Automation tales from the trenches
Best practices in setting up and implementing automation systems go a long way to making a processor more successful than its peers.
In today’s world of trendy foods, fads and short product lifecycles, you need to do all you can to excite and entice customers into buying your products. However, there’s nothing worse than having a popular product that you can’t make fast enough to satisfy the demand from your customers. If you can’t meet the demand, your competition will make a Herculean effort to win your market share.
Automated plants can help put more product into the marketplace faster than non-automated plants, but automation technologies must be properly applied after careful planning to ascertain where and what to automate. The following stories illustrate the ways in which automation can be applied to both processing and packaging to speed up the process while improving quality and food safety.
Make bourbon faster, but age it slowly
While no amount of automation can shorten the natural aging process of bourbon sitting in charred oak barrels for six to 12 years, making more of it now means there’s more available to sell after it has aged. When the Wild Turkey plant in Lawrenceburg, KY reached its production limit in 2010, the company knew it would have to automate its bourbon-making process to produce adequate quantities to meet future demands. The trick was to duplicate the recipe the company had used for decades to make its quality bourbon by hand.
The Wild Turkey bourbon distillation process begins with grinding a mixture of corn and rye that is then cooked, cooled and combined with barley malt to convert all the starch into fermentable sugars. The mixture is then funneled into fermenters where Wild Turkey adds homemade yeast. After a few days, the fermented mash is pumped through the top of a still while steam is pumped from the bottom. When the steam meets the fermented mash, vaporized bourbon is produced. The vapor is condensed into a liquid while the solid grains float to the bottom and are collected and repurposed as animal feed. The bourbon is then stored for aging.
For generations, the distillation was manually controlled and relied on a hand-operated process to produce the same consistent bourbon distillate, batch after batch. Rather than force-fit new equipment into the old plant, the distiller decided to keep the old plant and build a new plant on the same site. Constructing the new plant provided an opportunity to reevaluate production. The distiller decided to implement a largely automated distilling process that would allow the company to replicate the iconic Wild Turkey flavor in the new facility.
“Years of experience in the bourbon industry have shown we have the taste part down,” says Jim Sanders, distillery production manager. “So the ultimate goal was to preserve that flavor while improving the process in an expanded facility, which meant arming our operators with tools that provide deeper insight into our distillation process.”
Wild Turkey enlisted the help of Rockwell Automation and Bachelor Controls, Inc. (BCI), a solution partner within the Rockwell Automation PartnerNetwork. Rockwell and BCI assisted in the design and implementation of the automated system. “We didn’t want a partner who would simply put a boilerplate package over the top of our facility,” adds Sanders.
The team at BCI, led by Owner and President Ray Bachelor, selected Rockwell’s PlantPAx process automation system, which allows Wild Turkey to apply production intelligence and control strategy across its entire operations. “BCI’s goal was to give the distillery the tools it needs to preserve the iconic flavor profile it’s known for—and we knew we could do that with the PlantPAx system,” says Bachelor.
Through its Logix Batch and Sequence Manager, the control system incorporates sequencing compliant with the ISA-88 batch control standards. This technology allows operators to configure recipes and formulas directly in the Allen-Bradley ControlLogix controller through FactoryTalk View Site Edition software, without requiring code changes to the system, which helps streamline the implementation of approved changes.
FactoryTalk Historian software gathers data tags directly from the controller for real-time, granular production data. The historian not only helps operators quickly locate and correct sources of inefficiency, it eases regulatory compliance by keeping an electronic history of the data transactions. FactoryTalk AssetCentre software provides a centralized database for change management of the production process. The software helps Wild Turkey manage the distillation environment by providing secure access to the control system, tracking users’ actions, managing asset configuration files, configuring process instruments and providing backup and recovery of asset configurations. The system integrates all process operations, controls and motor controls through EtherNet/IP and DeviceNet wireless communications networks.
