Thin clients for food manufacturing automation success

Thin clients have begun to become the norm in food production processes, due to their benefits over a thick client. Gary Homewood, our OAL Connected Development and Innovation Manager, explains the differences between thin and thick clients, and where thin clients can add the most value to your automation processes. For certain applications, such as label and date code verification, we explained why thick clients are used for resilience.

What are thick and thin clients?

A “client” refers to the type of PC unit used to run your automated processes.

Thick Clients

A thick (or fat) client is a traditional desktop-style PC tower unit, that can operate independently from a server and does the bulk of the processing workload. 
They will have their own hard disk drive, and superior processing power compared to a thin client. The server connection to a thick client is generally for sending information to the server for archiving, such as production data. Some retailers will also specify thick clients in their Codes of Practice.
Thick clients cost more upfront, take longer for your IT teams to deploy them, and generally have more security vulnerabilities than thin clients. However, you’ll need fewer servers with thick clients, which are a significant cost to consider.

Thin Clients

A thin client, on the other hand, is a simple piece of hardware that has minimal processing power as the server processes the data. Often, they will look like a small desktop unit and will have a monitor and keyboard attached, but will rely on constant communication with the server to work. 
Thin clients won’t have a hard disk drive, and can’t be connected to devices such as printers. This also makes them more secure than thick clients. The reduced amount of hardware inside them makes them cheaper to buy and run, and they are easy for your IT team to swap out and replace if a unit isn’t working properly. 

Where are thin clients used in food manufacturing automation?

Because all the intelligence of a thin client is located at the server end rather than in the client itself, thin clients are best used for data capture applications such as SCADA. This means that the production processes can be controlled centrally through the server, and the operator can add information locally through the thin client interface.

Centrally controlling operations gives your team greater control over the production process, and limits the errors that can be introduced into the system. 

However, if the server connection is interrupted, production will stop until a connection can be restored to the thin client. This makes them unsuitable for applications such as label verification, as there is a risk that the wrong product could be shipped to the customer.

Who uses thick and thin clients?

Premier Foods introduced our SCADA and ERP automation solutions into their expanded factory at Ashford, using over 30 thin clients. They needed an advanced control system to manage production, provide quality control, and scheduling and stock tracking reconciliation. Their average throughput improved by 26% by introducing these solutions.

HJ Heinz introduced our Autocoding system using thick clients to reduce packaging errors on their baby formulas. Thick clients were used as some retailers specify a thick client in their Codes of Practice and Autocoding requires higher processing power than thin clients can provide. The Autocoding system eliminated their packaging errors, giving HJ Heinz an 100% read rate on 97 cans per minute, even while the cans were spinning. 

Unsure whether you need a thin or thick client? Speak to OAL for advice on the best solution for your needs.

About the author

Gary Homewood.jpg

Gary Homewood leads OAL's automation team, helping food manufacturers automate their processes.

Jake Norman