Tales from the Technology Trenches

Two food processors shared their experiences with wireless networks, cloud computing and information management at the recent Smart Industry 2015 conference.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Social unrest, not plant automation, was on Stephen Stills’ mind when he sang, “Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” For what it’s worth, the sentiment also applies to manufacturing technology.

Industry 4.0, the Internet of Things (IoT) and related phrases are moored in marketing speak, but they nibble at real changes occurring in how data is gathered and information shared in industrial production. Some meat was hung on those marketing bones at Smart Industry 2015, a conference organized by Putman Media and presented in October in Chicago.

Wireless networks, cloud computing and analysis of huge volumes of data are part of IoT in process industries, explained keynoter Peter Zornio, chief strategic officer at Emerson Process Management, Houston. Applications in food and beverage manufacturing are few and far between, in part because of higher standards for field devices and other hardware. “You’re not going to find a $2 sensor that is safe, has the hygienic requirements you need for food & beverage and is going to last 30 years,” Zornio observed, adding, “The process industries are very conservative” and slow to adopt “disruptive technology.”

“We’ve used Emerson’s mesh seven years,” scoffs Ed Rodden, chief information officer at Sugar Creek Packing Co., Washington Court House, Ohio. Rodden was one of two food processing professionals who described how wireless networks and interconnected field devices are impacting their operations.

The other was Jon Riechert, senior engineer-innovation at Tyson Foods Inc.’s Hillshire Brands division in Downers Grove, Ill. Riechert was part of a panel discussion that tried to place theoretical benefits in the context of real-world examples on the conference’s first day.

Chubs R Us

Four years ago, Hillshire began addressing the data visibility challenge in weight control on lines producing 1-lb. chubs of Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage. Working with systems integrator Grantek, Hillshire installed Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk Historian and VantagePoint software at its Newbern, Tenn., facility. The plant produces 150 million lbs. of sausage a year, and the new system was designed to give corporate and plant engineers visibility to shop-floor operational data.

Food safety was the rationalization for undertaking the project. A sausage cook plant was forced to shut down because cook temperatures couldn’t be validated. Avoiding recalls involving Jimmy Dean sausage — a billion-dollar brand and Hillshire’s top seller — is critical, yet engineers lacked visibility to the functioning of drive belts and steam belts that determine time and temperature. “That process was out of control, and we couldn’t see it,” Riechert recalls. Those variables are among the 2,400 data points the data system collects.

Avoiding recalls protects a brand but doesn’t boost the bottom line. A 0.1 percent reduction in sausage giveaway would deliver an ROI on the project, and that target was reached in three months. (Network-wide, Hillshire processes 2 billion lbs. of meat annually.) Since then, deviation from set point has been reduced 0.5 percent.

“We get whatever data we can collect, but it has to be automatically measurable,” Riechert cautions. Meat temperature affects fill rates, and temperature sensors collect that information and enable adjustments in fill rates. Fat/lean ratio also has an impact, but that information cannot be automatically monitored. Until sensor technology is able to deliver it, some giveaway is inevitable.

Encouraged by the chub results, Hillshire added mobility to plant visibility two years ago. Beginning with its State Fair Foods corn dog facility in Haltom City, Texas, corporate engineers and on-site production managers began using Microsoft Surface Pro devices that could access dashboard data residing on a web page. OEE, downtime and other machine data from the 12 fryers and 15 packaging lines gave on-site personnel and individuals working remotely new visibility to problem areas.

The biggest challenge, according to Riechert, was winning IT support for giving off-the-shelf devices access to a protected network. The continuing tension between operations and IT was a sub-theme throughout the speaker presentations, underscoring security concerns in the so-called connected enterprise.

“Once you put your devices on the Internet, you become an Internet security company,” allows Kevin Miller, principal program manager for Microsoft’s Azure IoT, a cloud-based hub capable of supporting up to 10 million connected devices. Azure is supported by eight U.S. and 13 foreign data centers, Miller says.

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