Cisco Aids Dairy Farmers of America’s Digital Transformation

Aug. 20, 2020
To optimize operations and workforce continuity in support of the nation's food supply during the pandemic and beyond, Cisco and system integration firms are installing communication technologies to accelerate the advance of milk product production.

Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) is a cooperative composed of more than 13,000 family farmers from across the United States. DFA helps its farmers operate plants to process their milk, find outlets for their products, and invest in new business opportunities. If you’re not aware of DFA, you likely know the brands they represent, which range from nationally recognized names such as Borden and Breakstone’s to specialty brands like Plugrá and La Vaquita.

The cooperative, which has adopted a number of automation advances to its production operations over the years, operates more than 85 manufacturing facilities producing milk and dairy products throughout the United States. Like any producer of goods today, DFA members have seen their operations’ safety and productivity impacted by COVID-19. In response, Cisco has donated an array of collaboration technologies to DFA to help it develop more flexible manufacturing processes, enable workforce continuity, and increase its ability to collaborate in real time.

Funded by Cisco’s Country Digital Acceleration program, which is active in 34 countries, Cisco has supplied Cisco Webex room kits, DX-80 video conferencing kits, Webex Teams and Webex Expert-on-Demand software, and RealWear HMT-1 hands-free “head-mounted tablet” devices to help DFA connect its teams across the country in multiple manufacturing facilities.

Cisco says the collaboration equipment and services it is donating will provide manufacturing workers with secure, remote access to experts and first-line support teams working from home or at other plants. Specifically, DFA will now have real-time visibility into operations through hands-free video devices, which will enable DFA’s workforce to remain productive while adhering to physical distancing guidelines. 

Carlos Rojas, global manufacturing lead for Cisco Industry Solutions Group, said the access to experts these technologies facilitate will help DFA “shift production, optimize resources, and increase resolution time as it adapts to changing demand.”

The first phase of this donation, which was completed on June 22, 2020, is being deployed to four sites across DFA’s operations, including its largest processing facility in Portales, New Mexico, which can process the most milk (roughly 69 million gallons) of any DFA plant each day. Other DFA plants included in this first phase are located in Ventura, Calif.; Zumbrota, Minn.; and Schulenburg, Texas.

The second phase is expected to be completed in August and will “focus on accelerating machine data over the secure Cisco Webex Teams platform for remote diagnostics,” said Rojas.

Team collaboration
Malisko Engineering, a St. Louis-based system integration firm, is involved in the implementation of the Cisco technologies at DFA. Automation World recently interviewed Dan Malyszko of Malisko Engineering  for an episode of the “Automation World Gets Your Questions Answered” podcast series exploring how COVID-19 is impacting industrial automation decisions and implementations. Following that interview, Malyszko explained how DFA will be using the technologies donated by Cisco to address manufacturing issues related the pandemic.

To enable real-time communication between DFA co-workers, Cisco Webex Teams technology is being used to provide workers with access documentation using Realwear HMT-1 head mounted devices for routine process evaluations, maintenance, and training. With everyone using Cisco Webex Teams, users don’t need to rely on disconnected methods such as text messaging, phone calls or emails to connect. Instead a quick Teams message in a project space allows for collaboration between the necessary resources and keeps all the related data connected and retrievable.

“For example, if a production manager notices that a line is not operating at full health, he or she can directly connect with the plant operator via Cisco Webex Teams to discuss steps to remediate the issue,” said Malyszko. “Likewise, a maintenance manager looking for status updates on a motor control center issue can be notified by field personnel with pictures, videos, or annotated files showing their progress.”

Hands-free remote expert access
The combination of a retiring skilled workforce and the social distancing and travel issues created by COVID-19 means that plant personnel will not always have the available experience on hand in every situation. Malyszko said Cisco’s Expert on Demand technology, accessed using the Realwear HMT-1, can close this experience gap by connecting workers from the plant floor to plant management or experts at other locations while allowing them to keep their hands free to work, rather than having to hold a smartphone or tablet.

By turning the augmented reality glasses in the Realwear HMT-1 into a voice-activated collaboration headset, the Webex Expert on Demand application can connect frontline workers to knowledgeable experts. Cisco says this technology allows workers to “significantly enhance their productivity through multi-party video calling, providing the ability to annotate images, and share these annotations between the expert and frontline worker, as well as share key documentation, all in real time.” 

Capabilities of the Expert on Demand technology combined with the Realwear HMT-1 include:

  • Launch two-way or multi-party video meetings hands-free and collaborate with remote experts to resolve problems at the source without requiring workers to be onsite.
  • Request and receive a call back from an individual expert or an entire team.
  • Search the company directory to find the right expert or teams to resolve an issue immediately.
  • Access resources such as documentation for common troubleshooting steps.
  • Share screens to more easily see what’s being discussed and give an expert the ability to share content live.
  • Frontline workers and experts can augment live streaming with annotations to help resolve problems faster and provide guidance for day-to-day activities.
Malyszko said these capabilities “provide a solution without the need for costly travel or trial and error. For example, if an operator notices a deviation in a critical process control point and is unsure of what to do, with a few short voice commands the operator can request help or call directly to the necessary resource to assist in resolving the issue.” 

Remote Expert technology can even be used to cross the IT (information technology) and OT (operations technology) divide. “If plant engineering and maintenance personnel are installing new hardware from corporate IT and need all hands available to rack the equipment, with guidance from either Malisko Engineering or corporate IT, they can safely and properly execute the job with the hands-free assistance of the Realwear HMT-1,” said Malyszko.

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