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Fact: Automation does make you more productive!

10 December 2018

Suzanne Gill reports on the 2018 Appetite for Engineering event, which took place on 18th October at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry. 

The annual Appetite for Engineering event took place at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry. Once again the event attracted a good cross section of engineers working across the food manufacturing sector who took advantage of the unique opportunity to network with academics, consultants, and industry suppliers. Once again the event set out to promote the benefits of adopting automation technologies. One delegate commented on the need for the food manufacturing industry to over its apparent apathy towards automation. The first presentation of the day picked up on this point, highlighting the growing need for industry to move away from its traditional reliance on manual labour.

Simon Pearson, a professor at Lincoln University and  lead of the EPSRC-funded Internet of Food Things Network project, sought to explain what impact emerging technologies – such as AI, disitalisation, Blockchain and robotics – will have across the food industry supply chain in the coming years as the wider manufacturing sector engages in  the process of digital transformation. 

He started with the good news: “Productivity within the UK food manufacturing sector is improving. However, there is still some way to go, when benchmarked against some other industry sectors.” Highlighting some of the challenges that will impact the food industry in the coming years Pearson pointed to analysis from the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) which has identified that there are 135,000 seasonal migrant workers employed within the UK food manufacturing sector. Post-Brexit access to labour might pose an issue. “The Migrant Advisory Committee has acknowledged the need for seasonal migrant workers but has stated that the food industry will have to pay more for workers in the future. There will be an expected minimum wage of around £30,000 and this will place huge cost pressures on the food industry,” said Pearson. 

The solution could be found in greater adoption of technology. “The Made Smarter Review document published last year focusses on the technologies that could help food manufacturing drive productivity. The document states that if industry adopts digital technologies across the food chain it could be worth £55 billion to the UK economy between 2017 and 2027. The benefits to the food industry will come from labour reduction as well as waste reduction and improved resource efficiency,” said Pearson.

Talking in more detail about the technologies that are changing our world today, Pearson said: “The IoT allows us to do many things that previously were simply not possible. It is now possible, for example, to monitor the health and performance of machines on the plant floor.” The Internet of Things (IoT) is based around a digital platform which takes data from many ‘things’ and brings it into a single environment where it can be analysed to provide actionable information across all areas of the enterprise.  

Robotics technology is now moving forward at a rapid pace, driven by increasing computing power and open source architectures. “The pace of change here is dramatic,” said Pearson.  AI technology is also moving forward on a number of fronts – deep learning, imaging analysis and system control. “Today deep learning technology is able to spot defects on high-speed lines much faster and more accurately than a human can. In such applications this technology could be transformational for the food industry.”

Pearson concluded his presentation by issuing a word of warning about the use of Blockchain in the food industry. Blockchain provides an encrypted immutable chain of information which offers traceability benefits, allowing a single product to be traced from the final consumer all the way back to its point of origin. 

“The Blockchain technology issue for food industry applications, however, lies in data scale,” said Pearson. “It would result in huge amounts of data being created and this problem needs to be overcome before the technology finds wider adoption. We feel that Blockchain will initially find applications in high-risk areas and this is already becoming reality with Walmart very recently mandating that its suppliers of salad products must adopt an IBM Blockchain solution.”

Next onto the podium was James Fenton, engineering manager at Walkers Snack Foods. He spoke about how the company has reduced downtime by employing online condition monitoring on the fan units in the exhaust stacks of its two fryer lines at the Lincoln site, which produces around 11 million packets of crisps and snacks every week, including Quavers, Poppables, Snaps, and Wotsits. 

Due to the harsh environment in which they work the fan units suffer from a build-up of polymerised oil over a period of time which eventually results in fan failure that will require the line to be halted. “Due to the position of the fan units, it can take up to six hours to swop out a fan unit and get the line back up and running. One of the fans is positioned on the factory roof, so a permit to work needs to be issued before we are able to access it,” said Fenton.

“Traditionally, each of the fans have failed two or three times a year. We decided to try a condition monitoring solution to help us better predict failure and intervene before it occurs. We glued a metal tag onto each fan motor and then screwed a condition monitoring sensor onto this.  The sensors are hardwired back a controller which is connected to the plant SCADA system.  

