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Technologically driven milling process

24 September 2008

When Quaker realised its automation process was on its last legs, it decided to convert to a corporate standard. So it called on Elite Control Systems…

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Quaker Oats has been milling oats in the UK since 1899. In 1982 it bought A&R Scott (maker of Scott’s Porridge Oats) and in 1989 it announced the oat mill at Cupar in Fife was to become the main centre of Quaker’s oat milling in Europe. The mill was subsequently expanded and is now one of the largest oat mills in Western Europe with its products sold in Scandinavia, France, Africa, the Middle East and the UK.

For an ideal porridge the oats must be milled to perfection. So, every batch of oats delivered to the Quaker Mill goes through stringent quality standard tests before being accepted. Once the oats have passed the quality test, they enter the milling process. Using specialist machinery they are separated from the other matter such as other grains (wheat, barley etc) and weeds that are picked up during the harvesting process. The oats are then shelled (or dehulled), leaving just the pure oat grain.

The oat grains are steamed and cooled to help bring out the flavour of the oat. They’re then cut into pieces and rolled before packing.

While porridge might be an ancient foodstuff Quaker considers itself a forward-looking company and says it has been at the forefront of emplying technology in the milling process. However, the automated process it had in place was old and it wanted to convert to corporate standard.

“We knew upgrading the existing process control system would prove challenging,” says Dave Clark, engineering and change manager at the Quaker plant. “Closing down the milling process was not an option. It’s a huge operation here – the factory produces about 48,000 tonnes of porridge oats a year. Moreover, the Cupar factory is a single supply Site. There is no back up.”

There was only one period in the calendar: what they needed was a way of installing the equipment over the Christmas break. And that would require a great deal of planning and a fast-track installation. It’s all very well doing the upgrading work during the Christmas break but because the demand for Porridge is at its highest in mid-winter, particularly in the New Year, that meant when the upgraded system was switched on after the festive break it had to work immediately.

Having looked at the options, Quaker elected to call on Livingston-based Elite Control Systems, which has long been involved in the design of software that controls complex process and automation systems. It was this expertise in Process Control, Automation and Information Systems, that made them ideal.

“We were going to close the milling operation for ten days but demand for oats is so high we couldn’t,” says Dave. “The most sensible option was to work with Elite to take advantage of the Christmas shut-down. That involved close partnership with Elite and unsociable hours. But Elite demonstrated incredible flexibility and did it in the only window we had.”

How to ensure the whole system would work from the moment it was switched on? There was only one way; the new system, and the software that ran it, would have to be tested prior to installation.

Fortunately, Elite is familiar with the use of automated simulation and testing methods - a technique whereby they carry out continuous testing, ensuring each “building block” functions as it should and that the system meets the agreed functional specifications before going onsite. Elite says it was one of the first to embrace this discipline and apply it to Process Control, Automation and Information Systems.

Elite redesigned the automated PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) system which employs microchip technology. This system is programmed to recognise and control logical operations within the plant. It carries out many tasks, ensuring the milling process would work at optimum efficiency.

Although the PLCs are basically clever “boxes”, the Quaker Oats’ system was enhanced by use of SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition). “SCADA has several functions, but one of the most useful is it can offer an animated graphical representation of what is happening inside the oven. It gives an at-a-glance view of the whole process from start to finish,” says Sam MacKay, MD of Elite.

Elite, working in close partnership with the engineering team at Quaker, worked over the Christmas period, taking the information from the old system, “translating” it so it would work on the new system then simulating the whole process at Elite’s HQ to ensure it would work the moment it was switched on for real.

Sam explains: “We had to fully understand the Quaker milling process. So we took the existing code as a printed listing and worked through it line by line, “translating” it for the new system. There was also a manual check for errors. Then, simulating the whole process, here in Livingston, gave us total confidence in the system before going to site.”

And the result? The companies say that owing to Elite’s expertise and Quaker Oats know-how, Quaker is now leading the way in the technologically driven milling process. Demand is still high, and the customer still enjoys the delights of that most ancient of foods – perfect porridge.

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