Market pressures are prompting food company executives to invest in data-collection systems to improve product consistency and yield.

Harley Moore, usage manager of BOC’s Thinkage LLC unit, uses a wrist-mounted PC to enter process data and monitor overall line performance. Source: Thinkage LLC.
THE REPORT IN FOOD ENGINEERING DESCRIBED THE CLASsic "win-win" food companies dream about: two exciting, new ready-to-eat, frozen chicken products, breaded in one case and lightly marinated in the other. Homemakers would happily pay a premium for the value-added meals, the story predicted, providing the consumer with a heightened degree of convenience while lifting the processors out of the commodity business.

The report appeared in Food Engineering's September 1950 edition. Apparently, the concept was the easy part. There is more to value-added processing than people realized half a century ago.

In today's environment, processors are under heightened pressure to boost the consistency from finished goods. At the same time, production volumes have increased exponentially. An hour's worth of out-of-spec output translates to thousands of pounds of waste, not hundreds. Yield and consistency become two sides of the same coin, and problems with one often effect the other. Performance information delivered in real time becomes critical to improve both.

Atlanta-based Gold Kist Inc. is a poultry processor that is trying to tame the issues of consistency and yield. Two years ago, Gold Kist President John Bekkers set his sights on doubling further-processed sales by 2005, and the $1.8 billion company is on track to do that. Gold Kist operates two further processing facilities, one of which is a 200,000 sq. ft. former Campbell's Soup plant in Sumter, S.C. Chicken tenders, breaded product, diced chicken and hot wings are part of the plant's mix. Higher yields are part of the program: on one oven, for example, the company wants to achieve 90 percent yield on breast meat and 80 percent on thighs.

One way to achieve those objectives is to make sure line operators, maintenance personnel and other employees thoroughly understand product outcomes. Another approach is to help them better understand the process and what needs to happen to it at each stage of the process. Tools like statistical process control (SPC) help accomplish the former; real-time data from advanced sensor technology deliver the latter.

Boneless, breaded chicken parts move down the line at Gold Kist’s Sumter, S.C., further processing facility. The plant has rolled out a process control system from Thinkage to the plant’s eight production lines.

Supply chain pressure

Increased yield is an objective near and dear to every production manager's heart. Increased consistency, on the other hand, is the mantra of the mega-retailer and the major foodservice customer, and those are forces that upper management must placate.

"Controlling portion weight and minimizing the giveaway has been an issue since the beginning of time, but as long as a plant made money, not much attention has been paid to it," allows Darrel R. Suderman, general manager of systems integrator Hinz Enterprise Solutions, Highlands Ranch, Colo. "Now, major customers like Kroger and Wal-Mart are insisting that products be delivered to their stores in very narrowly defined weight ranges. Fixed weight product has become a management decision-driver. Poultry is the opening salvo, but it's going to come to pork and beef."

The only way top management can assure customers-and themselves-that the product specifications are being met on today's orders is through access to real-time data collected from the plant floor. Firms like Hinz exist to collect the flat-file data that already resides in PLCs throughout the processing area, pull them into a relational database, then export them to an existing ERP system that can generate meaningful production reports. "Executives are under tremendous pressure to provide data on product consistency and other variables to key customers, and they're frustrated by handwritten reports delivered days or weeks after the fact," according to Suderman.

In the case of further processed foods, fixed weight is one of many product attributes that needs to be controlled. Customers are strictly defining the shape of boneless items, specifying the amount of marinade or breading to be applied and the consistency of the recipe. Relying on a QA report before making a process control correction can negatively affect yield. At Gold Kist's Sumter facility, 75 lbs. of product comes off each line every minute. Real-time data is critical if the processor is to achieve yield and consistency objectives.

Almost three years ago, Gold Kist began to apply advanced sensor technology from Thinkage Systems to deliver process data in real time. Late last year, the technology was rolled out to all eight production lines at the plant. "To get the productivity you want, you really have to empower the operators and give them simple red-green analyses of how the equipment is performing," explains Bill Andersen, Gold Kist's director of further processing. "This system does that, and it also has some very important reporting aspects for supervisors."

