Software Puts Your Plant on Fast-Forward

New automation software lets you 'TiVo' your process, while Johnsonville Sausage finds a neat trick to make SAP data more usable in the plant.

By Bob Sperber, Plant Operations Editor

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Technology will continue to play a greater role throughout the meat and poultry category's supply chain. The requirement to track data across all operations will only increase as companies seek to drive operational costs down. This is as evident in the systems that control and machinery and manage production processes as it is in those that provide track and trace for a recall.

Consider this Jan. 9 announcement by Agrculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: "Our workload is at record highs, we have less money and fewer people and work to do, and we tried to address how do you do that without interrupting service." That statement, along with the announcement that USDA will close 259 offices, labs and other facilities, places a heavier burden on inspectors. It also places a heavier burden, but also an opportunity, on plants.

"When an inspector goes through the plant's logs to see they've been monitoring everything properly, if there are gaps in the reports, the inspector is less likely to find issues that warrant a closer look," says Michael Blanchette, regional sales manager for NuTEC (, New Lenox, Ill.). That's why, beyond selling patty formers and meat depositors to processors, NuTEC and other suppliers to the meat industry advise customers not just about the obvious business priorities -- accurate weights and high throughput -- but also on issues such as "making sure the sanitizing chemicals will meet their requirements for, say, clean-in-place without damaging their machines."

The information trail begins at the grinders, formers, weigh scales, inspection systems and other machines, where quality personnel pull and record data on samples. The data also can be used to monitor and control equipment and integrate pieces into larger production systems. Turnkey equipment vendors who manufacture, sell and in cases take responsibility for full line installations have increasingly offered such automation systems.

Food Processing has covered such systems in the past, including the Information That Matters automation offering from Heat and Control, (, Hayward, Calif. The system can pull together line data at the manufacturing execution system (MES) level for incorporation into plant initiatives such as key performance indicators (KPIs) and scorecard-type displays of overall equipment effectiveness to be used by plant machine interfaces, office desktop or even mobile applications. Symbolic of many of these software systems, Information That Matters has evolved in just one year.

Object-based automation
A year after launching the system, Heat and Control has upgraded it with a new version, ITM Plant iT, which joins the MES layer together with the real-time control and engineering layers in a single, integrated environment. The solution is based on industry standards, such as ISA 88 and ISA 95. Using a standard SQL database plant server for a turnkey solution, it can feed data across operations, such as production case counts by order; moving averages of checkweights; lot tracking from materials/ingredients to finished packages; and maintenance data down to real-time control and information management of error codes.

Engineers versed in the most current offerings of control industry systems will appreciate that the system is just as up-to-date. A true, object-oriented engineering environment eliminates custom control coding and in many cases all control coding in favor of click-and-drag graphical objects, with only parameters needing to be entered. Heat and Control provides a library of objects for all machines, with programming embedded inside. These are "dragged" together to create automation systems for a turnkey line automation system. The user or any machine vendor can contribute machine objects in a multi-vendor plant.

"Our objects contain the control logic, real-time control visualization at the human-machine interface layer and all the MES data, all in the same object," says Chris Farver, global director for controls and information at Heat and Control.

This level of integration allows processors to "jump the gap" between disparate systems to significantly reduce the time and effort of automating a line, adds Paul Nowicki, global information engineer for Heat and Control.

Via a secure Internet connection, Nowicki and Farver took this writer for a remote tour of a live system running at a customer's plant in Detroit. In the process, four conveyor lines were auger-feeding seasoning to be mixed in a tumble-drum with a snack product, then packaged with a multi-head computerized combination weigher and bagmaker.

At the control level, animated graphic displays of the machinery and parameters of concern to operators were shown. Also like a current-generation control offering, clicking on the tumble-drum showed data on product flow and asset status at the time of the demo; control programming was also viewable in runtime. One especially useful aspect of the system is its ability to essentially re-run historic process control and MES data for troubleshooting and continuous improvement.

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