As oat milk has grown into a popular plant-based beverage, it fit right into SunOpta’s line of organic, non-GMO snacks and plant-based beverages.

The company entered the market in 2018, but the Alexandria, Minn. facility wouldn’t be able keep up with the insatiable demand for the grain-based product. SunOpta could make do in the short term with the existing facility and equipment, but something had to give. 

So this is not the story of some gargantuan expansion that could remain half empty for years; rather, it is the story of a carefully thought out add-on facility that would meet SunOpta’s needs now and into the future—a perfect, cost-effective fit for SunOpta. And, what else is cool from an engineering perspective is that thanks to modular design—equipment, hardware and software—should SunOpta want to start another line at any geographical location, the line can be duplicated in plug-and-play fashion where there is a need. 

Why oat milk? Oatmeal is one of the healthiest breakfast foods you can eat because of the protein, soluble fibers and other nutrients. In fact, you may have heard it from your doctor. So, why not oat milk? Take allergens, for example. It’s nut-free, dairy-free, soy-free, naturally gluten-free (as long as it’s certified as such)—and vegan.

Certification is important, says Bryan Clark, vice president, R&D Plant Based Foods and Beverages, SunOpta. While oats in themselves are free of gluten and all of those allergens just mentioned, it’s important that any company making a certified gluten-free product verify that all ingredient shipments they receive not be comingled with grains containing gluten—like wheat or barley. 

This contamination could happen in trailers, rail cars or grain elevators if they’re not properly cleaned. So verifying that shippers keep oat grain from free of contamination from other grains is critically important in maintaining the gluten-free certification. Trust a certificate of analysis (COA) on incoming oats? Verification is better. SunOpta has worked with its suppliers to scan all oats before delivery to SunOpta loading docks.


Oatbase—the key ingredient to oat milk

While SunOpta’s Alexandria facility doesn’t bottle oat milk on premises, it makes a product that bottlers use. Think of it as something like evaporated milk, but it’s hydrolyzed oats. “SunOpta oatbase is a liquid concentrate characterized by light brown, or tan color with a mildly sweet flavor characteristic of oat,” says Clark. 

“The oatbase begins with whole, rolled oats that are broken down by an enzymatic process and result in an opaque oat-based liquid,” adds Clark. “We concentrate the liquid oatbase to reduce the cost of transportation and storage volume required for the oatbase.”

For all intents and purposes, the batch process (first located in the main building and now in the new facility) is continuous, so all product sampling and monitoring is for verification of the process and conditions (used to generate COAs). Each ingredient is metered individually into the batching system. “We rely upon in-process measures and control to drive consistency and reliability,” says Clark.


Sizing up the situation

With customer demand increasing so quickly, SunOpta sought to quadruple output of the existing system. But was it possible? Clark’s team looked at several possibilities. 

He said that SunOpta initially focused on continuous improvement of the existing system—debottlenecking and also speed/throughput and CIP/sanitation optimization. “We had maximized the shifts and labor on the existing system prior to beginning the capacity expansion project.”

“We executed several smaller projects during 2019 to maximize production from the initial production system. In addition, we exited some smaller non-oatbases in our portfolio to create more capacity for oatbase,” adds Clark.

Overall, a capacity expansion project was essential to sustain current business and enable growth with both new and existing customers. And the steps taken to try and get more out of the existing system weren’t in vain. “We had the benefit, as we began to design the new process, of learning from the existing system—things like pain points and rate limiters that became design requirements for our new process and system,” says Clark.

Clark and his team realized it was time for some outside expertise—because the current four walls just could no longer provide ample space to make oatbase. Factors leading to this conclusion included:

  • The speed with which SunOpta desired to execute this project
  • The complexity and scope associated with the project: new construction of the building, new technologies to be incorporated into the process and most certainly the level of automation that was desired in the new process
  • Additional capital projects, already in progress, had consumed SunOpta’s internal resources. SunOpta needed additional human capacity/resources in a short timeframe


Finding the right partner to right-size the expansion

If you’ve worked successfully with a supplier or engineering firm over the years, you know the value of such an ongoing relationship. It was no different for SunOpta, which selected Dennis Group to look the situation over and come up with some solutions. 

