Interview
“In the future, we will be able to locate the interfaces between IT and production devices anywhere.”

Interview with Dr. Tobias Voigt, co-founder of the Weihenstephaner Standards at the Department for Food Packaging Technology at the Technical University in Munich.

Market demands are becoming more specialized, requiring increasing flexibility from companies in the processing industry. To be able to react to the market, production must be quickly convertible, and in the best case is controlled by manufacturer-independent systems. In addition, the relevant data must be constantly available in order to be evaluated and used in a targeted way. Dr. Tobias Voigt explained in an interview with us how uniform standards help to structure processes and communication, and which challenges need to be mastered.

Herr Dr. Voigt, adaptable production is an important topic, particularly in the processing industry. How does this look, specifically in the area of food production and packaging?

Industrial food production and packaging occurs in large amounts and uses high performance systems. However, the variety of items has expanded greatly in the last few years, and continues to do so even more rapidly. This requires smaller batch sizes and higher levels of flexibility at packaging systems. To be able to continue to economically produce despite the increase in the necessary conversions and retrofitting processes, automation and networking of various departments and subsystems are increasingly required.

What exactly is covered by the Weihenstephaner Standards?

The Weihenstephaner Standards specify communication between food production and packaging machines and higher level IT systems. If a food producer or packer wants to comprehensively monitor production, the production devices must provide the data relevant for this. In addition, the machines and production IT must speak the same language. Therefore, the Weihenstephaner Standards precisely define the data, in content and format, that machines must provide for efficiency monitoring to ensure quality assurance or internal traceability. They also define how the communication should be carried out technically, and how the data can be evaluated.

» If a food producer or packer wants to comprehensively monitor production, the production devices must provide the data relevant for this. «

Dr. Tobias Voigt, Technical University in Munich

The Weihenstephaner Standards originated from a research project more than 15 years ago. Can you explain the developments since then?

They were quickly adopted in the beverage filling and also in the food packaging sectors. We have continued to develop the standards based on feedback from industry. In the meat industry (WS Food), the resonance was more measured, because very few networks are involved here, or they function only in proprietary islands. The next few years will show us how WS Bake develops. The first new system projects incorporating the specifications from WS Bake are already in design. New challenges have developed from batch production in breweries and from cybersecurity. As a start, we initiated the WS Brew project at the beginning of this year. In the “WS goes OPC UA” initiative, we define precisely how WS data can be transmitted more securely using the increasingly established OPC UA standard as opposed to the encrypted WS protocol.

Are the Weihenstephaner Standards limited exclusively to Germany or is international implementation also relevant for you?

It is quite clear that we have always thought internationally with regard to the Weihenstephaner Standards. Specifications limited to Germany could never be considered “Standard”, and they have already been incorporated by international food and beverage companies, as well as many of the equipment manufacturers serving the global market. In the packaging sector, we are also working with the OMAC Packaging Workgroup, which primarily affects the US. Our standard language for documents and definitions is English. And, precisely to make the use and incorporation as easy as possible for German mid-sized companies, the Weihenstephaner Standards will always be published in German.

The Weihenstephaner Standards have, up until now, been primarily used in the food and beverage industry. They have been differentiated over time into systems like WS Bake, WS Food, and WS Pack. What are the differences?

In the protocol (WS protocol) and the principle approach, there are no distinctions. The diversification occurred specifically for the evaluation and MES function descriptions necessary for respective applications and the data points defined for this. For example, WS Pack specifically includes data profiles for beverage filling machines, while WS Food includes those for vacuum filling machines. However, they intersect with regard to foundational data (e.g., machine states or production counters).

» Food operations are under high cost pressures and must function efficiently, sustainably, flexibly, and with almost no losses. «

Dr. Andreas Voigt, Technical University in Munich

What specific advantages did, e.g., the food industry, gain from the Weihenstephaner Standards?

