Fonterra builds workarounds for 'lights out' processing

Efficient milk processing strains copper network's 2Mbit/s ceiling

Dairy giant Fonterra has a huge appetite for network bandwidth to operate its milk processing plants, which are becoming fully robotic, lights-out facilities requiring 24-hour video-monitoring.

And, in the context of New Zealand’s broadband infrastructure, that is proving a challenge.

There’s also the constant stream of accounting and other information that requires a constant data speed. This too, is challenging what Fonterra CTO Andrew Wilshire describes as our “frail or constrained connectivity”, which has a ceiling of around 2Mbit/s.

Wilshire says Fonterra’s operations could easily use a 10-to-100Mbit/s pipe. To work around these network capacity limitations, it has devised a bespoke technical solution.

This has involved decentralising its manufacturing control systems, as well as building-in data redundancy, so it’s not dependent on WAN links.

“Instead of one central server, we have servers located at each site, because WAN links are unreliable and we don’t have enough bandwidth to supply real-time logic,” says Wilshire.

When it comes to the end result of dairy farm labour, it’s farmer-owned Fonterra that turns most of the nation’s milk into milk powder, and is responsible for 95% of dairy exports. The 2006-2007 season saw 1.32 billion kg of milk solids transformed into $10.5 billion, according to Dairy NZ.

But the dairy giant has to retain something of an old-school No.8 fencing wire attitude when it comes to telecomms.

The company’s systems-distribution method works well but also limits flexibility, Wilshire says.

That system is supplemented by the use of WAN optimisation technology, with mixed results so far. Although optimisation has proved a rocky road, Fonterra recently began piloting a second-generation product from Riverbed of which it has high hopes, Wilshire says.

“It’s an amazing tool. It de-duplicates data as it comes down the pipe, so the load on the network is a lot less. This is in order to mitigate the 2Mbit/s ceiling. But what business wants — and manufacturing needs — is fibre-to-the-plant, and that is what’s driving the use of video, especially when you look at automation,” he says.

“If we create a lights-out environment, like a lights-out packaging plant, we need to be able to monitor it [and] have eyes on glass at some point, but video is notoriously difficult to optimise, to compress.

“Video is not gracious when you have latency problems.”

While technologies like MPEG and other codex being developed do a great job, there is lot more Fonterra could do if it were not for bandwidth limitations, says Wilshire.

“In order for us to further automate, and continue to drive productivity in the rural sector, we literally need more bandwidth.”

This brings us to the need for a nationwide fibre-optic network of the kind TUANZ is lobbying for. Wilshire is amused by TUANZ chief executive Ernie Newman’s pragmatic idea of getting farmers to string fibre from telephone poles.

This “Layer 0”, as it’s dubbed, is recognised as being the biggest cost of installing fibre nationwide. However, Wilshire doesn’t have any particular technology preference. With a background as a South Canterbury sheep farmer, he’s more focused on what gets the job done.

As a final note, Wilshire says rural NZ has other needs that must be met if we’re going to keep people happy on the farm. He says social networking combined with more bandwidth could help meet the rural community’s needs.

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