Mapping the Future of Food Plant Automation

May 1, 2010
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Forces greater than commodity prices are driving change in the way food companies manufacture products, and that will affect how automation technology is deployed.

An overhead camera identifies bowls with product on the lip before they enter this lid-sealing machine, triggering a package kick-off downstream. The camera system was engineered internally at Hormel Foods for the company’s new Dubuque, IA, plant


More throughput, greater flexibility and fewer workers were cited by JM Smucker Co. recently when it announced plans to close three fruit-spread plants, update equipment and technology at another, and build a new state-of-the-art food manufacturing facility in Orrville, OH.

One of the shuttered factories, also in Orrville, is 60-plus years old, and new technologies and efficiency improvements at its replacement will accommodate higher volumes with 180 fewer workers, a 40-percent reduction.

Tools have taken jobs from people since the discovery of the fulcrum, and the machine age accelerated the shift. Labor replacement has been the core justification for automation investments for decades, but other factors are coming into play. Metrics such as overall equipment efficiency are casting both labor and older mechanical systems in a different light. Information systems that reconcile available inventory and cost of production are advising manufacturers not only if an order can be met, but whether it will be profitable to do so.

But the real automation game changers are food safety and sustainability. Safety concerns drove much of the automation investment in the last decade. Everything from raw-material lots to work in progress to finished goods is bar-coded and scanned at each step to better account for where food came from and where it went. Metal detectors became ubiquitous, and X-ray units are now complementing and sometimes replacing them. Sensor technology already is being deployed to identify volatile organic compounds that signal spoilage in commodity ingredients, and biosensors will become part of the food defense system, once issues of sampling and cost are resolved, notes John Pierson, principal research engineer at Georgia Tech Research Institute. And while most robotics applications are post packaging, removal of human contact with food in process is becoming part of the cost rationalization for upstream uses.

In the decade to come, sustainability will share the stage with food safety as an automation shaper. The expectations of retail and foodservice customers, shareholders and investors for socially responsible business behavior are part of the reason, but hardheaded business drivers also are at play. With production already optimized, the only place to turn for margin protection is better management of energy costs, water usage and other resources.

“Senior management is under increased pressure to lower production costs, develop more sustainable manufacturing, and better ensure product safety,” writes analyst John Blanchard of ARC Advisory Group. Even instrumentation is being swept up in the green wave: Mettler Toledo recently introduced electrodes that eschew mercury, lead and other hazardous materials in favor of platinum, polymers and other benign materials.

“There has been no sacrifice in performance,” says Wallace Harvey, Mettler Toledo market manager. “In many cases, performance has improved.”

Controlling utility costs is as important as managing uptime and changeovers, concurs Sean Hoffman, senior controls engineer with The Dennis Group. Manufacturers are keenly interested in metering compressed air, natural gas, electricity and “every gallon of water that was used to produce a product,” he says.

“It costs money to do that,” Hoffman acknowledges, but food companies are making the investment. One way to reduce metering costs when retrofitting a plant likely will be wireless data-acquisition networks.

An optical system sorts peas and other ingredients prior to process at Hormel’s new Dubuque, IA, facility. Vision-based inspection equipment reached the market several years ago, but many processors are reluctant to use new technology until it is proven in commercial applications. Source: Hormel Foods Corp.

Happy birthday, George

The current state of food plant automation was on display at the grand opening of Hormel Foods’ new facility in Dubuque, IA, on March 30, the 150th birthday anniversary of company founder George A. Hormel. Operating under the name Progressive Processors LLC, the 348,000 sq.-ft.-facility was built at a cost of $89 million to produce Compleats, Hormel’s line of microwaveable shelf-stable meals.

A quarter century separates the Dubuque project from the last new plant built by Hormel, which operates 41 North American facilities. Asked what distinguishes the new from the old, corporate engineers cite energy-saving and water-conservation technology, while plant management focuses on food safety and innovation.

Food safety investments are evident throughout. Metal detectors are ubiquitous, from prep room grinders to filled-container inspection. Mettler Toledo X-ray machines placed after container-sealing add another layer of safety. A vision and laser-based sorter adds a higher level of screening of incoming ingredients. As in many new packaging halls and material-handling centers, robotic motion is integrated into several of the container-handling machines, pre- and post-retort.