Food operations are under high cost pressures and must function efficiently, sustainably, flexibly, and with almost no losses. To achieve this, they track their products precisely during production. They have incorporated extended IT systems with interfaces for production for this purpose. If these interfaces have to be individually adjusted to the different ‘languages’ and contents of the machines and systems from different manufacturers, then this networking would be complex and expensive. However, if the meat processing operation specifies maintenance of the Weihenstephaner Standards during design of new production systems, the availability of relevant data is ensured, the individual cost of interface programming is reduced, and this saves a substantial proportion of system implementation costs.

Would it be theoretically possible to open the Weihenstephaner Standards for other industries, or do they only apply to the food sector?

That is possible. We know that shoe polish and face cream packaging firms and also pharmaceutical companies have aligned themselves with the Weihenstephaner Standards. The foundational data profiles can be used by them just as well. However, this would require addition supplementation which is project specific.

Is there a specific level of automation that a production must achieve in order to be able to implement the Weihenstephaner Standards?

Theoretically, all Weihenstephaner data could be recorded via a handheld input terminal and converted manually to IT specifications. However, the Standards were not developed for this. Application is really only logical if automated production devices are linked and most of the data is exchanged online.

» It is quite clear that we have always thought internationally with regard to the Weihenstephaner Standards. «

Dr. Andreas Voigt, Technical University in Munich

The advantages of standardization are often emphasized. Be honest: are there disadvantages?

The use of standards always includes disadvantages. There are compromises, which in the case of the Weihenstephaner Standards were ‘negotiated’ with many industrial partners. Therefore, they can never completely fulfill any individual's desires. If you have enough time and money available for a specific project, you would certainly find better solutions in this individual case for integrating production systems into an IT system landscape. In addition, competing vendors are often not enthused about standards. Many companies also earn money with company-specific solutions during IT integration in the food branch, and simultaneously tie their customers to them. For them, a manufacturer neutral standard is disadvantageous, at least in the short term.

What further developments can you imagine for the Weihenstephaner Standards – in particular in respect to Industry 4.0?

As stated, we are already working on an alternative to the current WS protocol on the basis of WS OPC UA with respect to the increasing networking via the ‘open’ Internet and possible IT system applications in the cloud. In addition to IT security mechanisms (encryption, authorization protection, etc.), we are focusing less on the classic automation pyramid for future information models and communication architectures. In the future, we will be able to locate the interfaces between IT and production devices anywhere, e.g., in sensor electronics, a PLC, an IPC, a control system, or a mobile operating device. Uniform interface definitions and, most importantly, identical semantics for data contents, are gaining increasing importance. It will therefore make sense to continue to develop the Weihenstephaner Standards as IoT interfaces for the food industry. The RoboFill research project is the beginning of multi-agent based, and thus completely visualized, control of a product directed beverage filling process.

Dr. Voigt, thank you for the interview.

Personal Information

Dr.-Ing. Tobias Voigt studies Brewing and Beverage Technology at the Technical University of Munich, and holds a professorial chair specializing in brewery systems and food packaging technology. He subsequently established a research group related to his successor chair for food packaging technology, which studies filling and packaging technologies, sustainable industrial food production, and IT support for these areas. Beginning in January 2013, he also became the CEO of the Industry Association for Food Technology and Packaging (IVLV).

How it all began …

The basis for the Weihenstephaner Standards was a research project for breweries that started in 1999. Challenges for data detection systems in the beverage filling sector were defined at that time in a “standard specifications document.” These found increasing levels of use in the next few years in the beverage industry. Filling operations, mechanical engineering firms and also IT system consultants understood the desire for additional standardization. Between 2003 and 2005, the team around Dr. Voigt precisely defined evaluation functions and especially, IT machine interfaces, for the Standard. This provided the foundation for the WS Pack definitions for packaging machines, which have been available since 2007. In 2010, comparable definitions were defined for sausage manufacturing (WS Food) and in 2015 for baked goods (WS Bake).