Automation of batch processing isn’t new, but, in fact, has been a staple of food processing for decades. However, as more companies move beyond the basics of automation, they are finding that new technology brings big rewards—as well as big challenges.
The first of those challenges is defining what automation actually means when it comes to batch processing. Much like other areas of production, the choices range from relatively simple—control systems, flow meters and automated valves—all the way up to a system that almost entirely removes operators from the equation.
“When we talk about manual vs. automated, it’s not really a binary decision,” says Sean Brennan, senior MES engineer at Stone Technologies, which is a certified member of the Control Systems Integrators Association (CSIA). “It’s more of a spectrum; there are varying levels of manual vs. automated in a lot of different processes.”
As is the case with almost every aspect of operations, automating batch processing requires a risk/reward analysis to decide what makes sense for your operation overall and even your individual facilities. Taking the time to do that analysis correctly up front is critical to getting the most out of automation.
Keep in mind that while you may be getting some fancy new machinery, when it comes down to it, the process is the same thing you’ve always been doing. The bottom line is to keep it simple, says Tim Matheny, president of CSIA Certified member ECS Solutions.
“Honestly, it’s not anything you wouldn’t do in your own kitchen,” says Matheny. “You mix stuff, you measure it, you cook it.”
Getting off the ground
As Brennan says, automating batch processing isn’t a yes or no decision. It’s a number of different decisions that all add up to the level of automation that you want to achieve on a production line or in a particular facility.
Steve Malyszko, president and CEO of CSIA Certified member Malisko Engineering, points out that automated batch processing has been around in one form or another for as long as he’s been in the industry (since the 1970s). The first step for helping automate end users’ operations is to determine the level of sophistication in their process.
“Also where they are at in the whole journey of developing their whole manufacturing process,” he says.
That journey can encompass a wide range of automation levels, so processors first have to evaluate where they are, then determine where they want to end up.
In a facility that uses manual batch processing, the operators have a number of steps they have to take during production runs, changeovers, cleaning and so on. Some or even most of those steps may already be automated, says Ed Montgomery, food and beverage industry manager for Siemens.
“Nearly everyone has some level of automation,” he says. “If [their process] is not automated, then they have some procedures and guidelines to follow to create their specific recipes.”
And most processes still have a manual component. If you’re looking to automate or add onto already existing automation, you have to evaluate what is being done manually to make sure you aren’t missing anything during the process.
This seems pretty straightforward: Document the steps, then figure out how they can be automated. But what is written down isn’t what always happens during the production process. Operators figure out shortcuts or more efficient ways of doing certain things, and those methods may never make it to the operations manual. So, the best bet is to not only review your official processes, but also ask the operators for insight into how those processes may change from paper to production.
“People don’t spend enough time documenting their manual process,” Montgomery says.
Failing to do so can lead to complications when a process is automated and suddenly ends up being less efficient than it was before. In addition to that, there’s a difference between automating processes and automating procedures, says John Parraga, process specialist for ECS Systems.
“Most people think that automation is ‘let’s put in controllers and make sure we can open and close the valve automatically whenever we command it to,’” he says. “That’s one type of automation, which is process automation. Procedure automation is ‘do we have an orderly way of executing the tasks required to make a product, whether the equipment is automated or not?’”
Once those processes and procedures are properly documented, the role of the operators will change. While they will still likely have steps to take during the process, they can be in more of an oversight role, says Mike McEnery, president of CSIA Certified member McEnery Automation.
“You can use that person in more of a thinking role than a physical role,” he says.
You’ll notice that the discussion so far of the operator’s role has been about it changing instead of being eliminated. While it is true that automation of batch processing can help cut down on labor costs, it doesn’t mean you can simply eliminate operators entirely.
This is especially the case in production facilities that produce specialty or craft products, says Dan Updyke, batch product manager for Rockwell Automation.
“Just because something is automated doesn’t take the personal touch out of it,” he says. “You can still introduce all those manual steps and allow for modifications. It’s not completely out of the manufacturer’s hands.”
Brewing is a field where this is prevalent—while it is possible to automate much of the process, steps, such as adding hops, often still require an operator to do them.
This also holds true in mass production facilities. If a line makes several different flavors of the same product, then it makes more sense to automate other parts of the process rather than the addition of all the flavoring.
“A food manufacturer might make 10 different flavors of a particular product,” says McEnery. “It doesn’t make sense to try to automate the addition of each one of those small ingredients for those 10 different flavors.”
The argument for automation
If fully automating batch processing isn’t really possible or even feasible, then it may raise the question of why you should even bother with it. There are several answers.
The first is, while it will not eliminate labor costs associated with batch processing, it will reduce them. You may be able to cut down on the number of operators needed or spread out their hours more evenly. For example, a plant that runs around the clock may be able to have two operators during busier daytime shifts and one during overnight shifts, as opposed to having three or four people during heavier production times and at least a couple during less busy times.
Capital costs can be cut as well. One of the biggest benefits of automating any system is the ability to produce more on a given production line, which can save you from having to build another line or facility until demand truly outstrips what you can produce with your existing infrastructure.