A goal of 10 percent cuts in each facility’s energy and water consumption in the next five years is part of the corporate sustainability effort. In Dubuque, the bar was set higher. Approximately 200 skylights admit natural light, building insulation was beefed up, energy-intense equipment is outfitted with variable frequency drives, and heat pumps and other investments should cut electric consumption 28 percent. That’s more than 2 million kilowatt hours a year, according to Alliant Energy, which presented Hormel with a $239,979 incentive payment at the grand opening. After use, hot process water is stored in tanks for re-use in heating office areas. Lighting controls dim and turn up foot-candle lighting in fluorescent lights, depending on how much sunlight is available. Electricty, gas and other utilities are being metered in each production room, and engineers wrote PLC code to extract reports as a first step to determining costs and consumption for each unit of production.

Many of the conservation technologies were not available a decade ago, “at least not in reliable equipment,” according to Chad Sayles, manager-mechanical & electrical engineering, who headed the project’s corporate engineering team.

“We spent months interviewing best-in-class suppliers and asking, ‘What do you have that is new?’ in terms of energy efficiency,” says Sayles. Those conversations led to heat-recovery loops in three 195-HP Atlas Copco air compressors that are water-cooled. Elements of the system existed before the Hormel project, but Atlas Copco had never integrated them before the Hormel project. The system now is being marketed under the name CarbonZero.

Hormel’s plant underscores the need for manufacturing nimbleness and the dangers of conventional wisdom. Compleats sales were growing at 30 to 40%, which led to the decision to build a new plant. But the dirt hadn’t hardened on the groundbreaking shovel when the banking collapse struck. Compleats sales plunged 10 to 15%, according to Hormel chief executive Jeff Ettinger. Instead of paying a premium for the convenience of a microwaveable meal, customers opted for the value of canned foods. Instead of two Compleats lines, the new facility has one, with a canning line planned at a future date.  

There's an app for that

The history of controls technology, from relay logic to centralized PLCs and now distributed architectures, demonstrates that automation change is inevitable. Whether it will be gradual or radical is the question.

Low margins and high volumes frequently are cited by automation experts to explain the slow adoption of new technology in food and beverage manufacturing. No one wants the risk of being first, so proven solutions are slow in coming. Globalization could help shorten the wait. As North American and European companies push into less mature markets with limited resources, they necessarily are investing in equipment and processes that are more energy efficient, compact and scalable.

“This will drive more rapid deployment of innovative technologies,” ARC’s Blanchard believes, and the hardened technology “will then be deployed in industrial nations.”

Another wildcard is the changing nature of the workforce. Whether it’s the programmers who design automation systems or the operators who run them, a generational change is occurring in the way people interact with technology. The electrical and logic specialists who dominated controls engineering 20 years ago are obsolete, suggests Jack Roper, senior controls engineer at POWER Engineers Inc.

“We no longer need people who know how to specify, wire and program all the devices associated with a pump,” he says. “We now need people who, based on their broad and deep understanding of the whole process, decide we need a pump.”

Instructions for operating and troubleshooting equipment will arrive in a video stream, not a manual, says Axel Andersson, a product manager with Tetra Pak Inc., adding, “That’s something we’re exploring.” Crude versions of the applications for smart phones already are beginning to surface on some packaging equipment, notes B&R Automation’s John Kowal. Selling apps on an as-needed basis will hold down purchase costs and provide user-friendly guidance for younger workers.

No consensus exists on one of the building blocks of contemporary automation: For every engineer who declares the PLC obsolete, another rises to defend it. Regardless of how motion and logic are controlled, safe motion will be part of tomorrow’s controls, predicts Rick Rey, Bosch Rexroth’s manager-electronic drives & controls. Placing a machine in safe mode allows staffers to safely clear jams and make other minor fixes without prolonged downtime. Functional safety is “perfect for robotics,” says Rey, reducing machine response time to less than 2 milliseconds, compared to 400 milliseconds for conventional safety systems.

