Better brewing through automation

Starting life as one of many craft-brewing operations that grew from a basement operation into a full-fledged business, Fort Collins, CO-based New Belgium Brewing Co. has proven itself to be one of the few such businesses to have outlasted the initial craze over craft-brewed beers and transformed itself into a pre-eminent microbrewery with a devoted following among craft beer enthusiasts.

11/01/2003


Starting life as one of many craft-brewing operations that grew from a basement operation into a full-fledged business, Fort Collins, CO-based New Belgium Brewing Co. has proven itself to be one of the few such businesses to have outlasted the initial craze over craft-brewed beers and transformed itself into a pre-eminent microbrewery with a devoted following among craft beer enthusiasts. This is a pretty impressive feat when you consider its beer, the most famous of which is Fat Tire Amber Ale, is available only in 12 Western states.

New Belgium became a serious entity on the microbrew landscape in 1995 when it opened its current brewing facility. This facility, unlike the two previous locations—a basement and a former railroad depot—has been automated since the start. Brewhouse operations were originally automated using Opto 22's OptoMux. The company has regularly migrated its control systems over the years by following Opto 22 upgrades from OptoMux to the Mistic system, then incorporating Factory Floor before moving on to M4 type controllers, most recently incorporating some Ultimate I/O. New Belgium's dramatic business growth in the past few years caused it to outgrow some modules of these systems, leading the company to move its SCADA system over to InTouch from Wonderware.

Amid the recent changes in the controls, automation, and brewing industries, Control Engineering editorial director David Greenfield spoke with New Belgium's chief electrical and control engineer, Igor Valuyev, about the automation course the company has chosen.

Q. What, specifically, was the driving force behind choosing particular automation technologies?

It actually started with Jeff [LeBesch, company founder]. I was an integrator and working for an Opto 22 distributor. Jeff was a former electrical engineer who knew some about industrial automation, but was not an expert at that time. He was looking for something that would be easy to learn and would give him the bang for the buck. I did the first installation here at New Belgium and sat down with Jeff to explain how it worked. Within a day Jeff had all the training he needed. Jeff did the bulk of the code for the first installation.

To begin, we automated the first brewhouse with OptoMux using B100/200 brain boards. Brewhouse 2, as well as cellar 2, the yeast cellar, our malt handling area and deaerated water production were all automated with Snap I/O and Ultimate I/O modules.Our bottling and convening areas use Rockwell Automation/ Allen-Bradley PLC5 and SLC500 controllers; our kegging operations use Siemens S5 and S7 PLCs.

Also, all our utilities are controlled by Opto 22. Our process water treatment plant, which takes water from the brewing process and turns it into biomass, extracts biogas from the biomass and we burn it using electrical cogeneration to produce electricity. This is controlled by Opto 22's OptoControl.

Q. What was the bottom line to New Belgium's system evaluation?

Jeff looked at several systems. The driving factor was the cost.

Q. Since you moved from your job as integrator to chief electrical and controls engineer at New Belgium, what has been your role in automation decisions?

The biggest decision I have made was to move away from Factory Floor for the SCADA portion (to Wonderware's InTouch). We really needed a SCADA package with more functionality. Also, we have now standardized on the Snap B3000 processor. We started with the G4 Mistic I/O line using old G4 Mistic controllers. We slowly moved away from that toward M4 controllers and Snap I/O modules. Now we're using a couple of Ultimate I/O systems.

Working with a small and flexible automation provider is important in an industry where you have a lot of custom hardware not commonly used in other industries. For example, we had proximity sensors that would not work with I/O modules available on the market. I approached Opto 22 to help me with that, and within a week we had a custom I/O module that would work with our hardware.

Q. How have your manufacturing procedures changed along with the new automation?

In brewing, consistency and quality are huge issues. To achieve that consistency, automation is a necessary tool. Machines don't make mistakes, people do. This also empowered our operators to be independent thinkers versus just having them run around turning knobs. They are there to think and make decisions—to basically be artists at their jobs. All rudimentary tasks are done by the automation software and hardware.

Q. What have you learned as an engineer that will affect future automation decisions?

The latest trend I see is the integration between the production side and the business side. These used to be two islands that worked with each other, but now there is much tighter communication. Real-time communication exchange is a must to keep track of resources, products, and scheduling. As an engineer, you're not isolated anymore; you're not just making decisions with regard to production, you have to keep in mind how it will affect the whole enterprise, from finances to safety, and even to marketing.

Currently we have a Web portal where our sales staff can access information. And this is not just business information; they can access real-time production information as well.






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