Tales from the Technology Trenches

Nov. 5, 2015
Two food processors shared their experiences with wireless networks, cloud computing and information management at the recent Smart Industry 2015 conference.

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.

Close to 200 manufacturers, technology providers and other professionals attended Smart Industry 2015. Photo: Tori Soper Photography

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.

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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.

The wireless plant

Wireless networks are used extensively at Sugar Creek’s new facility in Cambridge City, Ind., a brownfield site that was expanded to 418,000 sq. ft. and is home to the copacker’s foray into high-volume sous vide production. When fully operational, the plant is expected to generate $350 million in annual revenue, Rodden says. Sugar Creek began the year with four production sites and should end the year with $600 million in sales.

Tyson Foods’ Jon Riechert (center) listens as fellow panelist Rory Smith explains how Internet communications is improving elevator uptime globally for ThyssenKrupp. On the right is Beth Parkinson, a connected enterprise expert at Rockwell Automation. Photo: Tori Soper Photography

Sugar Creek’s IoT infrastructure is built on analytics solutions from Cisco Systems Inc. Cisco’s RJ Mahadev joined Rodden in his Smart Industry presentation.

Pork bellies are a key raw material in Sugar Creek’s operations. Several years ago, the company introduced a pork belly procurement system based on RFID tags affixed to the 700-1,100 carriers in its facilities that transport each belly through the production process. Cook temperature, smokehouse dwell time and other variables affecting product shrink are captured by sensors and transmitted via the RFID tags to a data historian.

That experience created a comfort zone for the more ambitious infrastructure installed in Cambridge City, though increased productivity remains the goal. Project planning began a year in advance of the facility’s July opening and will be completed in about a year.
“Pushing responsibility for success in the process to the lowest level” is the avenue for reaching the productivity goal, Rodden says. Raw materials constitute 70 percent of production cost, and a one-point increase in yield would more than offset the $6 million capital cost for the IoT project.


A video surveillance system is a big chunk of the price tag. The plant has 254 cameras protected by stainless-steel enclosures, adding literal meaning to the term plant visibility. To illustrate how cameras and wireless communication enhance visibility, Rodden offers a hypothetical plant visit by a key customer.

Prior to the visit, the sales rep contacts a plant supervisor via Jabber, an instant messaging platform with voice, video, desktop sharing and conferencing capabilities. When that median fails to connect the two, the rep uses IC instant connect, which simplifies radio connections to the plant floor, where the supervisor is working. Using a WebEx collaboration tool, the supervisor takes the rep on a video tour of the production areas the customer will see.

Ed Rodden, Sugar Creek Packing’s chief information officer, fields a question from a listener to his factory of the future presentation. Photo: Tori Soper Photography

The plant manager greets the rep and customer when they arrive and gives them temporary security badges, which are implanted with a real time locating system (RTLS) that will track their movements during the visit. The customer requests process data from production systems, triggering an iPad request from the plant manager to IT to populate the data in an isolated server. Before leaving, the customer receives an e-mail with instructions on how to access the data.

Tracking visitors’ movements would constitute a poor ROI on a $6 million investment, Rodden concedes, but his example highlighted the IT/OT (information technology/operational technology) convergence and plant connectivity the installation was designed to provide.

Plant refrigeration is delivered through 80,000 lbs. of ammonia, and if sensors detect a leak, a network sensor would determine wind direction and the location of all personnel before broadcasting an evacuation notice and the best exit route to radios, phones and other devices.

“We’re all worried about security,” Cisco’s Mahadev points out, “but we never have a budget to deal with it. Think of securing the plant and information for the sake of operations,” including secure access by customers to data and by vendors to the programs they have installed.
Wireless networks are “the industrial equivalent of Google Plus,” Mahadev adds, but he recommends an outcomes-based approach to implementation. “What hurts enough to spend money?” he asked. “If you’re not clear about what you need, IoT vendors will sell you things you don’t really want to buy.”

A recent SCM World/Cisco survey concludes that manufacturers who have embraced IoT have cut unplanned downtime 5.8 percent from 11 percent and product defects to 2.5 percent from 4.9 percent.

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