As food manufacturers struggle with the loss of seasoned workers and the lack of young people entering the industry, they’re looking to automation technology to fill in the gaps.
To learn how automation can not only make production lines more efficient, but also help food companies preserve the institutional knowledge of retiring employees, we interviewed John Tertin, Director of Sales and Marketing at ESE Automation.
Wisconsin-based ESE opened for business over 30 years ago. “Our founder was a master electrician,” Tertin says, “and he did a lot of work for local dairies. As technology advanced, he advanced along with it and provided more value to our customers.” Since those early years, ESE has continued to focus exclusively on the food and beverage industry and has gained extensive expertise in a variety of processes, such as pasteurization, batching systems, continuous blending, fermentation, evaporation, and clean-in-place. While still recognized as experts in dairy processing, ESE has diversified into other food markets and today, dairy represents just 40% of ESE’s customer base.
Applying workforce knowledge to automation systems
Although technology continues to make processes faster and more efficient, it’s still no match for human sensitivity.
Tertin uses cheesemakers as an example. “Natural cheese is a very time sensitive process,” he says. “Things have to be done plus or minus 2° or 30 seconds, or you've made 40,000 lbs of something you really don't care to sell.” Over time, masters of this delicate craft have developed intuitions that make all the difference in the finished product. As Tertin explains, these operators “see something happen within the process, or within the product, that they inherently know is indicative of other issues, which may be overlooked by people who haven’t had the same longevity in that environment.”
The problem for many processors is that these experts are beginning to exit the workforce, often taking their critical knowledge acquired from decades of experience with them.
The key to retaining that knowledge is building it into the controls, which is exactly what ESE’s solutions allow processors to do. This gives manufacturers more ownership over the operation and control of product quality and consistency, while allowing experienced employees to customize the process.
The advantage of minimalistic, flexible designs
S88 (short for ISA88), which establishes concepts and terminology for successful batch control, is the standard for automation systems. It relies on a physical model (a hierarchical configuration of the plant’s equipment) and a recipe (a description of the procedures and formulas used to complete tasks). The batch process implements the recipe according to the order and capabilities of the plant’s equipment.
Many automation solutions deploy what Tertin refers to as “rigid, sequencer-based systems.” These systems are programmed for a specific purpose, meaning that the system will wait for designated times or measurements before moving through each stage.
Customers have limited ability to change these settings on their own. To make adjustments, they have to call in an integrator, which usually results in a hefty charge and lost time each time they request customization. More flexible S88-based systems tend to require costly software packages and multiple servers and other bulky infrastructure.
ESE seeks to solve both of these problems via flexible, minimalistic designs. Their solution employs the S88 design philosophy, but it “minimizes the software cost and, from an architectural standpoint, is very condensed.”
It also allows manufacturers to customize the operation of their equipment. Starting from the basics (e.g., a mixer with a wide range of ingredient options, a variable speed agitator, heating ability, and multiple discharge routes), ESE’s solution provides their customers with “the full capability of what any piece of equipment on the floor can do based on the physical installation and construction of the equipment,” Tertin says. “And then we give them the flexibility to organize those operations within a recipe, however best fits the process or product that is being produced. If there is a bit of institutional knowledge that needs to be incorporated, they are free to do so, and they're free to do so at any time.”
Optimizing processes and meeting regulatory requirements through digital reporting
In the highly competitive food industry, access to data is essential for optimizing processes and also for meeting the reporting requirements of food safety regulations.
However, many manufacturers, particularly in the dairy industry, still rely on the most analog of recordkeeping devices: circular charts. “There is still many a dairy out there that has about 15 years’ worth of circular charts from their pasteurizer hanging on a bunch of barn spikes on a wall,” Tertin says. “If that information is ever requested from them, they're going through filing cabinets or pulling circular charts off the wall, and that's their method of compliance.”
And while circular charts may be acceptable (though burdensome) for reporting purposes, their data represents a 12- or 24-hour timespan, which may contain multiple batches. In contrast, digital information collection, like that provided by ESE, provides clear data for a single batch, including accurate details on materials, trends, and process parameters.
For example, ESE offers a templated solution for clean-in-place (CIP) reporting that provides customers with “complete visibility into all of their CIP records, even if they have more than one system.” Customers can access individual wash reports which show all steps of every wash sequence, trends of key process variables, alarms that occurred during a wash, and details like water and chemical consumption. Reports also include a record of operator comments that can shed light on an exception condition. All of this value can be realized without needing to replace the entire system. ESE will review an existing system and retrofit their solution into it — allowing customers to maximize value while minimizing cost.
Programs are available for even the most specialized processes, such as Kosher certification. The Kosher process can be quite involved, as it often depends upon the relationships between manufacturing companies and their certifying partners. ESE’s detailed system reports increase efficiency and foster trust among certification parties.
Ultimately, ESE aims to help companies build confidence in their product quality and gain a competitive advantage. Today, with many people retiring and not enough young people stepping up to take their place, a sizable portion of any company’s competitiveness lies in its workforce. “People who have been at these institutions for long periods of time are the competitive advantage of that organization. Being able to capitalize on the institutional knowledge that those people have allows the customers to retain that competitive advantage.”
If you’d like to learn more about how ESE Automation can help you retain your institutional knowledge, be sure to stop by Booth #457 at PROCESS EXPO.