Automated close coupling in a near-continuous batch environment can still support flexibility when mechanical components and automation systems coordinate the work of employees (or work cells) and streamline processes such as clean-in-place and batch changeovers.
Automation’s varied role
Automation is increasingly used to achieve higher efficiency of mechanical systems and work processes, with the consequence of higher productivity — fewer employees per unit of product output. High-level management and quality initiatives can’t happen without the software to make plant-sense of them. That’s where manufacturing execution systems come into play.
One system, CDC Factory from CDC Software (www.cdcfactory.com), Atlanta, is in use at Starbucks (as well as at Breyers Yogurt – see the iPlant story on FoodProcessing.com). Additionally, automation can help minimize food safety risks by minimizing human contact and reducing worker injuries. Plants are realizing the value of user-friendly operator interfaces as human resource issues come to the fore.
Western Dairy Specialties in Yerington, Nev., was pinched for profits in transporting milk to California markets, and also faced the issue of a dearth of dairy experience in the local labor pool. The company turned to Tetra Pak for turnkey installation of a new 600,000 gallon per week milk production and bottling line, which included a reverse osmosis system to concentrate skim milk for standardization of solids content.
An automated Tetra PlantMaster control package minimized operator error and “enabled us to achieve the highest level of efficiency while producing an excellent quality of milk,” according to Michael Compston, the dairy’s owner.
The vendor’s services during this project included special attention to cleaning and sanitization circuits to reduce water and chemical consumption, as well as remote operator support.
“Investment decisions on production lines are part of long term planning. Trying to compromise the most efficient plant design because of the economic uncertainties would be very short-sighted,” says Jean-Pierre Berlan, sales and marketing director for Tetra Pak Processing (www.tetrapakprocessing.com), Vernon Hills, Ill.
Berlan notes that plant management needs to weigh the merits of a dedicated high-speed line against the need for flexibility to accommodate new developments. Highly automated but dedicated lines can cut costs for a few primary products, but plants may want to leave open the option of minimizing future investments by designing lines that allow expansion.
Among other trends, Berlan sees automation as a growing factor in new lines because the technology costs “are getting more competitive every year, whereas labor costs are normally increasing every year.” In keeping with lean and other manufacturing philosophies, he warns against underestimating staff selection and training. “Involving future operation staff in the design and giving the appropriate training is the best insurance for a successful project implementation.”