“We were certainly familiar with Dennis Group from a previous project in one of our aseptic processing and packaging plants,” says Clark. “Their reputation and portfolio of projects in the food and beverage space was a critical aspect of the decision process. The depth and breadth of expertise and skills Dennis Group possesses made them a true turn-key solution provider for our needs on this project (construction, process and automation).”

When asked how SunOpta concluded more space was necessary, Clark said the manufacturing plant was, and remains, a quite limited footprint—meaning it is full and maxed out. “We knew from the earliest stages of the project that we would require a ‘new’ footprint for this project.” Clark’s team contemplated repurposing the existing process area as well as taking over warehouse space for the capacity expansion project.

“The SunOpta team identified warehouse space in the existing plant, which could be retrofitted accordingly, but after more detailed review, loss of this space to the operation, retrofit costs to ensure hygienic design, coordination concerns (i.e., construction inside an existing food facility) and materials/personnel flow was not ideal,” says Kirsten Kirsch, Dennis Group process engineer. 

Clark noted that they even contemplated repurposing an existing process area, but soon quit the idea. “Ultimately, the potential interruptions to daily operations and the potential for incremental time to execute drove the decision to build a new footprint versus repurposed or warehouse space,” says Clark. 

“An expansion to the north in an unused portion of the site was, therefore, most practical and addressed the project’s goals more effectively,” says Kirsch. “The new 9,600-sq.-ft. expansion enabled a purpose-built hygienic facility addition to be constructed with minimal impact to the operation.” 

The new addition is just that—it’s an independent facility with its own air handling (HVAC) system, only connected to the original building with a passageway to keep people out of the Minnesota weather when traversing between facilities, says Clark.


Challenges aplenty 

Minnesota’s climate creates a number of construction challenges. “Building things in Minnesota during winter and spring (and sometimes, fall) is ripe with potential challenges—heavy snowfall and deep frost lines, to name a few,” says SunOpta’s Clark. 

“We worked very closely with the Dennis Group in planning and assessing the risks associated with construction during this timeframe,” adds Clark. “There was an excellent plan with contingencies to ensure adherence to the project schedule.”

“The overall approach to construction was to get the exterior of the building (walls and roof) completed so we could condition the interior for trenching, drains and plumbing as well as pouring the concrete floor,” says Clark. Thawing the ground to enable creation and placement of structural piers required careful planning and coordination. Then, planning and staging the pre-case panels (exterior walls) for arrival on-site and preparations to support the roof had to proceed like clockwork.

All the while, COVID-19 didn’t make things any easier. To start, the Dennis Group team found there were increased failure rates on equipment shipped during COVID and increased delivery times, according to Dennis Group’s Kirsch. The denature skid was coming from Italy, and the evaporator skid from Copenhagen, Denmark. “We had delays on both pieces of equipment related primarily to COVID-19—approximately three weeks delay on the evaporator skid and five weeks on the denature skid,” says Kirsch. 

Delays weren’t the only challenges brought about by COIVID. “Commissioning and checkout were a challenge because the key personnel from suppliers were unable to travel to the U.S. from overseas,” says Kirsch. “FATs were therefore not possible. This resulted in additional startup time as the new teams from vendors were unfamiliar with the systems.”

“Normally, we would have been on-site with the vendor in the May-June timeframe for construction reviews and vendor acceptance testing (VAT/FAT),” says Clark. “We worked closely with our Dennis Group leads (functional) and the vendor to conduct as much of the ‘typical’ VAT activities virtually. Three-dimensional models and multiple, lengthy virtual sessions were helpful, but we fully anticipated and planned for additional time in the project schedule for when the equipment arrived at the project site (plant).”


State-of-the-art controls

SunOpta’s process starts with raw material receiving of super sacks of raw oats, which are pneumatically conveyed and metered into batching tanks where the oats are combined with water and other minor ingredients. The mixture moves to holding tanks where it is broken down via enzymatic conversion before the insoluble parts of the oats are separated. Thermal denaturation occurs before an evaporator concentrates the oat mixture to 40% solids. Finally, the product is chilled and prepared for load out in bulk. 

