May 2008


Breaking bread habits

Food production facilities see new possibilities by implementing batch, integrating processes

Fast Forward

  • British bakery looks to batch for flexible processes.
  • French millers see automation, control, traceability as key to success.
  • Realized savings, improved processes prove changes are worth the risk.
By Ellen Fussell Policastro

In a popular children's folk tale, the little red hen finds a grain of wheat, which she plans to harvest, thresh, mill, and finally bake into bread. In looking for help with this time-consuming task, she has a heck of a time getting cooperation from her friends, the cat, dog, and duck. But she finds all the help she needs when it comes time to eat the bread. She declines this so-called help and enjoys the bread alone with her chicks, leaving none for the others. If the little red hen had had automation for her task, she would not have had to deal with her barnyard friends' laziness, and everyone could have shared in the feast.

In fact, two European food production facilities have experienced just how much automation adds to their processes-one a bakery building better batches with software to add flexibility, and the other a mill integrating processes with automatic control, monitoring, and traceability for smoother production and less worker intervention.

British bakers count on batch

Even though British Bakels, Ltd., a baking ingredient supplier out of Bicester, U.K., operated from modern production facilities, the company still needed to upgrade to a system that would simplify their production of hundreds of products while helping them provide quality to their commercial bakeries and other food manufacturers. The answer was a batch software system with the flexibility to add modules without breaking the bakery's budget.

A member of the International Bakels Group, British Bakels has more than 100 years experience in developing and manufacturing bakery ingredients. Located on a 5.5 acre site in Bicester, the bakery has invested over $29.85 million (£15 million) in powder blending and wet production and in warehousing. Production volumes exceeded 20,000 tons in 2005. Along with its manufacturing is a new bread assessment laboratory to support its key product groups of bread and roll improvers in liquid, paste and powder forms, release agents, divider oils, shelf life extenders, specialty bread mixes, confectionary mixes, and glazes.

Flexible batching

The bakery's production process involves products with hundreds of raw ingredients and finished ingredients. So it is important to maintain flexibility, quality, hygiene, and compliance with trade accreditation schemes.

To provide smooth and effective operations the company would need to be able to flexibly handle the full permutation of recipes and mixes they processed. A powerful standard solution entered around a batch software system, which was part of a comprehensive scheme to automate the entire business process. "The total flexibility of the system has been invaluable to the production of consistently high quality products; it has proved to be an easily expandable and cost effective solution to our process requirements," said Simon Dawson, engineering manager, at British Bakels.

The system's flexibility means the bakery can quickly add new modules with minimal cost, said Andrew Leather, development engineer at Stratos Controls, a partner who helped provide ongoing remote-access development and support. The new manufacturing resource planning system produces a daily schedule, which means workers can load pallets with the required dry basic ingredients for the day's production, with wet ingredients pumping automatically. The batch software system takes this scheduled information and produces step-by-step production instrumentation for operators and automation controllers. The process involves weighting, mixing, dosing, blending (using a carefully controlled sequence of vessels for melting), dissolving, mixing, and cooking. With the batch software, workers can easily handle the combinations of product ingredients without error. And they can produce high daily volumes from differing orders. Production at the bakery is arranged in lines, each having flexible operation and capacity to meet
differing production demands. The clean-in-place function is built into the system and is under full automatic control. The company plans to expand to establish further lines within the same production area to support planned business growth. One contributing factor for this investment business model is the efficiency and flexibility of the batching system.

The installed system "provides us with a major competitive advantage and the ability to deliver right on schedule," said Nick Luxemburg, Bakel's engineering manager.

System architecture

The architecture of the system involves dual server redundancy, Ethernet, and wash-down touch screens on the plant itself. The system allows manual and automatic operation, which quickly gained the acceptance of operators after their in-house training.

The company's product development laboratories are situated away form all the activity, where they develop new recipes and then scale up the production method to deliver the same characteristics in volume manufacture.

The system consists of three servers, two running the batch software in a redundant configuration and the third server running Microsoft SQL for data logging. The servers are connected via a dedicated high speed Ethernet link to the production-line human machine interfaces (HMIs) and the production line programmable logic controllers. The servers also act as a secure gateway between the production network and the site network and internet. This allows for remote access to all functions within the network, including diagnostics, upgrades, and maintenance. If needed, operators can use the Internet to secure the system by remote control from anywhere.

The HMI screens allow the operators to rapidly access large amounts of information on the state of the production line. With the correct user login, the HMI screens also give a clear, complete method of manually controlling various aspects of the system. The batch software components of the HMI screen give easy access to the recipe control system.

Integrated wheat

Also serving large food processing manufacturers and local bakeries is Moulin de Verdonnet, a family business in the Bourgogne region of France, employing nearly 50 people with a strong regional base. The existing wheat mill had been in operation since the 1980s and had been partly automated, allowing for a processing capacity of 150 tons per day. As the business developed, the company decided to build a new mill to replace it. The goal was to process 300 tons of wheat per day. From an operational point of view, the focus was on comfort, responsiveness, autonomy, and flexibility.

The company invested in a new system of automatic control, monitoring, and traceability, which would allow the mill's facilities to be managed automatically and remotely, and enhance its performance. It needed to be available and scalable and designed to last.

With four months for development, operators had to use and integrate individual pieces of equipment already in place. They also had to develop new features as well as improve others. They were only allowed a week for switchover to operations in the new mill.