The look and feel of tomorrow’s automated plant depends in part on how far in the future one looks. One thing is certain: Technological change is occurring so fast, it no longer is the driver. Social and economic forces will determine what is needed in terms of automation, and available technology will deliver the solution.

For more information:
John Blanchard, ARC Advisory Group, 781-471-1169
Frank Kodatek, Belden Inc., 765-983-5215
Bill Wotruba, Belden Inc., 414-507-9787, bill.wotruba@belden.com
Rick Rey, Bosch Rexroth, 847-204-8520, rick.rey@boschrexroth-us.com
John Kowal, B&R Automation, 630-258-0371, john.kowal@br-automation.com
Sean Hoffman, The Dennis Group, 978-828-8261
Peter Cavallo, Denso Robotics, 310-991-7343, peter_cavallo@denso-diam.com
John Pierson, Georgia Tech Research Institute, 404-407-8839, john.pierson@gtri.gatech.edu
Dean Ford, Maverick Technologies Inc., 443-876-5217, dean.ford@mavtechglobal.com
Wallace Harvey, Mettler Toledo, 614-438-4505, wallace.harvey@mt.com
Jack Roper, POWER Engineers Inc., jack.roper@powereng.com
Phil Sheridan, POWER Engineers Inc., 208-288-6255, psheridan@powereng.com
Rusty Steele, Schneider Electric, 317-202-6322, rusty.steele@us.schneider-electric.com
Walt Staehle, Siemens Industry, 215-646-7400, walter.staehle@siemens.com
Tim Clark, Stellar, 904-899-9242, tclark@stellar.net
Gerry Gomolka, Stellar, 904-260-2900, ggomolka@stellar.net
Axel Andersson, Tetra Pak Inc., 847-955-6352, axel.andersson@tetrapak.com


Gazing into automation’s crystal ball

A number of professionals involved in food and beverage automation were asked to channel their inner Alvin Toffler to predict technology’s impact on the food plant of tomorrow. Some of their thoughts:

Today’s consumer electronics is a harbinger of what we’ll see in manufacturing in seven years. Instead of technical training, operators and maintenance will access apps to walk them through machine procedures.

-John Kowal, market development manager, B&R Automation


New engineers are pure programmers, and they’re used to programming in C#, VB.net and other languages. These tools are very different from the ladder logic that electrical engineers use in existing controls. Controls suppliers are going to have to adapt.

-Axel Andersson, product manager, Tetra Pak Inc.


Limited resources in China, India, Latin America and other developing markets will drive deployment of innovative manufacturing technologies. After they are proven, manufacturers in industrialized nations will adopt them.

-John Blanchard, research director, ARC Advisory Group


With drag-and-drop control logic available, coupled with plug-in sensor and control instruments pushing data over a network, why is the PLC necessary? Why can’t this capability exist in “the cloud,” with the software and logic delivered as needed, just like electricity and water?

-Jack Roper, controls systems design manager, POWER Engineers Inc.


To address supply-chain issues, manufacturers are improving capacity firepower with more regional production; think of it as a line of rollers. That lends itself to a different type of rules-based automation to ensure better compliance and more consistency between locations.

-Walt Staehle, vice president-food & beverage group, Siemens Industry


The ERP system is the last bastion of IT. Mid-level IT has been outsourced, and there aren’t many core IT professionals still in place in food plants. Integration is becoming plug and play.

-Tim Clark, director-automation services, Stellar


The data-collection needs of food safety will drive automation. Instead of approaching automation as a labor-replacement tool, manufacturers will rely on automation to track process variables beyond time and temperature.

-Phil Sheridan, electrical department manager, POWER Engineers Inc.


Today, nobody accounts for the water and energy that went into making a given product. The food plant of the future’s bill of materials is going to have a line item for energy.

-Dean Ford, director-enterprise integration, Maverick Technologies


Some food companies are using OEE data to drive capital investments and how people are trained and perform their jobs.

-Rusty Steele, marketing & business development, food & beverage, Schneider Electric


Compared to hardwired Ethernet, wireless is more secure, with 260-bit encryption. As people become comfortable with wireless, it will become the supervisory control technology in plants.

-Bill Wotruba, director-networking & connectivity, Belden Inc.

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