To assist in training and engage operators prior to the opening of the new facility, BCI simulated plant operations in the controllers, allowing operators to try out interfaces, play with faceplates and see sequences run. When the operators transitioned to the facility, they were already comfortable with the controls and HMI.
With the system, Wild Turkey saw immediate results in the expanded facility’s process system. The plant is now capable of producing 10 million proof gallons per year, up from five million proof gallons at the old site. (A proof gallon is a standard US gallon of 231 cubic inches containing 50 percent ethyl alcohol by volume, 100 proof.)
In addition, Wild Turkey is producing less waste in a safer work environment. The system “keeps an eye” on every aspect of the operation so losses the distiller might have seen in the past are no longer an issue. Operators spend less time in the field, going up and down stairs, and possibly missing something that might be occurring at another point in the process. Operators view the entire distillation process on a screen and, if an alarm sounds, can take immediate action with the touch of a button.
“It’s been quite impressive to see how the time-honored traditions and state-of-the-art automation products can coexist so seamlessly and work together to produce the same great-tasting bourbon Wild Turkey customers have been enjoying for over a century,” says Sanders.
Automating process measurements for accuracy
If you want to control a process automatically, your controls are only as good as the measurements you get from your sensors. Red Arrow Products Company LLC produces natural smoke condensates and flavorings at its manufacturing facility in Manitowoc, WI. Its wood oil is held in a 1.5m-tall collection tank that must maintain a constant level in the evaporation process. Traditionally, the level in the tank was measured using a sensor based on capacitance technology, according to Barry Schardt, Red Arrow equipment manager/electrical engineer.
This technology typically performs well in applications that operate at high temperatures and with viscous/sticky products. However, coating issues were causing unreliable level measurements at the plant. “Occasional unplanned shutdowns due to probe failures or coating issues would upset our process—reducing product throughput and increasing energy use,” says Schardt.
At Red Arrow, the tank operates under vacuum conditions, and the measurement device is subject to vapors and mist that normally cause level measurement problems. Schardt was also concerned about a sticky, tar-like substance on the probe in the tank, which could cause signal degradation.
To address these problems, the processor upgraded the capacitance-based level sensor to Emerson Process Management’s Rosemount Model 5300 guided-wave radar (GWR) probe and signal quality metrics (SQM). GWR devices are unaffected by changes in pressure and vapor space conditions, and SQM provides diagnostic information that relates directly to the coating on the probe and changing surface conditions. These values can be assigned as process variables and tracked over time.
Now Red Arrow personnel track the SQM information and use the data to maintain ideal operating conditions, improving product quality over extended, continuous run periods. The reliable level measurements have reduced operational costs by minimizing the risk of unscheduled shutdowns and equipment damage caused by inaccurate level measurements. Maintenance costs have also been reduced by enabling a preventive maintenance program that extends the period between shutdowns to clean the probe. “Since we installed Emerson’s guided-wave radar transmitters about one year ago, we have not had premature shutdowns during a production run due to level probe failure,” says Schardt.
From growing/producing to complete processing
Success has come steadily for cranberry grower and producer Butch Gardner. His Pittsville, WI operation, Badger State Fruit Processing, has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 20 or more years. But Gardner was no longer satisfied with harvesting his cranberries and trucking them off to other processors so they could capitalize on them. So, he started looking for the same equipment large processors were using to build his own “sweet and dry” business.
“We grow, clean, store, process and sell cranberry concentrate as well as sweet and dry,” says Gardner, a former trucker and dairy farmer. “In 1992, we started with two and a half acres, and we’ve grown to 1,100 acres of cranberry beds.”
Sweet and dry refers to the way cranberries are processed. First, fruit from fresh cranberries is extracted and infused with sugar to balance the fruit’s tartness. Then, the remaining fruit and skins are soaked with the sweetened juice. After a thorough soaking, the sweetened skins are dried to make a product similar to raisins.
About a year ago, Gardner decided it was time to make the investment in automated equipment that would vertically integrate his operation from harvest to final products. “We’ve watched the industry grow and decided there was no better time to make this kind of investment.”