Controls in the older system were somewhat disjointed, with individual controls on certain pieces of equipment, but there was no one point of coordinating control of the entire process, says Clark. To bring this process up to modern control standards, SunOpta’s team conferred with Dennis Group to iron out the wants and needs for the new system.

“In our initial process reviews, and after speaking with SunOpta Teams (operation and maintenance), there were a few areas that we wanted to improve with the new system,” says Josh Nichols, Dennis Group controls engineer. For example, they included:

  • Tracking changes made by both operators and maintenance on the system
  • Tracking process, production and quality points for troubleshooting and performance metrics
  • Incorporating standards into HMI for process objects to help operators and maintenance with system control
  • Localizing and simplifying device connections on production floor to allow faster troubleshooting and replacement

Dennis Group worked with SunOpta team leads and demonstrated solutions to the areas identified below:

  1. Incorporated Rockwell’s PlantPAx distributed control solution to provide standard process pop-ups and integrated security
  2. Worked with corporate IT to incorporate HMI user levels into preexisting operators’ Windows user accounts
  3. Deployed Rockwell Historian, FactoryTalk Asset Center and Metrics to display key process data, allow for review of previous production runs, and track both PLC and HMI changes
  4. Utilized ASi “control tops” for process valves and I/O Link for devices, which greatly reduced wiring (saved money), eliminated failure points, and allowed for device level monitoring

Nichols and Kirsch outlined some other key points that the Dennis Group and SunOpta teams worked out for a successful project completion.

Sampling—Aside from normal flow, temperature and pressure feedback, direct inline product sampling was not achievable in the old system. The SunOpta Quality Team and DG identified and placed manual sample valves at key quality points throughout the process.

Process control—First, the key way to control the process starts with precise dosing of ingredients and consistent temperature and flow control, says Kirsch.

“We used a combination of mass meters, loss-in-weight feeders and optimized PID controls to achieve repeatable product quality,” says Nichols. During startup, the SunOpta Quality team adjusted the ingredient percentages, cook times and transfer speeds not only to deliver consistent product but also balance the line to ensure a continuous process. 

Second, also important to controlling the process is communication with vendor skids and handling of upset conditions, adds Kirsch. For example, if a feed tank goes empty, vendor upstream and downstream systems go into “water mode” or “hibernation” until the system recovers.

The new controls system has multiple setpoint parameters that can be modified to optimize control, i.e. temperature setpoints, cook times, recipe setpoints, alarm limits that were constantly optimized throughout startup based on actual runtime parameters and lab data to achieve constant products. The system also has feedback from equipment (i.e. valve status, motor feedback), which provide asset status, says Kirsch.

Training—A big reason for the rapid and successful startup of this system was the familiarity and ownership the operators had from the first day of product testing. Dennis Group and SunOpta leadership worked to develop thorough training documents and provide a virtual training environment of the system. The virtual environment was deployed prior to the start of system checkout, and allowed operators and maintenance to work through training documentation before system was installed.

And, the controls have delivered. “At a high level, [the control system] is state of the art in terms of automation and control,” says Clark. “It is the most sophisticated level of automation in our manufacturing network.” And where the old system was incapable of in-line/at-line sensing, this level of sensing is now possible. Clark says that it’s nice to know that sampling points are available when needed.


CIP and process control

There were still some points that required manual intervention in the old line (though much of it was automated), so Clark figured it a good idea to have CIP fully automated and integrated into the process control system. “We leveraged some of the current conditions (in the old system) to engage the OEMs to more fully automate CIP and eliminate much of the manual interventions in the new system/line.”

The new process has a dedicated CIP system, says Dennis Group’s Nichols. The CIP and process system were designed to maximize production by reducing production turn-around time. The system utilizes mixproof valves and segregated CIP circuits to switch from production to CIP as quickly as possible. This means that when upstream area is finished with production, SunOpta operators can immediately run CIP while downstream areas finish the production run. This allows the CIP essentially to chase the product through the system and allows production to start before the entire system is finished with CIP, adds Nichols.