“Hey, this plant’s at capacity, how can we increase the amount of product we’re making without having to build another production area or another plant?” asks McEnery. “In that particular case, if we can figure out how to make 25 percent more with the same equipment, and only invest in the costs of this automation system versus another entire process area, that will be a big reason for people to do it.”
Another area of savings is in material costs. Obviously, materials are expensive, and processors are always looking for ways to cut down on their usage while still being able to meet their needs. With manual batch processing, a recipe that calls for 100 pounds of an ingredient might require an understanding that exactly 100 pounds might not be added in and that adjustments to other ingredients might be made. With an automated system, you can get much closer to the exact number you’re looking for, which means not having to have a cascading series of compensations that ends up using much more material than is absolutely necessary.
“If you accidentally added too much of an ingredient to a manual system [and] then you added similar amounts of the other ingredients, you’re not going to achieve that perfect batch that you wanted to,” says Montgomery.
An automated system can help avoid that issue. If too much of an ingredient is added by mistake or as part of a manual process, the automated system can make those necessary compensations to prevent ruining the batch. Ultimately, what you want to avoid is those situations where a tiny mistake in an early step ends up being a big mistake at the end of the process.
“If you have a long, multifaceted process where you have many, many steps, and each step has a 1 percent error, each step is ‘close enough,’” says Rockwell’s Updyke. “But if they’re all erring in the same direction, then you could really have a problem.”
If you have enough of those “close enough” steps, then you can end up missing your target on a lot of production runs, which is not a situation that any processor wants to deal with. While there will always be some quality issues, driving down the number of them to a point that is acceptable is a fundamental part of processing. This is especially relevant when you’re talking about expanding production or adding a new line, because while you may have a system in place to limit errors, it may not be scalable to a sudden increase in demand.
“What’s my pain point in terms of off-spec quality product?” asks Steve Malyszko. “I have more demand, therefore, I have to make more product, but I only have so many hours in the day, I only have so many resources. I need something to help me manage that. That’s usually when companies start thinking ‘I need to engage automation.’”
A deluge of data
There’s another big advantage to batch processing automation, and it’s a four-letter word: data. Whether it’s a good or bad word depends on your ability to manage data and actually get something useful out of it instead of simply drowning in it when you move over to an automated system that can suddenly produce reams more data than your manual system could.
Even if it’s a partially automated system, you’ll still be able to collect data from it. It may be entered manually as operators set up ingredient additions and enter recipe information, but the data can be collected automatically and gathered for review. This not only gives you operating data, it can be helpful in noticing errors and other issues during the production process.
Think of it this way: A recipe calls for 50 pounds of an ingredient. An operator manually adds 50.25 pounds, then writes down “added 50 pounds” on his or her clipboard. It’s another one of those “close enough” steps that may not affect quality, but can certainly add up to extra material costs.
With an automated system, there will be a record of each time an ingredient was added and how much was added. Not only does that help cut material costs, it also helps you identify areas where operators may need more oversight or training to ensure that they’re getting as close as possible to what the recipe calls for when they’re taking those manual steps that may still exist.
As for operating data, the benefit of automation is that equipment can generate data over a period of time a lot more efficiently than humans can. Instead of having to compile data from written logs or count on it being properly entered into a spreadsheet or a database, processors can pull the data directly from the automated process, says Dan Malyszko, director of operations for Malisko Engineering’s Denver branch.
“What about some of my time series data?” he asks. “What if I want to go back and look at process trending? Some of the more modern tools are able to bring that data together and make correlations without having to search all over the place.”
The downside of having all this data available at your fingertips is that it’s easy to overdo it and end up drowning in information. If that happens, acquiring data becomes counterproductive, because you spend more time trying to figure it out than you do actually using it to improve your processes.
The best way to fight this, Dan Malyszko says, is to tackle it early on. When you’re looking at automating a process or a series of processes, be sure you define what data you want and how you want it. In addition to that, ask the vendor what additional data you can get, how you can get it and the best way to produce it in a way that is manageable and usable.
“Nobody knows the actual processes of production better than the producers themselves,” Dan Malyszko says, so make sure you draw on the knowledge of the people working on those processes to define what data will be helpful to you.
If you’re able to do that, then you can make the data work for you and use it to improve your operations, which, after all, is the overall goal for moving to an automated system.
“As long as you manage the data and give people the tools to really use that [data] and visualize what’s going on, people adapt to that pretty quickly, and they appreciate having all the extra data at their fingertips,” says Stone Technologies’ Brennan.
When it comes down to it, automating batch processing may seem daunting, but it’s really just taking your existing processes and procedures and doing them in a more efficient way. But you do still have to be careful to do your homework and dig into the details to make sure that you’re getting the promised efficiency from a new system.
While automating batch processing won’t reinvent the wheel, it will give you more control, improved efficiency and better data. If you’re willing to put in the work up front to define what you need and what your goals are, then you’ll be able to maximize the flexibility and efficiency that automation can provide.
“The key to effective batch manufacturing is being agile, that is, able to move from one product to another quickly and rapidly, while being able to maintain a high utilization on your equipment,” says Matheny. “That’s really what a batch manager helps you do.”
For more information:
Ed Montgomery, Siemens,
Dan Updyke, Rockwell Automation, 440-646-3434,