Digitalization is starting to play a bigger role in many industries worldwide, and the milling industry is no exception. Peter Striegl, head of business development in Bühler’s Wheat and Rye business unit, and his team are working to make mills “intelligent” through digitalization.

Experts anticipate that by 2020, 4 billion people will be digitally connected with each other, 25 million apps will be in use, a total of 25 billion sensors will be monitoring processes in productive operations and a total of 50,000 billion gigabytes of data will be stored worldwide.

Striegel recently discussed this trend and how it will apply to the milling industry with World Grain.

WG: So many aspects of our lives are now impacted by digitalization. Has the digital age reached the milling industry as well?

Striegl: Yes and no. Modern mills are mostly automated already, meaning they are centrally controlled. The majority of individual processes run autonomously. But that, in and of itself, does not yet have a lot to do with digitalization.

WG: What is digitalization as it relates to milling?

Striegl: In addition to automatic control systems, modern mills are increasingly equipped with various sensors that detect diverse specific data and report these to a central control. This is where digitalization comes into play. The stored data are transformed into signals that can be further processed. Even though many mills are equipped for the digitalization step, there still aren’t many mills that actually evaluate the data they collect and link the individual processes. We estimate that about 95% of all the data that is collected is not evaluated. After automation, digitalization is the next logical step on the way to intelligent milling. But we are still at the beginning of digitalization in the milling industry.

WG: What are the reasons for this?

Striegl: The topic of digitalization is just at its beginning; it is very complex and it is also abstract. Many millers don’t know what to think about it, or only have a limited concept of it. In addition, the benefits are not always easily recognized for individual milling operations. A survey of 17 different industries carried out by the IT company Cisco Systems found that downtime is reduced by 48% when so-called digital services are used, errors are reduced by 49% and energy consumption is reduced by 18%. At the same time, according to the survey, the efficacy of the entire plant is increased by 16%.

WG: What does this mean for milling?

Striegl: It means that by systematically using the options known to be offered by digitalization today, mill yield can be optimized and product quality significantly increased, traceability improved, energy consumption lowered and the entire plant efficiency decisively raised. Those are promising perspectives.

WG: How is digitalization supposed to create all that?

Striegl: The increased use of sensors means that all the data collected can be systematically evaluated and then the findings, which are identified, implemented.

WG: That sounds fairly straightforward and easy. Is it?

Striegl: It’s not. There is still a long way to go until we reach complete digitalization of milling. We are also anticipating that the food industry will be developing new business models in the years ahead. We want to follow that carefully.

WG: Is Bühler already on the way to doing that?

Striegl: We have been focusing on the topic for some years. But now we are moving full speed ahead. That means that we need to develop optimization options with our customers in all areas and work closely together on digital applications. We are looking at three different levels. The first level concerns the manufacturing process. The individual machines with their sensors and control systems are at this level. The second level concerns collecting, digitizing and analyzing the data from the other activities of the mill, such as logistics, quality assurance, auditing and so on in order to draw the necessary conclusions. We understand our task as making the necessary instrumentation available to the mill operators. They should be able to create transparency in order to increase the efficiency of the overall mill. At the third level we are looking at whether digitalization can give rise to new business models in the added value chain of grain processing. But that is still far in the future.

WG: What specific tools can Bühler offer today to help mills move in the direction of digitalization?

Striegl: We have launched several digital services on the market over the past few months. For instance, our compact and portable system GrainiGo, which makes a simple, fast and accurate analysis of freshly harvested maize. We are also working on an intelligent roller service that measures the temperatures and vibrations of the rollers using sensors and can determine deviances from the norm. Any below-standard situation can be promptly addressed, which in turn has a direct impact on the yield. A further example is the intelligent mill assistant myAssist, which detects irregularities in processes and machinery, indicates interruptions, monitors specific energy consumption and quality data and, as a learning algorithm, can learn to improve its predictions and accuracy for the miller. All of these digital services share something in common: They relieve customers of the monitoring work and help them optimize their mills.

WG: Are you making good progress in this area?

Striegl: Mostly, yes. The longer we work on the topic, the more we recognize new possibilities through digitalization. And we also run into obstacles, of course. One challenge, for example, is IT security. To achieve the greatest benefits from the evaluation of the data, values from all the mills and machinery should ideally be compared. In our concept, this should take place on the Bühler cloud where the Bühler customer data is merged. All Bühler customers benefit from anonymous data collection in compliance with international security standards without any trade secrets being divulged in the process. We work very closely with Microsoft as we believe they are leading the market both technically and in terms of security.

WG: What does the digital future look like for milling?

Striegl: Intelligent milling is our goal. Intelligent, because the actions determined from the collected and evaluated data are executed automatically. The intelligent mill is constantly optimizing itself and learning in addition.

WG: Is the head miller still going to be needed when mills can regulate themselves?

Striegl: Absolutely. Without the miller, who has the process knowledge, it won’t work in the future. His “feeling” will still be needed, even 20 years from now. But his daily routine will change. Digitalizing the mill will give him important index numbers and help him make the right decisions faster.