Less wiring, more traceability

The answer comprised a simple, consistent, distributed system with integrated architecture, designed to minimize wiring and reduce the risk of breakdowns. Two PCs back each other and supervise the process, while a third acts as a server. Two controllers monitor and control the plant. Around 1,000 I/O connect at all production levels and network, along with 350 motors, the controllers, and the monitoring station.

Field networks allow communication. For optimum availability, the Ethernet TCP/IP networks are also duplicated. To reduce design and development time and to make future interventions easier, programs use object language.

Developing a total production traceability system allowed operators to store all data and regularly save it, including wheat's origin, cells used, type of collection, and destination. With the help of remote control, any faults the system spot ted communicate with a duty operator, who can then take relevant action, all via a simple phone line. If a fault occurs at night, the mill owners can switch the control to manual without leaving their home and choose what measures to apply in order to manage the incident, thanks to a supervision device installed in their home.

Realized savings

In less than a week, the new mill was processing 300 tons of wheat per day and has since been running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  Mill workers are seeing platforms more compatible with all processors for scalability over time, adoption of communication standards (Ethernet, Modbus, Profibus, DeviceNet), simplicity, and availability of the architecture.

"Going beyond regulatory flour milling requirements, the solution has already allowed us to gain new customers," said Marc Monier, Verdonnet's general manager.

They are also noticing energy savings. With a signal from the electricity company, the control system is able to start and stop the mill's machinery without any outside assistance. This enables the mill to benefit from reduced rates the electric company offers outside peak periods.

The design of hardware and software allows for important savings in wiring and maintenance costs. Now the plant can solve 80% of all incidents remotely, Monier said, "and the new installation has resulted in energy savings of 20%." Also, the production downtime has been estimated at three minutes in over three years.

Now a single operator can monitor the quality and the management of the mill's production, whereas four are usually needed in a conventional mill. Three mouse clicks are enough to switch almost instantly from one production to another and fulfill new orders much faster.


Ellen Fussell Policastro is the associate editor of InTech. Her e-mail is


Batch, wireless changing face of food industry

By Alison J. Smith

When manufacturers start upgrading processes, it is indicative of things to come in the food industry.  For starters, it could mean they have underinvested in their batch processes for decades. During that time, technology has improved, configurability of software applications has improved, and perhaps most important has been the wider adoption of the ISA88 model for batch management.

The strength of the ISA88 model and batch execution and management applications that embed the standard lies in their ability to decouple the equipment models from the process models, and to decompose process models into their constituent phases. This enables manufacturers essentially to manage different products and the configurations required to run them through software. Using the ISA88 standard representation of phases and equipment also allows manufacturers to construct models, in software, of equipment.

In essence, a developer can rapidly add a new chunk of process capability and wire up the process in the software without engaging in lengthy programming exercises. This promotes component re-use across the board, and cuts tremendous time out of the new product or product variant introduction part of the project. If the new products have been designed to take advantage of existing equipment assets, then the process of introducing a new product to the existing capability really is a matter of simply introducing the new bill of materials and process (the recipe) at the software level. The challenge then, is to integrate these same models upstream into formulation, encouraging product developers to design products for manufacturability, and to simulate variants in terms of process and product performance for the purposes of optimization (on cost, or energy consumption, or sustainability measures, for instance).

Wireless sensing technology

Another way to update process is through wireless sensing technology, used extensively in the field of asset management, especially when assets are broadly distributed and sited in hard-to-reach destinations, such as pipelines and tank monitoring. We often focus on the great big software applications, but the truth is a little well-placed automation and control can yield tremendous returns in terms of reduction in variability, increased process efficiency, and overall production reliability.

Wireless sensing and control technology promises to revolutionize the way we manufacture, as it provides a way for producers to retrofit existing assets with network connectivity that would otherwise be cost prohibitive. Our manufacturing studies continue to show basic data acquisition is a major source of pain for manufacturers. At the moment, re-fitting a facility and process to automate data acquisition is still a push from a cost-benefit perspective. However, as the cost of raw materials and energy continues to rise, automating processes currently managed manually will become an absolute necessity for margin preservation.

The data acquired will reveal opportunities for cost reductions (and increased capacity) that simply are not visible in the data captured using manual processes. Mobile applications (mobile manufacturing execution systems, for instance, that can allow operators to work without being tethered to a monitor or workstation) have tremendous potential.

Of course there are challenges with all these changes, but when aren't there challenges? Despite our willingness to embrace iPods and cell phones as a society, embracing change in the manufacturing environment is still a tough sell. Manufacturing line of business folks and their IT counterparts need to start working as strategic partners; this means both parties have some learning to do and compromises to make. Group theory has demonstrated that having a common enemy engenders bonding. I propose the economy and increasing cost pressures are the common enemies.  This sounds sappy, but if I were in the business of competing globally, I would be seeking ways to leverage every bit of tribal knowledge and technology know-how within my organization to improve the performance of my business. 

In fact, any addition to the toolbox that automates processes to eliminate errors while increasing the capture and availability of traceability information will help meet more stringent food standards. The biggest challenge food producers face at the moment is not in the manufacturing processes; that technology is available, and it is a matter of making the investment.  The real challenge is supply chain traceability.


Alison J. Smith is research director of manufacturing operations at AMR Research, Inc. in Boston, Mass.