“Since installation of the system in June 2017 we have had two notifications of a pending problem. The first was in August 2017 when we saw increased vibration on the lower bearing of a fan unit. We manually checked the  unit and made the decision to keep it running until the next planned outage which was a week away. Then, in a planned way, we were able to swop out the unit and repair the removed unit later. 

“We had a second activation on the same unit in November. Again we manually investigated and made the decision to keep it running until the next planned outage. This time, when we swopped out the unit, we found that a slug of oil had travelled up the stack and stuck to the fan casing which was causing vibration.”  

Receiving advanced warning of possible fan unit failure has allowed the Walkers engineering team to reduce unplanned line downtimes, and has enabled them to repair the units in a more timely manner. 

Fenton concluded his presentation by that there is now an appropriate condition monitoring solution to suit most issues that affect productivity in the food factory today. “By using the right and appropriate technology we have proved that it is possible to increase productivity by decreasing unplanned plant shutdowns,” he said.

Mechanical engineer and consultant, Dr Hans Egermeier talked about the important role that software will play in the digital transformation of the engineering process. With digitalisation set to transform the engineering process, enabling food production to become more scalable and flexible, Egermeier explained how the use of software in the design process will enable companies to become hardware independent and will give the ability to interact with processes remotely. 

“Unlike hardware engineering, software engineering has no physical restrictions,” he said “The use of software allows designers to become much more agile and to make changes throughout the design process. Solutions can be built one piece at a time and any element of design can be revised at any time throughout the process to ensure that very specific end-user needs are met, without any worry about wasting physical hardware until the customer is certain that they have the solution that meets their needs. “Designing a physical product using software first, allows you to fail fast and move on without waste,” he said.

In another case study presentation, David Cobbledick, electrical and instrument team manager at British Sugar in Bury St. Edmunds, talked about how the company is making use of the latest radar sensing technology to improve process control which is helping to increase reliability and process quality in key production areas. 

Of all the sugar production processes, it is crystallisation, which occurs in vacuum pans, which is one of the most critical. It requires high reliability and fine control, and there are minimal opportunities for maintenance as once the process is started the pans will run continuously for around 10 months of every year. 

This crystallisation process poses a unique challenge for instruments, as Cobbledick explained: “We need to monitor level, temperature, pressure and density. There is a change in density through the cycle, high temperature, steam and the presence of abrasive materials – not an idea environment for sensors to work in. 

It was vital that the company find a solution to a failing differential pressure (DP) level and pressure control sensor within the pans. “Our original level control solution was failing regularly which required us to take the pan offline,” said Cobbledick. “Vega suggested we try its electronic DP system. The suggestion was to place an absolute pressure transmitter at the top of the pan and another one at the bottom, with a differential pressure unit in the middle to take the signals from each absolute pressure transmitter. This would give us the required DP reading.” The suggested solution was adopted and so far has proven to be reliable. 

Vega was also able to offer a solution to another problem, helping to manage the production of sulphur used in the evaporator station. Here the sugar solution is thickened to remove around 300 tonnes of water and 60 tonnes of steam every hour. “This process takes huge amounts of energy so any process optimisation here would be of great value,” said Cobbledick. “To help optimise the process we first needed to know the level of liquid within the unit but any DP-based level controls that we have used in the past were never that reliable owing to the difficult environment within the unit.

“When we spoke to Vega, the use of a guided wave radar was suggested this has worked well. We are now able to use just one probe for a variety of level measurements requirements within the evaporator station. It has proven to be reliable and has reduced our spend on replacement instruments, particularly capacitance probes, which we used to get through at a great pace.”

Cobbledick concluded by highlighting the need to  foster good relationships with suppliers. “They may be able to suggest solutions to some of your longstanding problems if you are willing to share your challenges with them. Technology is moving forward quickly and a problem that didn’t have a solution even a few years ago might be easy to rectify now. Do take the time to talk to your suppliers and don’t be afraid to try new and different technologies.”

There will be more highlights from the Appetite for Engineering event in the January issue of Food Processing, when we will focus on the presentations from ‘the sustainable food factory’ session. To find out more about the event go to:

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