In cranberry processing, dryers are a critical part of the processing equation. Initially, cranberries are wet and sticky. Near the end of the process, they are dry and tacky. This makes sanitation and airflow critical for processors of infused fruit—not to mention uptime. Since the juice mixture that sweetens the cranberries has the consistency of syrup, the equipment must stay clean in every process stage.
It’s not uncommon to dry cranberries with a multistage dryer. Bühler Aeroglide’s AeroDry multistage dryer gives Badger State Fruit Processing the same processing capabilities as large processors. These dryers are flexible, and allow process air temperature, humidity, airflow rate and retention time to be independently controlled for each stage. They also offer high production capability and product reorientation during thermal processing while making efficient use of floor space.
As cranberry raisins move along in an automated fashion, each conveyor is returned external to the dryer for the belt to be washed without stopping production. The sloped dryer’s floor helps reclaim syrup in the first stage, which gets recycled back into the infusion process. Integrated CIP and other sanitary features reduce product accumulation points and decrease downtime for cleaning.
With the first Bühler Aeroglide dryer installed and located in the middle of the production line and more dryers on the way, Gardner’s new operation will create two products. Half the juice from the crushed cranberries will be used to make concentrate that can be sold for private store brands or to the majors. The other half, plus the remaining skins, will be infused to make sweet and dry cranberry raisins that can be used in a variety of products such as trail mix, cereals and salads.
The Bühler Aeroglide dryer’s advanced control system will help operators record information such as temperature, retention time and air humidity; a daily analysis of processing variables will help Badger State maintain strict control over the drying process. The control system also will track the presence of product in the dryer, sensing changes in throughput because of upstream disturbances and reacting to changing conditions. “The system will help us record data for each line of fruit we process,” says Mark Konrardy, plant manager. “If we ever experience product issues, we know we can track the drying history and analyze process variables.”
Since sustainability is important to Badger, Gardner saw value in particular dryer features to help maintain its sustainability standards. A rapid high-heat transfer system and an advanced control package working in conjunction with a heat recovery system are expected to save 15 percent of thermal energy per year over conventional dryers. In addition, all exhaust and intake fans are equipped with variable frequency drives to save electrical energy while the units’ clean-in-place systems save time and water.
Automating retort unloading in packaging lines
A leading soup canning facility asked Can Lines, an OEM of container and material conveying systems for the food, beverage and other consumer products industries, for help replacing its old retort-sweep unloading equipment with a state-of-the-art basket retort unloading system to economically increase productivity, reliability and food safety.
Can Lines collaborated with Festo to design and build the new system that uses a magnetic head carriage. According to Bobby Milton, Can Lines engineering production coordinator, in contrast to the sweep method, which relies on chains and cross bars to unload baskets, the magnetic head carriage enables the soup processor to simplify its system control.
Using a magnetic head reduces the number of moving parts and leads to faster installation and more trouble-free operation. In addition, the system is much gentler as the magnet picks up the cans from the top, which results in fewer damaged cans and allows for a much faster transfer.
Filled soup cans are placed into baskets that can weigh hundreds of pounds, and then are manually loaded into horizontal steam retorts. After the retort process, the loaded baskets are placed onto a conveyor leading to a basket unpacking station where multiple layers of cans are automatically removed one layer at a time. A hydraulic cylinder pushes up the cans, effectively indexing each layer toward the top basket. The magnetic head carriage picks up cans layer by layer and deposits them onto the conveyor in smooth, uninterrupted motion.
The total weight of the magnetic head, frame and cans is more than 1,000 lbs. Each layer of cans, which can vary from 25 to 80 cans, is moved at more than three ft. per second. With that mass and weight, accuracy, repeatability and safety are essential. Two Festo electric linear guides, actuated by servo-controlled motors, are synchronized to run in parallel using CoDeSys soft motion software. Servo-controlled motion is more accurate and repeatable than the mechanical chain-sweep system previously used, according to Milton.
