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Improving processing performance with digital measurements

13 February 2023

David Bowers explains how advances in measurement sensor technology are already bringing a range of benefits to the dairy industry and which can also easily be applied across a variety of other food production sectors.

Close management of the treatment and processing of milk products is vital to ensure optimum product quality and also to extend the life of the product. For this reason, instruments to measure temperature, pressure, level and flow are widely used throughout a variety of dairy processing applications, and digital technology is now expanding the capabilities delivered by process instrumentation, helping to accelerate productivity and efficiency.

Digital technology has, for example, enhanced operational and diagnostic data offered by instrumentation and is allowing producers to better understand what is happening in a process at a very detailed level. This allows engineers to optimise their processes, ensure the highest levels of product quality and improve process efficiency. As a result, many dairies and other food producers are now choosing to replace their traditional mechanical-based measurement devices with the latest generation of electronic instruments to enable them to realise benefits such as real-time measurement, predictive maintenance and, in the case of process recording devices, enhanced security against tampering or potential interference. 

Analysis in real-time
The ability to analyse process performance in real-time enables improved control by being able to better respond to actual process conditions. 

The latest generation of Coriolis flowmeters, for example, can provide an instant view of density, temperature and flowrate, each of which can be optimised to help ensure products are produced to the correct quality, minimising wastage and helping to minimise energy costs. This is key for pasteurisation in the dairy industry where the milk requires heating to 71.7°C for at least 15 seconds, but for no more than 25 seconds. An accurate and real-time view of temperature and flowrate is vital to ensure optimum process efficiency and product quality.

Another good example is digital paperless recorders. By logging every event in the production process, digital recorders can be used to help identify areas for improvement and, in the event of a product quality issue, can also identify the time, date and potential cause of the problem, providing full process traceability so that only spoiled product is ever wasted. 

So, how is digital instrumentation transforming service and maintenance? A key benefit of the simplicity enabled by digitalisation is the ability for more data to be accessed by a greater range of users, with even inexperienced operators able to quickly access to the data they need. This easy access, coupled with features such as clear text alarms and fault conditions, is helping process operators to better understand when maintenance and troubleshooting may be required, enabling them to take precautionary steps in good time. 

The development of predictive maintenance and remote service technologies, enable operators to pinpoint and rectify issues before they can escalate. With the impact of the pandemic often resulting in restricted site access, there has been a marked increase in demand for remote tools for measurement devices, which can provide a detailed health-check of instrumentation, and condition monitoring software capable of generating early warnings and recommended maintenance schedules, to help reduce unplanned maintenance.

Another example of how digital technology is improving maintenance routines is the use of Augmented Reality (AR) tools, which allow a remotely based expert to guide site engineers through installation, commissioning and troubleshooting. The application of AR tools is going some way to mitigate the challenges presented by the current skills shortage, remote locations and staff absences. Beyond the dairy industry, AR looks set to have a big role to play in the maintenance landscape of process plants of the future – with its promise of faster, easier fixes, saving time, money and effort, it cannot fail to play a significant role in improving efficiency and safety.

A digital journey
In the same way that no two dairy processes are ever exactly the same. Every factory is at a different point in its journey toward digitalisation, with no one-size-fits-all solution that can be universally applied to every user. This is why many instrumentation vendors have devoted considerable time and effort to developing digital measurement solutions for a wide range of parameters – from pH to flow – that can be specified, deployed, operated and maintained as easily as possible. Today’s devices incorporate a wide range of features, from simplified user interfaces through to QR codes that can be accessed through the instrument display to access diagnostic data and report a fault if necessary.  

Other features, such as user-friendly dashboards and software, are also allowing operators to more quickly and easily access their process data in a variety of ways, from smart devices through to centralised control systems.

The evolution of measurement and analytics is leading to a more flexible and sustainable future where systems will be able to self-optimise, self-adapt and run autonomously. The sophistication of sensors is developing at a fast pace and the dairy industry and other food processing sectors have much to gain from these advances.

David Bowers is Process and DP Flow, Spirit IT Product Manager at ABB UK&IE.

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