Marriage Of Process Data And Business Data Yields Valuable Information

Market expectations and changes in work practices are driving increased value from technology investments for food companies.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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In manufacturing’s digital age, data availability never is an issue. Information availability, on the other hand, is another matter.

The challenge goes beyond polling data from PLCs, flowmeters and other process control devices. Records of process variables need to be analyzed in the context of outcomes. Marrying lab data to process data requires either a legion of key-entry personnel or an investment in business and process software. Manufacturers may not know what they don’t know until a capital investment is made, and that can require a leap of faith.

Milk Specialties Global took that leap last year. “We’re lean in number of people,” says COO Brian Lundquist in describing the 68-year-old dairy protein company, which is based in Eden Prairie, Minn. (www.milkspecialties.com). Long active in animal nutrition, the company made a well-timed move into whey and milk protein concentrates nine years ago, helping to push annual sales volume near $1 billion. Growth in protein-concentrate demand is expected to “be double digits for the near future,” according to Lundquist.

When order fulfillment is a priority, efficiency and yield tend to suffer. Milk Specialties’ two-person process excellence department spent much of its time collecting log sheets and keying numbers into spreadsheets for analysis. Process adjustments took time, and raw material variability often undid the assumptions on which they were based.

To improve outcomes, Milk Specialties installed a data historian and business analytics software at three of its six plants. The goal was to pair data from the laboratory information management systems with real-time production data. Of particular interest was performance of filtration systems and the best times to either clean or replace membranes.

Membranes are expensive, and running a clean-in-place cycle necessarily involves downtime. Scheduling the optimum time to do either has a direct bearing on profit margin, points out Jean-Luc Bonnet, a regional manager with Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation (www.rockwellautomation.com), who participated in the project. "Manufacturers know more or less what they have to do, but they waste time and money if they don’t have real-time information on when to do it,” he says. Analytics provided the key performance indicators to guide what actions to take and when to take them.

Better filtration management contributed to the $750,000 a month in cost reductions that Lundquist says Milk Specialties realized. Another contributor was improved yield, with more of the available protein in milk and whey finding its way into finished goods.

One of the three plants affected is in Visalia, Calif., where industry faces stiff fines and surcharges for exceeding limits on chemical oxygen demand and total dissolved solids in wastewater streams. Milk Specialties’ facilities now reuse much of the water removed from milk and whey, helping cut municipal water consumption 40 percent. Between reduced consumption and lower discharge fees, the firm reduced costs $100,000 per week.

Besides giving plant personnel actionable information, the system gives the process excellence department insight into the relative performance at those locations. As a result, best practices are identified and transplanted to the other sites.

Business intelligence software is a tool, Lundquist summarizes, but it’s only as good as the people who use it. “BI points you to the lake where you should fish,” he observes, “but you still have to catch the fish yourself.”

Indiana’s newest mogul

Companies engaged in buying and selling seldom segue into making, but that’s precisely the direction Queen City Candy Inc. started moving to in 2000, when the candy broker became a rebagger. Copacking capability was just a warm-up to 2015’s transition to manufacturing of gummies, jellies, jujus and fruit snacks.

In 1983, president Vince Klee founded the Greendale, Ind., firm, located 15 miles west of Cincinnati. Retailers don’t want to manage relationships with multiple confectioners, so brokers like Queen City buy in bulk and consolidate orders and shipments. Klee expanded into copacking with a climate-controlled warehouse and the purchase of a vertical form/fill/seal machine.

Referring to Queen City’s entry into manufacturing, Klee says, “It’s been a goal for the last 10 years, but it didn’t get serious until four years ago when our gummy manufacturer had an explosion that killed eight people.” The Oct. 24, 2013, explosion at Dulces Blueberry plant in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, was attributed to a chemical reaction involving corn starch.

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