Kentucky is famous for fried chicken, tobacco and thoroughbreds, and it produces about 95% of the world's bourbon.
While this amber liquid is steeped in tradition, one manufacturer is learning a few new high-tech tricks. At Beam Suntory, the key is using digital manufacturing from Rockwell Automation and Cisco to change its business models, improve efficiencies, streamline logistics and update its network.
SEE: IT leader's guide to achieving digital transformation (Tech Pro Research)
Beam Suntory has numerous bourbon brands, including its namesake Jim Beam products as well as Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, Booker's and Basil Hayden's. It also makes other distilled spirits, with more than 80 locations throughout the world.
As bourbon grows in popularity, there's a need to make room for more barrels of bourbon. Since it's a product that takes years—and sometimes decades—to age, Kentucky distilleries are in a race to produce as much bourbon as the world can drink. According to the Kentucky Distillers' Association, the state's iconic distilleries filled a whopping 1,886,821 barrels of bourbon last year, breaking production records dating to 1967. That gives the state a total inventory of 6,657,063 barrels of bourbon, and means that there are more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than there are people. (The US Census Bureau estimated the 2017 population of Kentucky at 4,454,189.)
In recent years, Jim Beam had one of the largest wooden buildings in the US, and it was filled with barrels of bourbon. A typical storage building is eight or nine stories high and contains 80,000 barrels of bourbon.
"So you can imagine from the distillery perspective we have to be very attuned with the aging process and what's going on with evaporation and which barrel is at what point in the process and how do we track each barrel, how do we track the forklifts that move those barrels, how do we keep things safe for our workers in their environments, and how do we keep things secure. Cisco has really provided a lot of those tools that we can leverage and use for our industrial networks, for our enterprise business networks, for our offices," said Amon Hogue, senior network architect for Beam Suntory.
"We're looking at the future of automation and how that can help us with tracking and having our trucks and rolling out new business offices. We would like to see that whole dynamic completely automated," Hogue said.
That's where Rockwell Automation comes into play. It provides industrial automation for manufacturers, and works with Cisco to combine that with network solutions.
"It is interesting as technology continues to evolve, the reliance upon network reliability, bandwidth, security, and innovation just continues to increase as you can imagine. We talked about big data, we talked about analytics and what's happening with all that is nothing more than there's a lot of points of data that have to be gathered in the manufacturing environment largely from the control layer or the automation layer at the shop floor. Literally sensors on equipment and or systems," explained Bob Murphy, senior vice president of operations for Rockwell Automation.
Having these sensors in place at Beam Suntory allows for smarter manufacturing and analytics, so that data can be put in context to help with decision making in real time, Murphy said.
Hogue said that Cisco plays a huge role in the company's digital transformation. "We use Cisco's industrial products, we use Cisco's enterprise network solutions, we use Cisco's security solutions and we're beginning to pilot Cisco's SD-WAN solutions and software defined networking, and we're very excited with what's happening with automation. Going into the future, how can we leverage ACI? How can we leverage integrating our applications into our network environments?"
"We're looking at the DNA solution. We haven't fully implemented it but we're interested in rolling that out to make our network more efficient. Our visibility to what the network has is more efficient. So we are a global wine and spirits company, and we have a huge footprint and we—without Cisco's tools and options that they're giving us—I think we would really be living far in the past. So it's been interesting to see how our networks over the last three years have really evolved and grown," Hogue said.
To be truly smart, it's important for IT and OT (operational technology) to converge.
"We've had some challenges and struggles with our engineering teams not being IT, going and picking their solutions that they want for the manufacturing floor, for the bottling distillery, and the shipping areas where we've got industrial environments, and they're going and getting their own solution," Hogue said.
Hogue said when this would happen at Beam Suntory locations, he would only realize there were new switches when he saw them on the network and have to figure out their purpose. "So we've kind of had to strategize and centralize our strategy and unify what are we going to do and how are we going do it from an industrial perspective."
Why security and drones matter
Security is a top concern for manufacturers.
"For me my big concern is security from an IT perspective. I don't want just somebody plugging in a machine to a network that has a potential hazardous impact. You know we're a Class I, Class II [hazardous] environment. If somebody hacks into a machine, they could potentially cause massive damage to us. It's important that we as a company and organization do that securely and we need to protect our brand," Hogue said.
Murphy said, "Increasingly, when we meet up with customers about driving their productivity, the topic of security is front and center. We know that there have been hackers, there have been individuals that have, for whatever reasons...gone on a spree of trying to disrupt commerce. And increasingly attempts are being made to disrupt industry from a manufacturing standpoint. To get through the top level network or to get down to the control device and cause things to go belly up and haywire."
To ensure that the IT arena from every level is impenetrable is a key component of Rockwell Automation's architecture.
Hogue said he saw something shocking at a DEF CON security convention. "They actually had a whiskey distillery set up that they hacked in front of everybody and caused a massive explosion, and it was all through remote access. For Beam Suntory, whether it's in France or Mexico, we actually have drones flying over our fields to monitor the quality of our tequila plants but also to monitor security. And [the drones] have to talk back to our camera security networks, et cetera. All of the moving parts and components of our industrial networks across the world require expertise, and the challenge for us has been how do we get support from subject matter experts that can remotely manage our environment? How do we open it up to them without having somebody blow up our facility?"
To solve this problem, Beam Suntory has been deploying an identity service engine, and production networks are isolated within Cisco firewalls that are still accessible remotely through VPN for repairs. A few years ago, repairs had to be done on site due to security constraints, Hogue said.
Making room for more bourbon
Increasing the amount of storage is also key. There's no point in making more bourbon if there's nowhere to stash the barrels while the liquid ages.
"We actually ran out of storage at our Maker's Mark facility in Loretto, Kentucky. We had to blast a hole in the side of a small mountain, and we created a cave where we could put our Maker's 46 because we ran out of room to store it. It has to be stored at the perfect temperature, and there was nowhere else for us to put our Maker's 46, and we discovered that if we created a cellar inside of this hill that we could have the perfect temperature," Hogue said.
"The construction workers blew a hole in the side of the mountain with dynamite, and we now have a cellar that goes inside of that hill, and we've lit it up with network connectivity, wireless and we're monitoring all of our barrels. We're working on rolling out RFIDs on all of our barrels in that cave. I never thought that I would be working on a network project that went into a cave—let alone a cave that stored bourbon—so that's been a cool project for us."
All of the changes have positioned Beam Suntory for many more decades of making distilled spirits. "The future's promising for Beam's IT infrastructure and for our networks, and how we can leverage automation and productivity, improving our flavors and our brands. It's very important to Beam, and I think we're really moving forward in a good direction," Hogue said.
- How Woodford Reserve tapped a growing luxury goods e-commerce market (TechRepublic)
- Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (PDF download) (TechRepublic)
- Video: Bourbon lifestyle brand Pappy and Co. talks cloud, analytics for SMBs (ZDNet)
- The Distiller App: A Portal to the World of Whiskey (TechRepublic)
- Making bourbon, with a tech twist (CNET)
- How Peerless Distilling Co. uses automation to bring more flavor and consistency to its bourbon (TechRepublic)
Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.