Feeding the Future: Abdon Food’s Pursuit of Digitally-Advanced Food Production
Every morning when you sit down for breakfast, there’s a good chance you might choose a bowl of cereal, a slice of toast, or a pastry. If you live in Northern Europe, there’s an even better chance that your breakfast includes a product from Abdon Food.
is one of the leading cereal companies in the Nordic region, and is well known for our , , , and brands. We have six production units, specializing in breakfast cereals, flour, bread, and gluten-free products, among other prepared grain mill products. Our core value is to “produce products that we can give to our own children,” and it's something we strive to live by every day.
Abdon Food, while rooted in tradition and quality, also has a vision of developing the most digitally-advanced food production company within the Nordic region. Until recently, our goal wasn’t possible because of our IT architecture.
A Network Patchwork: Condensing Six Sites Into One Network
I joined Abdon Food in late 2018 during the middle of a major upgrade of our enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, Microsoft Dynamics Navision. My role as Head of IT/CTO is to help define the digital roadmap for the company and make sure that we have everything we need in place to start and follow that journey. We don't have a big IT department; we outsource almost everything and prioritize the digital education of our internal users.
In 2018, IT’s goal was to connect all our components into one community. We have six different sites and all factories needed to communicate with each other and reach our central systems.
When I started, our data center was located in a different town, so almost all of our servers were offsite. We wanted to embrace cloud-based services, incorporate all the production equipment into the network, manage them centrally, and collect data from the machines. If we wanted to do that, we needed a network design that could easily scale to allow those large machines to connect to the network safely.
Our existing designs didn't allow for any of that. We didn't have any routers or firewalls to control traffic, and we didn’t have secure connections that could allow our networks to communicate to cloud-based services. It was basically a patchwork of standalone networks with different design principles. We needed to implement the same design in all factories to include all types of devices, and enable them to be isolated so we could secure access to the data.
The fast and easy route would be to build different systems using different vendors, but that would be complicated for our small IT team to manage, and the management software itself would be too expensive. Instead, I began to create a unified network design and build a stable, secure, and scalable communication platform.
Sourcing the Right Technology Partners
As we began to look for a suitable solution, I remembered attending a presentation back in 2016. I decided to reach out to our IT partner, , for their expertise and guidance, and to learn more. We looked into different scenarios and found that Cisco Meraki would indeed be the best fit for our functional and financial needs.
What attracted me to Cisco and the Meraki tech stack was threefold. First, it was so easy to set up and install devices and there was a lot of out-of-the-box functionality, including management and monitoring. Secondly, if something goes wrong or a device fails, a new device is shipped directly to the site and one of our people can replace it. Third, they use a simple licensing model. It's very easy to calculate the cost for a switch or expansion, which makes the solution an easy sell internally.
We worked with Atea to create a proof-of-concept installation in two of our factories: two firewalls, four switches, and a few access points (APs) for the wireless network. Those were set up alongside the existing networks and it worked well. We made some tweaks in the design, and moved ahead with a full-scale deployment.
Full Deployment: Smooth and Fast
Our full deployment began at our head office. Atea arranged for us to get a pallet of equipment and we set them up in no time. Atea helped us with the initial configuration, including VLANs, failover, and wireless SSIDs, but everything was done through the Meraki dashboard so it required little labor. Once the configuration was completed for one site, it was simple to replicate for subsequent locations.
Every factory is connected to the internet through fiber-powered internet with either 1 Gbps connections or 100 Mbps connections. Each facility’s primary connection point has a Meraki firewall and a number of switches that are the wired backbone of each factory. Some machines are connected through cable, and all factories have APs, so our wireless network covers the entire facility, including offices, production buildings, and cold storage areas. In our larger factories, we use the Meraki MX84 and we have dual MX84s for redundancy. In the smaller sites, we use the MX68. We also have a 4G mobile network failover.
We used local maintenance staff to help us install APs and cameras, and I completed the rest with some help from internal superusers. Atea helped us a lot with our initial Meraki setup, but Meraki doesn’t require much support or attention, especially after you’re up and running. A more traditional design would require coordination between firewall, network, and client consultants; instead, Atea allows us to have a single point of contact to fix any issue. Atea can remotely run diagnostics, troubleshoot, and remediate a problem. Cisco Meraki also gives us easy access to monitoring and configuring the network through a single dashboard. If it's a simple issue, then we can often solve it by ourselves.
Since we don't need to coordinate the different resources nor have a costly service agreement that puts this burden on an external company, our new network is very cost-effective and easy to manage. This is especially with our small IT team. Now, we can focus on future goals and innovation, and invest in new projects accordingly, such as implementing Microsoft Intune and Microsoft Autopilot to streamline the deployment of client devices, such as laptops and mobile phones, as well as their secure connection to the networks.
Going to the Next Level with Cameras
Our next step was to install as our production entity wanted monitoring to help troubleshoot any issues with our machinery. We discussed the situation with Atea and Cisco, and ultimately chose the MV72 cameras, installing them in factories to increase visibility to machines that aren’t physically monitored by an employee.
Next, our production workers wanted to monitor the loading docks. We installed another batch of cameras for those and are in the process of installing public TV displays in the factory so our team can monitor those feeds in real time. We are up to almost 25 cameras, with more to come.
Eventually, I’d like to use the cameras in conjunction with artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and image analysis. This would help us to better identify deliveries, particularly ones where the product gets damaged in transit. If a customer claims our shipment arrived damaged, we could view logged footage and either confirm their claim or have recourse if we see something different.
We could also use this advanced technology in our bakeries. Cameras could identify buns and bread that deviate from the desired shape, potentially flagging manufacturing issues. We could also use it to count the number of items we have produced. AI or ML for image analysis will be very useful in identifying the quality and quantity of our production in real time.
To realize these capabilities, we are gradually shifting to the cloud. All our data servers are located in Azure and we have connected to the resources in Azure with help of a virtual Meraki firewall.
Digitally Advancing Toward Our Future
Abdon’s network is critical to our production, and we’ve had zero downtime since we implemented Cisco Meraki into our facilities. We now have a very reliable network infrastructure, and feel we made the right choice by going with Microsoft and Cisco.
We wanted big, trustworthy, reliable vendors to deliver a network infrastructure that clearly reflects those values. And we can manage it all with our small IT team. Our network infrastructure will surely evolve as Abdon evolves, as we continue on our journey to become even more digitally advanced.