“For example, as soon as one cook tank finishes processing, it can be CIPed while the other cook tank continues to finish,” says Kirsch. “The mixproof [valve] technology helps with system turnaround time, as production and CIP ‘overlap.’” Each sequence is fully customizable through the HMI system via the PIN charts. This gives the plant long-term control to optimize based on validation or update based on new chemistry used in the future. 

While a typical CIP system run by a PLC with hard-coded instructions is difficult for even a programmer to modify, the new system gives control to the operators, says Kirsch. The new CIP system interface allows visibility into these settings as well as puts the control at the plant/sanitation/quality level. Finally, just like the process data, all of the CIP information is available within Historian and Vantage point.


Actionable information at an operator’s fingertips

Having actionable data was vital to the operation. Clark outlined the steps that were taken: 

  • We made a subsequent investment to obtain a “historian” database system.
  • All data that is generated during production and sanitation are captured and stored, as well as real-time trending and reporting.
  • We developed dashboards and standard reports to accomplish comparisons daily, weekly and monthly.
  • In terms of adjusting for plant environmental conditions, the new system is located in a brand-new building with state of the art HVAC hardware and controls.

Historian and Metrics are the two main software systems that allow all personnel (operators, maintenance, quality, etc.) the ability to pull data from shift, day, production run, month and eventually years’ worth of data, says Nichols. There is a variety of displays on five strategically located monitors throughout the plant, which allow for different operators to use the data relevant to what they are trying to analyze. Besides the actionable data provided the system, an unexpected area of improvement was seen in terms of time for troubleshooting. These systems make it easy to compare data and track process changes.

While the control system doesn’t tie directly to ERP at this time, there are some “handshakes” that have been established, says Clark. For example, production demand comes from ERP, and that is entered into the control system for a production campaign. In addition, ingredients, raw materials and other consumables are scanned from inventory management system to meet the production demand for the campaign—and then reconciled.


Future thoughts 

Finally, Clark sees the future of the facility as bright. “We are very pleased with the new system and believe our best days remain in front of us. We are beginning to unlock the full potential of the new system as we begin 2021.”

But what becomes of the spent oats after exiting the process? Well, Clark already has it planned out. 

“We are actually in the process of offering that as an ingredient. It’s a good source of protein and fiber—so I have some other folks on the R&D team that are turning those into all kinds of delicious products—anything from muffins, cookies, crackers to overnight oats,” says Clark. And believe it or not—we’re looking at some different fermentation applications.”

Perhaps oat-based stout, a favorite at microbreweries? “I’ve got another team in the lab brewing beer.” 

But, Clark is determined to use all of the spent oats and have no waste. “We’re going to be zero-waste at some point in the future. It’s hard for me to say an exact date, but we are utilizing all the material.”

Report card on the new facility and system

I asked Bryan Clark how the plant team members liked the new facility, what general improvements he’s seen and how senior management likes the new system. First he lists team member benefits:

  • This level of automation is a significant change, a positive one, for our plant team. 
  • It fits within our continuous improvement philosophy and program, SunOpta 360, to continue to bring new technology and new approaches to our plants.
  • Training was key—we worked with the Dennis Group and our internal continuous skills development (CSD) pillar to develop a training program and materials.
  • We created playbooks and one-point lessons to provide on-floor support to the team.
  • We designated subject matter experts early in the project to work closely with the Dennis Group on key aspects of the final automation solution.
  • Josh and the Dennis Group controls team were able to provide a virtual environment, a simulator, for operations and maintenance personnel to become familiar with the production controls environment long before things were bolted to the floor and wired.

Overall improvements that Clark reports:

  • We were able to multiply (about four times) the capacity of oatbase with the same staffing model, driven in large part by the automation of this system.
  • The nature of the work has correspondingly been impacted, as well. In comparison to the existing system, operators are reviewing and monitoring the control screens/HMIs for current conditions and making adjustments centrally vs. having to adjust individual equipment with local control panels/HMIs.