Automation, sanitation, safety, efficiency, workforce challenges — these topics have formed the basis of most of the interviews we’ve done with food processing suppliers for this article series. So far, we’ve focused on how individual machines and systems help manufacturers and processors address these issues. To get a broader, process-level perspective, we recently talked to Robert Price, Design Director at process engineering and controls firm Seiberling Associates.
Seiberling has more than 40 years of experience designing food processing plants, from receiving raw ingredients through filling and packaging. In 2012, the company was acquired by Haskell, one of the nation’s leading design-build firms, allowing them to expand their expertise beyond the production line to “the whole gamut of food processing,” including architectural design, utilities, material handling, and construction management.
Automation for efficient, safe, and economical design
“Companies are always being pushed to design more efficiently and more economically,” Price says. “They want plants that can run 24/7. But brand new greenfield plants are a large investment, and companies need to make sure they’re getting the most efficient and economical use out of that equipment.”
Seiberling has always been a proponent of automation to achieve these goals. While most people know that automation has immense benefits on the efficiency side, there’s still a perception that automation isn’t particularly economical. “Typically, the more you automate a process, the larger the upfront install cost.” However, Price points out that the results of automation — in particular decreasing the potential for human error and its associated risk of contamination and product loss — actually save money.
One example of how Seiberling uses automation to boost efficiency and safety is by eliminating manual swing connections in fluid processes. “A good percentage of our work is in the fluid industry, where we try to keep everything contained in the piping and in the vessels, rather than opening it up to the environment. This eliminates the risk of operator error causing product loss or someone getting injured, for example, by product that’s hot or under pressure. Contamination also becomes a concern as soon as you open up any type of process line or piece of equipment to the environment.”
Price notes a discrepancy between what’s happening at large plants and what’s happening at small ones.
For products that are commodities, like fluid milk and ice cream, there aren’t many new small plants popping up. Instead, consolidations and plant closures are resulting in more larger production facilities. “Some of that has to do with the age of these operating plants,” he says. “But more of it has to do with minimizing redundancies and maximizing production capabilities.”
By contrast, niche market companies, like those making plant-based proteins and alternative milks, are growing at extraordinary rates. “We have recently been talking with a number of companies that make everything from butter and cream cheese to yogurt and cheese from plant-based proteins,” Price says. “They started off basically in a garage and have grown.”
A challenge for these smaller companies is that they often don’t have expertise surrounding how to produce products safely on a large scale. “There are a lot of shortcuts sometimes when you're a smaller company,” Price says. “You either don't understand the rules, or you don't think they apply to you.”
One such requirement is FSMA compliance. Price points to the many changes FSMA has ushered in, from isolating different processing steps to physical security, recordkeeping, and recall management. Growing companies that fail to understand and adopt the proper compliance measures risk their own survival in this climate.
Automation also helps companies deal with a shrinking and less experienced workforce. “It used to be that getting a food plant job was a lifelong career, with maybe one or two job changes along the way, but that's no longer the case.” As a result of high turnover, “the average operator doesn’t have a lot of experience in the particular process.” This situation makes automation almost compulsory for companies to weather the ups and downs of the workforce without having to constantly train new staff.
New technologies advancing the industry
Fortunately, with the right systems in place, it’s easier than ever before to comply with federal laws as well as to optimize production lines. Here are some of the advanced technologies Price believes are set to have an immense impact on the food industry.
Originally used in the brewery and pharmaceutical industries, mixproof valves automate cleaning and sanitation processes. These valves have been available since the ‘90s, but they still are a hard sell to some food manufacturers today due to the high upfront cost (about three times the cost of the traditional single-seat valve). Price thinks that will change in the next few years.
Without mixproof valves, cleaning processing lines requires employees to manually isolate the cleaning system from the processing system to avoid contaminating the product with cleaning solution.
With mixproof valves, this entire process is automated. You just hit a button, and the cleaning starts automatically. There’s no downtime, no possibility of an operator hooking up the wrong connections, no product contamination, and no risk of injury from the line contents.
Instruments to monitor transitions between products
Processors are always looking for ways to reduce not only downtime but also product loss. In the past, operators would use meters or stopwatches to manually time transitions, but in the past few years, instruments have been developed that allow them to monitor the entire process to minimize the amount of product that goes down the drain. “Today, we can measure these transitions in a repeatable way using turbidity sensors and other newer technologies that do not rely on operator intervention,” Price says. “It really is a big improvement over what we used to use.”
Virtual reality, augmented reality, and the Internet of Things
Riding on its success in gaming and online shopping experiences, virtual reality (VR) is also making its way into manufacturing industries. “I don’t know how fast that’s going to catch on in the food industry,” Price says, but it may revolutionize the way manufacturers interact with their customers.
Augmented reality (AR) is already set to make a splash at PROCESS EXPO. This year’s show will feature an AR Showcase with demonstrations by participating exhibitors that will include holographic representations of equipment and training simulations.
Price also mentioned the Internet of Things (IoT) as a technology that may transform the industry further down the line. “I’ve seen growing interest in the IoT, which is essentially a system that gathers data into a huge database where it can be manipulated to improve production capabilities,” Price says. “However, I think it’s a ways off before it is embraced by the industry.”
Whatever changes come to the food industry, Seiberling will be around to help companies design and optimize their plants and processes. To learn how Price and the team can help you with your next project, be sure to stop by Booth #2212 at PROCESS EXPO.