Over the space of 150 years, a butcher’s in Basel has grown into an international food company, with the Bell Food Group now employing more than 12,000 people in 15 countries. Markus Ettlin, Head of Industry 4.0/Automation at the Bell Food Group, provides an update on the company’s current Industry 4.0 projects, the limits of automation, and innovations in the food sector.
BaselArea.swiss: When will robots start making sausages?
Markus Ettlin: An extremely large amount of handcraft, experience and skill goes into making a sausage. At the moment, it would be virtually impossible to have the work done by a machine – that is not our goal either. For us, it’s a balancing act to find the sweet spot between tradition and innovation. When it comes to sausages, tradition and handcraft are extremely important. Robots will not be making sausages in the foreseeable future.
Is this because there is no demand for it?
I believe that our customers want a handmade product and not fully industrialised sausages. A sausage is a natural product with natural characteristics that must be satisfied. A great deal of experience is also required. Whether it’s sausages or ham, production requires a great deal of experience and all of our senses. We are, however, in the process of automating certain sub-processes. We want to combine handcraft and automation.
Which areas are suitable for automation?
We need to distinguish between the handcraft sector and convenience products. Great importance is attached to handcraft in the production of sausages and ham. In the Convenience sector, where products have to be more uniform, the progress made with automation is at a much more advanced stage. For example, the production of hamburger patties and chicken nuggets is highly automated, as they are shaped by machines. We have successfully introduced automation technologies in the Logistics division as well as for repetitive work and physically demanding jobs.
Where do you see the greatest potential?
The degree of automation used in handling and packing tasks is higher than in other areas, but even here human staff are needed. We see great potential in the data and information that is generated on a daily basis. We want to learn from this data and improve ourselves. Let’s look at the cooking process, for example, where data such as temperature is measured. Here, we have target parameters, we have actual parameters, and at the end we have a result. Although the employees check the temperature, they cannot keep track of all of the parameters, the different values and the complex relationships. By analysing this data, we can safeguard and even improve the quality of the cooking process – and thus also the quality of the product. This data analysis also helps us to increase energy efficiency and make optimal use of system capacities.
On which transformations and in which areas is Bell focussing?
On the one hand, we should be able to trace the journey of the product; on the other hand, we should be able to understand why certain steps have been taken in the manufacturing process and what effects these steps have on the finished product. The main areas of focus here are thus standards and standardisation. We want to use standardised technology, transform automated processes and ensure transparency.
Which sectors are particularly interesting as a source of ideas for standardised technologies?
The meat processing specialist area is a leader in this regard. In my area, I am interested more in which technologies can be used for unconventional purposes. For example, if there are procedures and methodologies used in the pharma industry that could also work in the food industry. The pharma industry is able to handle large volumes of data, which is an extremely exciting prospect for my division. The automotive industry, for its part, has made great progress with automated processes. Car manufacturers frequently have to roll our large production runs. Within an individual production run, however, sometimes the steering wheel has to be installed on the left of the chassis, and sometimes on the right. These are topics we have to deal with as well, since we also have products that come in different forms – sometimes lighter, sometimes heavier, some in small packaging and others in large packaging. We like to draw inspiration from other industries.
What is being implemented?
We are building a huge state-of-the-art cold store with an extremely high level of automation. The aim is for logistics to be as fully automated as possible, for employees to spend as little time as possible in the cold store area, and to provide highly automated support processes. All of the systems and processes will generate data and information that we want to analyse in order to implement improvements, carry out maintenance work and raise efficiency. In all areas, the collection of data is an opportunity for us to improve and safeguard our quality levels.
What challenges does the upcoming transformation pose for Bell?
For us, Industry 4.0 is strongly linked to the production environment. Digitisation is a huge step for our employees. We want everyone to be involved and show them that new technologies are there to support them in their work. I also perceive a challenge in the fact that everything is increasing in complexity, that everything is interlinked. This is not always easy to understand. As a result, we also need to build up knowledge and generally raise awareness of Industry 4.0 issues. We additionally need to develop an understanding of where we're going to start with the implementation and how we're going to establish a meaningful roadmap.
Bell is taking part in our Industry 4.0 Challenge. What have you been able to learn from this so far?
I’ve come to know BaselArea.swiss from various events, where we’ve always made interesting contacts. In terms of the Industry 4.0 Challenge, I can easily see which ideas are represented on the market and how others see the world. In the case of large corporations, it’s often not quite as transparent how they’ve come up with their great solutions. Start-ups can quickly present a proof of concept, so I can imagine what it involves and what it would mean for me. This is, in my opinion, extremely exciting. Our division is also in contact with the companies that attended the last Industry 4.0 Challenge. Although we are more on the lookout for standardised tools, start-ups often bridge the gap between a major standard and the real world.
What kind of innovations can we expect to see in the food sector in the near future?
Meat that can be produced without having to kill any animals – the hamburgers produced by Mosa Meat are cultured from cells. Bell holds a stake in the Dutch company, which is currently working on making its concept ready for market.