Best practices for fluid handling in the food and beverage industry

What role does fluid handling play in improving food and beverage plants and how critical are they to maintaining operations?

By Mary Wright, PE May 13, 2022
Courtesy: Plant Engineering

Plant Engineering recently asked Mary Wright, a senior process engineer at Matrix Technologies about her work with fluid handling in the food and beverage industry. Following are some of Wright’s insights into fluid handling and utilities and their role in today’s food and beverage plants. 

Question: What industries do you principally work in and what kinds of projects are you typically involved in?

Wright: I primarily work in the food, beverage and spirits industries. There isn’t one typical job I am on. Some examples are: Brand-new plant designs from the ground up, existing utility design improvements, new filling lines to an existing facility, existing process improvements, and a new raw material tank farm. 

Question: Talk about the state of utilities provision in today’s food and beverage plants?

Wright: We tend to see that utilities at existing facilities are somewhat ignored.  Not from a maintenance standpoint, but from a “what is your supply verses your demand” view. Many times, utilities are put in with a large header system and over time, facilities tap into the headers for new processes without documenting it through a process flow diagram (PFD). A PFD depicts equipment from the process and shows all flow rates and composition to and from each piece of equipment. These can look like a mass or energy balance. A PFD of your process would tell you how much and where of each utility is being utilized. It could tell you of potential bottle necks within your utility system. We sometimes have to investigate utility loads before we start a project. Other times, we are brought in because a certain part of the process is not getting the required utility. Performing different utility studies, and maintaining them when projects are done, can help prevent utility shortages. 

Question: What are some of the most important fluid management processes encountered in food and beverage and how are they unique?

Wright: Fluid management is often critical in the food and beverage industry.  For production, some of your critical control points are tied to temperature.  A facility could be maintaining temperature from a steam or a hot water utility load.  If those are not closely monitored or maintained, it can directly affect your product.  There is another big management piece, sanitation, which I will address below. 

Question: How is automation of information technology continuing to change the way you do your job?

Wright: Automating technology makes process engineering more exciting.  With automation and innovation, it tends to allow for product production to happen at a much faster rate. You also can track processes in real time. For instance, you know if your temperature and/or pressure are too high or too low at any given time; this tells the operator that there is an issue that they can track down. You can have alarms. You also can have sensors that will shut off upstream processes to avoid upset conditions in the local process. In another instance, a high-level alarm on a tank can shut off an upstream pump to avoid overfilling said tank.   

Question: How do sanitation requirements impact process engineering in the food and beverage industry?

Wright: While a process needs to meet the required specifications and perform to the given standard, cleanability is the single most important part of food and beverage design. After a process is determined the next question is, how do we clean it? Cleanability must be in the forefront of everyone’s mind, from process design through piping layout (you don’t want to create any dead legs). Knowing cleaning requirements can change or modify how a process is designed. Four important factors in clean-in-place (CIP): Velocity, time, temperature and chemical. The process design must be able to adhere to the client’s CIP requirements, including the pumping rate. Or, if an item must be torn apart to disconnected to be cleaned, clean-out-of-place (COP), that needs to be documented as well; it would be documented as part of the cleaning procedure.   

Question: What’s most interesting to you about the application of fluid mechanics in food and beverage?

Wright: When dealing with food products, fluid dynamics is so fun to dig into and figure out. What is the viscosity of mashed potatoes? What type of pump is best used for macaroni and cheese? How do you pump macaroni and cheese without damaging the noodles? What happens when starch is hydrated and you try to pump it? What is the best type of pump for sugar syrups and other chocolate raw ingredients? These are just a couple of the questions I have had to figure out and answer through design.

That’s on the food side, but on the utility side, that is also quite complex and interesting. Figuring out to hydraulically balance a utility system to make sure all equipment gets their utility needs without starving another piece of equipment is a task that is best determined through hydraulic modeling. We can use two different programs to design a system, including different balancing valves and optimizing pipe and pump sizes, to operate the whole system to meet process needs.   

Matrix Technologies is a CFE Media and Technology content partner.

Author Bio: Mary Wright, PE, is a senior project engineer (team lead) within the Process Solutions Engineering Division of Matrix Technologies. Her primary experience is in process design and assessments of both large and small projects within the Food and Beverage Industry. Wright joined Matrix in 2015 and is certified Professional Engineer in the State of Ohio. Wright graduated with her Bachelors in Chemical Engineering from the University of Toledo in 2006 and has over 15 years of experience including environmental regulation and industry design and plant process engineering.