

When it comes to food and beverage technology, one application simply does not fit all requirements. Most facilities need different solutions for enterprise resource planning (ERP), maintenance, accounting, inventory, HR, food safety, quality, and supplier compliance, among other functions. Typically, these platforms aren’t connected, but bringing them together can provide context and add value.

Suppose an organization is currently using disparate systems or performing manual data entry between different platforms. In that case, it might be time to think about how it could leverage open-standard protocols and interfaces that allow systems to integrate with one another. For example, connecting data from the plant floor to the ERP system can give decision-makers the insights they need to better evaluate what the organization is producing and what it should change. Likewise, giving maintenance managers access to plant floor data can allow for better planning and increased uptime. The facility could even automate the generation of maintenance tickets for a machine after a certain number of strokes. With this level of connectedness, operators can see when the next scheduled maintenance will be so they can plan accordingly.

These are just a few examples to consider. Organizations can achieve communication between functions at every level of the facility to promote smoother and more efficient operations overall.

To truly navigate growing volumes of data effectively, however, it is essential to use message-oriented middleware, which we’ll cover next.


Step 5: Using Message-Oriented Middleware

Business today demands more data than ever, and that proliferation of data calls for open architecture. In many cases, data becomes concentrated into silos, and breaking down those silos can unlock greater access, thereby yielding more considerable value.

Traditionally, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems are connected to specific devices, along with ERP systems, mobile apps, and other platforms. After connecting with so many sources, the SCADA system becomes brittle. When pulling data in from all systems, decoupling the devices using MQTT is essential. 


What Is MQTT?

MQTT collects data from all of a facility’s sources (including legacy devices), brings it all together, then pushes it into infrastructure without affecting other systems. This new architecture allows organizations to publish data from:

  • Gateways
  • Sensors
  • Applications
  • RTUs and PLCs
  • Remote I/O

Plus, it’s fully scalable, meaning MQTT can support any features or applications added in the future.


Our final section will discuss how you can leverage the cloud to complete your digital transformation.


Step 6: Leveraging the Cloud

A truly successful digital transformation consists of leveraging modern cloud systems. Cloud systems are scalable and especially well-suited for the long-term storage of data. Because businesses are only generating more and more data each day, storing it remotely, safely, where it can still be accessed with ease is essential.

Many data warehouses are available today, with Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS) being two of the most popular options businesses utilize. Ultimately, these types of systems allow organizations to leverage:

  • Machine learning
  • Analytics
  • Business intelligence
  • Data lakes and deep storage


Organizations can use all of these technologies with less local infrastructure and far better security and redundancy than most companies could provide on their own and easy maintenance. Because they’re scalable, data warehouses also grow with the business. A single facility can collect a vast amount of data, and if an organization is operating multiple or even hundreds of facilities, managing the data can become a colossal chore. Cloud computing in digital transformation can simultaneously handle enormous data resources while also offering critical support to AI and other operational support systems.

Once an organization has matured through each step of the digital transformation process, the key is to continue the cycle by going back to step one and progressing through again, using the improved data as a guide. With each cycle, the idea is that the process becomes more efficient and effective.


The Only Constant Is Change

One relevant quote, often attributed to Winston Churchill, states that “To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often.” It can be easy to become settled in “the way we’ve always done things around here,” but the truth is that digital transformation is simply a new take on an old technique. It’s a method of adapting for the future, which marches on whether an organization wishes to change or not. As technology races ahead, companies must choose how they will navigate the rapidly evolving market. Digital transformation offers a path to greater adaptability and responsiveness for organizations open to growing into the future.


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