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Choosing the right industrial PC in the food sector

13 February 2017

Andrew Byrne looks at the particular challenges of specifying a PC for use in food processing applications. 

The many high-profile food product contamination cases in recent years highlight the importance of specifying the right equipment for use in the food processing environment.

In February 2016, for example, confectionary giant Mars announced a recall of many of its chocolate bar products. The recall affected 55 countries and came after a customer discovered a piece of plastic in a Snickers chocolate bar, which was later found to have come from a protective cover used in the manufacturing process.

In total, there were 1,514 cases of contamination in the UK food industry in 2015, according to the Annual Report of Incidents published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA). The worst affected food sectors are meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables, dairy and bakery and most contamination incidents originated from biological sources, industrial contaminants and allergens. However, 78 of these incidents were directly caused by contamination from foreign bodies, including industrial equipment made of plastic, metal and glass.

Fit for purpose
The pressure on plant managers to cut costs and drive efficiency means that commercial-grade computers are often chosen for use in food applications which firmly require industrial computers which are designed specifically to cope with the challenges of the sector. Commercial-grade computers are designed for use dry, office environments where they will typically run for under ten hours a day and use forced convection to cool the machine through built-in vents if it gets hot.

In comparison, industrial plants — whether processing and packaging raw meat or washing fruit and vegetables — will be wet, temperature-controlled, continuous production environments where industrial computers can be expected to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Add to this the fact that equipment in many food applications need to be washed-down with high-pressure washers to prevent the build up of organic matter on surfaces. 

What to consider
When choosing an industrial PC for food environments always consider equipment that adheres to good manufacturing practice (GMP) guidelines. A recent World Health Organization report explains that, ‘the layout and design of equipment must aim to minimise the risk of errors and permit effective cleaning and maintenance to avoid cross-contamination, build-up of dust or dirt and, in general, any adverse effect on the quality of products’.

Industrial buyers should choose PCs where the ergonomic design features include screens without bezels and touchscreen inputs that can be used with gloves. This eliminates the need for a keyboard and mouse. If manual inputs are needed then it is best to opt for a fully-enclosed PC with ingress protection which is capable of withstanding prolonged use and high levels of vibration and shock is vital.

If dedicated networking and connectivity is a requirement, in addition to wireless connections, choose a PC that offers integrated PCI expansion network cards sealed within the unit with gland plates to prevent ingress. When attaching devices such as scanners and printers it is important to ensure that the wires and connectors are also sealed and ingress rated.

It isn't just the immediate hardware specification that buyers need to consider. When choosing an industrial PC, the long-term management of assets can directly affect their return on investment. Over-specifying equipment can be just as costly as specifying equipment that is unfit for purpose and needs to be replaced often.

Distec advises those in the food industry to consider the long-term factors that the operating environment might have on the equipment specified, and to consider how the environment and application might change over time, to ensure a future-proofed solution. 

The applications that industrial PCs are exposed to be can be harsh so specifying the right solution in a market where the volume of computer sales is growing rapidly is not always easy, but is vital to ensure that the chosen solution will not pose any contamination issues and is able to overcome the challenges of operating in a harsh environment. 

Andrew Byrne is sales engineer Distec.

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