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Making the Most of Automation for Food and Beverage Manufacturing

Dexter Smith | 5 May 2021

No two automation projects are the same. What makes a project unique? The size of the project, complexity of the operation, deployed technologies, or new installation at greenfield facility versus a modernization or expansion of an existing, brownfield site. Adding automation technology for food and beverage manufacturers, however, adds a different challenge and a different set of variables that are important to consider as you plan, implement, and leverage the new tools.  

At Bastian Solutions, one of our core values is to “keep growing,” and we do this by implementing Kaizen principles. One detail that is constant in all of these projects is learning how to do it better and keeping that in mind for new projects.

Adding advanced technologies to a distribution or manufacturing operation can certainly create efficiencies. With food and beverage, I’ve found that there are four key focus areas that can help manufacturers truly make the most of automating their processes.

1. Recipe Variance

In a recent project experience, we had to handle a food product of different types and consistencies. At face value, they were all fundamentally the same product and it was easy to assume that all varieties of the product or recipe would convey or behave identically.

I am here to tell you, that simply was not the case. The different flavors and recipes played a critical role in how we handled each product variety.

Sticky, wet, dry, chunky, smooth, gritty – these are all conditions that could impact the performance of a proposed solution. When designing your system, heavily consider how these different recipes might interact on specific conveyor lines or components in your system. 

In this instance, consider accounting for the varied recipes through your PLC control system. It may be worth investigating whether you need to have specific conveyor modes for each one. While it is an additional criterion to consider, these different modes could be managed and selected through the HMI (Human Machine Interface) for that day’s production batch. No matter how small, it’s important to highlight and discuss all the variances that the system may handle.

2. Mitigate Waste and Achieve Thorough Testing

At some point during the project installation, there will come a time to run and test your system. Depending on the uniqueness of your food and beverage product there will be a varying degree of testing required for each product variance and situation. To ensure your system will thrive and properly support operations, the system must be tested thoroughly to dial in the material handling and automation.

This can inherently create a lot of waste and product that is no longer viable for sale. To help mitigate wasting product, consider keeping product that has not fully met QC inspections or has already passed expiration for this testing. In our most recent project, the client had a surplus of expired product which allowed us to test the system without depleting their inventory.

Additionally, it is imperative that testing be performed for each recipe. Our specific application involved multiple bulk bagging operations. In testing we noticed that recipes flowed differently on the conveyors. Each recipe created different texture and weight. With this knowledge, we were able to adjust the conveyor speeds accordingly to keep throughput consistent.

3. Equipment Cleaning

Introducing automation equipment to your food operation will also introduce the need to perform appropriate, thorough equipment cleaning procedures. Do not underestimate the time it will take to perform these tasks so you can properly forecast your system’s production levels.

If you are producing product that is allergen-free, consider using dedicated equipment for those recipes. This will reduce the chance of cross-contact. However, if cross-contact is unavoidable, ensure you are prepared and equipped to properly handle the level of sanitation required to produce your allergen-free product.  

4. Think and Re-Think Processes

It is critical for you to consider and reconsider all your production processes when planning to add automation to your operations. Like with most industries, in food and beverage, it is crucial to not let any one-off processes that you perform today slip through the cracks. Consider your year as a whole and any instances that may require changes in the way your product is produced, or orders are filled.

For example, you may have a special seasonal or promotional product that you make every year as a one-off. In that case, your process could involve adding a special flavor, coating, or applying a special “value-add” type service like special product wrapping.

How does that flavor or coating mix with your newly introduced automation? Can your equipment handle that special coating, or will additional steps be needed? Do you have to create a dedicated route for product in between production stages for the special wrapping?

Make sure these types of processes are thoroughly considered when implementing your new automation project.

Maximize Your Automation Asset

Tackling the challenges that come with complexity of food or beverage recipes and flavors starts with planning. Break down and focus on outlining all the products and variations that you currently and intend to produce. The transparency helps in the selection of the automation solutions but, most importantly, helps make the most of that solution.

These lessons can be translated to a variety of applications and industries, but it’s Bastian Solutions’ continuous learning values that help make that happen for our clients. Pulling from a variety of experiences and advanced technologies, Bastian Solutions will help you reduce hiccups in the design and implementation of your project. In doing so, you will maximize your ability to leverage your new automation asset for many years.

Author: Dexter Smith

Dexter Smith is a Project Engineer at Bastian Solutions, based in the Cincinnati Area. As a project engineer, he works closely with our Field Application Engineers when designing and managing conveyor systems for our customers.  He has a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Louisville. 

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