Major breweries have turned this kind of process control into high science over the last three decades, he says, but the era of the handwritten report still exists in many other food sectors. "We are going through a very accelerated growth path," Andersen says. "There may come a day when we can manage this technology ourselves, but today we need the support of a company like Thinkage."

A unit of BOC Group, Bridgewater, N.J.-based Thinkage operates as an outsourced service provider of process control systems. The sensors and data-collection hardware in the plant is owned, operated and maintained by the company and its onsite coordinators. The information the system generates is the exclusive property of the client. Turning it into actionable data that line operators can use to make real-time adjustments in production processes is the goal of both Gold Kist and Thinkage.

Dwight Tipton, onsite coordinator at the Gold Kist facility in Sumter, S.C., reviews performance reports based on sensor data collected at various points along the chicken processing line. Source: Thinkage LLC.
Thinkage had its genesis seven years ago. BOC had developed sensors to measure the core temperature of food products in freezers, a quality assurance measure that represented a significant improvement over freezer-control calculations based on estimated product mass, etc. "The objective is to control the state of the product," explains Mark Grace, Thinkage's president and CEO.

Rather than licensing its sensor technology to another firm or attempt to manufacture the devices itself, BOC elected to become a service provider, facilitating the application of its technology and that of several hundred other firms in the food industry. The core-temperature sensor technology was transferred to Georgia Tech, where research into advanced sensor technology and vision systems was underway. One project under development is a vision system to monitor the shape, color and seed distribution of buns as they emerge from an oven. The readings are fed back in real time to operators so that adjustments such as oven band speed can be affected immediately.

More than 100 sensors are installed in a typical plant, monitoring contact temperature, infrared temperature, weight, pressure and other standards. More exotic technologies include vision systems and smell sensors (not currently used in food applications). "My job is to make sure the technology works in a food production environment and that it can be delivered at an affordable price," Grace explains. "If it does, it makes it to market."

Monitoring product conditions is more meaningful than monitoring equipment performance, particularly in a batch environment, he says. For example, oven temperature ratchets up when a large mass is in the unit. When the next batch enters, the oven invariably overcooks the product, resulting in inconsistency or yield loss. Sensors positioned before the oven can dictate timely adjustments before the smaller batch enters the unit, whereas controls within the oven itself are in a reactive position that will result in product loss.

Implementation of Thinkage's system requires fundamental changes in the way operators perform their jobs. Extensive training and daily reinforcement are required, and that is a major part of the onsite coordinator's job. Wrist-mounted PCs for supervisors and easy-to-interpret monitors for operators turn the data into "personal information" that people will respond to, Grace maintains. "We don't live in a carrot-and-stick world, we live in an information world," he says. "When you bolt an industrial PC to the floor, the monitor becomes public information, and it is very hard to get people to act on public information. Personal information, on the other hand, demands a response."

"Changing operator behavior was the toughest part of our implementation," Gold Kist's Andersen says. "Operators thought we were spying on them when we put the system in and that they would lose their jobs. Now, if you tried to pull it out, you'd get in a fight with them. They like the system, and job performance is better because they're addressing deviations immediately."

Feedback suggests product improvements are noticeable at the customer level. "We do get feedback from customers, and it's positive," he says. "We are growing at a pace faster than the market, and at the base of that is our real-time measurement."

Process control carries a hefty price tag, and Thinkage's service contract is month to month. Almost three years into the relationship, "we still come to work every day," points out Grace. Continuous improvement must be quantified to sustain the service.

Whether they use a service provider like Thinkage or an integrator like Hinz, food processors are migrating to real-time data systems. As the value of such systems becomes apparent to top management, the era of total process control is beginning.

For more information: Darrel Suderman, Hinz Enterprise Solutions, 303-887-6806, Write in 415

Mark Grace, Thinkage Systems, 678-514-3026, Write in 416