In the old sweep method, I/O points had to be individually wired, which meant there were 30 to 40 cables to install and maintain. With the new system, a CANopen-based fieldbus simplifies control as all I/O points are brought back to the controller by a single industrially hardened network cable. This reduces the cost of installing wiring by 20-25 percent; the fieldbus offers diagnostic capabilities to spot I/O issues.
In the soup application, the new retort magnetic head basket unloading system is easier to maintain. According to Milton, “This system improved the end-user’s packaging line productivity by 30 percent and reduced rejects by 20 percent, thereby boosting productivity and overall throughput.”
Pickle seals a pickle of a problem in packaging
Hausbeck Pickle Company, which supplies pickles and peppers in large plastic pouches to several fast food giants, had a pickle of a problem. Pickles and peppers would sometimes contaminate the seal area of the package, which would lead to burst pouches, contaminated product and subsequently rotten boxes. At the packaging line rate of 60-80 packages per minute, manual inspection techniques weren’t finding problem seals; humans soon get tired of the repetitiveness and lose the attention to detail needed for spotting seal leaks.
The nearly 90-year-old company needed a better way of finding seal problems so it could make corrections to its sealing equipment to minimize poor and weak seals.
At first, the pickle processor contracted an outside engineering firm to create an inspection system from the ground up. Unfortunately, the system never delivered on its promises despite many various attempts at fine-tuning. Optical inspection of seals requires a detailed analysis of the needs and restraints of the implementation. Inspection of seals is not as easy as implementing an intelligent camera and getting a result, say for label placement or barcode information.
The processor then contacted Luceo Inspection Worldwide to find a ready-made inspection solution that didn’t need to be designed from scratch. The supplier’s core business is optical inspection dedicated to food packaging, and it has expertise in checking seal integrity of food trays. Luceo analyzes which optical solution has to be designed, taking into account the plant environment and the packaging machine operation. The seal-checking sensor can then be embedded into the packaging machine line.
To overcome stumbling blocks, the Luceo project manager visited the Hausbeck plant to study and analyze the restraints of the environment: available space, mechanics, electronics and the site’s electrical specifications. All options were studied, along with a custom-designed system for the ejection of improperly sealed packages.
“We decided on a system with one camera that inspects the bags as they move along the packaging line,” says Tim Hausbeck, president and CEO. “In the past, we were really let down by other inspection system manufacturers. So, I was very impressed that Luceo was willing to stand behind its product from the very beginning.”
The pickle processor chose Luceo’s ThermoSecure-T model inspection system for one of its lines. In the first three months after its installation, the number of faulty seals caused by product in the sealing area fell by 50 percent. Because of the inspection system’s visual feedback, the processor was able to make packaging improvements it hadn’t considered before.
The system can evaluate the presence of material in the seal and the appearance of the seal (e.g., poor seal, crease, bubbles, etc.) subject to conditions. It also inspects, identifies, provides traceability and rejects products that display contaminated seals or do not conform to visual appearance specifications. In addition, the inspection system detects production drifts, giving the product manager time to react quickly to drifts and preventing a stream of improperly sealed packages. Correcting problems early on cuts packaging material loss, product loss and overall energy consumption.
“Luceo’s system helps us put out more finished product,” says Hausbeck. “The system flags small, cosmetic problems we had never even seen. Because we inspect the area where the cosmetic problems are showing up, the system helps us identify problems that might be greater down the road.” He is confident the company can now reduce leaking packages by 99 percent, compared to the previous year. Considering all the benefits the machine has provided, Hausbeck ordered a second unit for another line.
For more information:
Ray Bachelor, Bachelor Controls Inc., 785-284-3482,
Bobby Milton, Can Lines Engineering, 562-861-2996, ext. 160
Julia Mann, Luceo Inspection Worldwide, 516-383-3678,
Dave Reynolds, Bühler Aeroglide, 919-851-2000,
Tom Wienke, Emerson Process Management, 952-949-5103