Five tips for automating your food processing plant

To optimize ROI, it’s important to learn which areas of your food processing facility are best suited for automation. Below are five tips for improving your plant’s automation capabilities.

01/06/2016


To optimize ROI, it’s important to learn which areas of your food processing facility are best suited for automation. Courtesy: Stellar Food for ThoughtTotal automation may be an ideal for most food processors, but it can be difficult to determine how to connect every system in a food plant-or if they should even be connected at all. To optimize ROI, it's important to learn which areas of your food processing facility are best suited for automation. Below are five tips for improving your plant's automation capabilities.

1. Leverage existing connected automation systems—Many systems are well-integrated on a common network and platform, but they don't do much good if they aren't fully integrated.

Consider a brewery that had a manual data system in place that was generating a great deal of useful data. Because its systems weren't integrated it couldn't put that data into context, making it relatively useless. Once the brewery installed a manufacturing execution system (MES), its packaging efficiency increased by 30 percent.

2. Implement overarching integration—On the packaging side of food processing plants, I often notice that processors have yet to fully implement integration across the number of individual components and machines that must run to have a fully functional packaging line. Often times, when one piece of process equipment malfunctions, the entire system stops working.

It's important to tie all your equipment together in an overarching system so that the whole doesn't suffer when one element stops working.

3. Use software to connect processing and packaging equipment—When talking with food processors, I find there is a lack of plant floor connectivity between processing and packaging areas. Why? While the networking capability DOES exist, there's no software in place to connect the equipment from each area.

Considering space and labor are relatively inexpensive, the ROI on installing software like a material handling systems (MHS) can take up to 15 years, which is much longer than most processors have an appetite for (typically no more than three to four years). So, only recently have food processors recognized the value of a more integrated system.

Subsequently, older plants were often built with such an array of hardware and software that the integration isn't always so easy.

4. Define a vision of the future—At Stellar, we're typically involved with food plant owners on a project basis for automation. My focus in conversations with clients is to try to help them define a vision of the future-the sort of "blue sky" version of where they would like to be at some point in the future. Then, we define the scope of the current project as a logical step on the path to achieve the long-term vision.

You must understand the vision for where the system is intended to go. Then, make intelligent decisions about how to best spend capital on current projects to support that vision. It's best to have a standard for hardware and software that is geared toward the fully integrated system you want to own someday. But keep in mind, technology changes:

  • On one hand, a small increase in costs now can sometimes future-proof the automation system purchased as part of the current project or equipment purchase.
  • On the other hand, it is not useful to add costs to a project to build in functionality that won't be useful for two or more years.

5. Move toward becoming a data-driven business—The benefits of using real-time data outweigh the cost of implementing the systems that generate it. Automated data collection helps companies determine the root causes of performance issues, as well as enhance the efficiency of day-to-day processes. Automation isn't limited to big companies; food processors of any size can make good use of data collection. For smaller processors looking to become more data-driven, there are resources available at a reasonable cost.

A historical data repository (historian) is the foundational technology food processors need to add value to their existing equipment and processes. A historian connects to all the existing automation, and is also scalable to include additional points when future automation projects are completed.

Manufacturing execution systems (MES) help track and document in real time the transformation of raw materials to finished goods, which is vital to the efficiency of daily processes. 

- Michael Griffith is a Manager at Stellar. This article originally appeared on Stellar Food for Thought. Stellar is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Erin Dunne, production coordinator, CFE Media, edunne@cfemedia.com.

Stellar is a CSIA member as of 11/30/2015



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