Manufacturing plants typically have a wide range of process controls and automation, and pet food processors are notorious for implementing but not necessarily integrating systems throughout a processing facility. Automating each process and tying them together is no easy task but Daniel Tramp, technical sales, companion animal division, Wenger Manufacturing, Sabetha, Kansas, says in the pet food world, the overall benefits are too valuable not to automate.

Process controls range from plant-level automation that enables machines to communicate from one process to the next, to data management and collection across multiple systems, to a large, over-arching umbrella architecture that collects system-wide metrics, provides contextual data, shares it on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) or an internal internet, and provides operators and management the ability to make changes to individual processes as required.  “The chase for higher level controls and automation has been going on for years,” says Paul McKeithan, head of digital services at Bühler Aeroglide, Cary, North Carolina. “These controls are important, but it is time to empower the operator to make better real-time decisions. We can do this by leveraging IIoT platforms to transfer processing knowledge to the operator. Having an operator make quick and correct decisions, working in conjunction with advanced automation, is the key to sustainable savings.”

In pet food manufacturing, two different production shifts or plants can make the same pet food to the same specification, but at different levels of efficiency. Process controls help automate efficiency and offer other tangible benefits. “In a typical environment, it is far cheaper to reduce costs than to increase top line revenue through organic growth or acquisition,” says Travis Stoll, director of service and technology, Shick Esteve, Kansas City, Missouri. “We are seeing increased automation in the IIoT space throughout the lines. Monitoring various sensors on the lines for contextual data is preventing downtime, enabling us to respond more quickly or even before uptime impacting events occur.”

"Connecting a data stream to a decision maker on the floor is critical... An empowered employee, making process decisions based on live data, is a company’s most valuable asset," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., director of professional services, METER Group. 

Data must keep up with the product throughput for operators to make informed, cost-saving decisions. “I see three-ring binders filled with hand-written production and QA data everywhere,” says Susan R. Newman, Ph.D., director of professional services at METER Group Inc. USA, Pullman, Washington. “Once data goes into those binders, it’s essentially lost. By the time someone has manually entered the values into spreadsheets, that product has already shipped. When an issue is not identified in time, a product that is not going to meet spec can run all the way through the process, compounding waste. Connecting a data stream to a decision maker on the floor is critical. With top management buy-in and fierce collaboration among operations teams, companies can turn process automation into a positive culture change that empowers employees. An empowered employee, making process decisions based on live data, is a company’s most valuable asset.”


Batches of benefits

Although all areas of a pet food processing facility can be improved with process controls and automation, Peter Ensch, president and CEO, WEM Automation, New Berlin, Wisconsin, believes batching is one area that can benefit the most. “This is especially true in the past several years where the proliferation of formulas a typical plant produces has expanded exponentially. Batching is the heart of any pet food facility and has a large impact on operational efficiencies such as quality, production capacity, inventory cost and product safety.”

Ensch adds that people often think of the obvious impact of increased production, but possibly more important is the impact seen in product quality. Today’s automation systems have built-in intelligence that enables greater accuracy with weighing and measuring ingredients, uses feedback to control tolerances, and alerts operators of any deviations. Modern control systems also offer formula-based logic to prevent mixing the wrong ingredients or following the wrong material through the stream of equipment.

The ability to accurately measure utility inputs such as water, steam and electricity improves product quality as well. Practical benefits of automation and process control are important to mention, Tramp says. “Knowing that your critical control points are being met, that your temperatures for your kill step are correct and that your processes are repeatable regardless of operator creates a process that is sustainable.”

While producing more with the same equipment is always a plus, Chris Dubbers, KSE Process Technology, The Netherlands, believes flexibility and transparency are the main goals of automation. “The need to keep up with a highly evolving market while keeping production capacity high is a big challenge. Good automation can help eliminate waste in the process and reduce the amount of people needed. At the same time, it offers the flexibility needed to reduce time to market for new products with new additions and ingredients. This flexibility can be even more valuable than the cost reductions itself.”


Technology for the win

Integrating various systems across all levels of a business helps maximize a return on that investment. “Processors have spent a considerable amount of money on all their systems – why shouldn’t they talk.” Ensch says. “The technology exists to automatically download your formulas, to send purchase, production and packaging orders down from your enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, to manage plant floor inventory and capture every transaction. The ability to integrate quality and maintenance software exists. Why not tie it all together?”

Track and trace systems can provide the transparency needed to prove the inclusion or absence of specific ingredients in products.
Advancements in technology have helped make the integration of different systems much easier. “Databases and methodology are becoming more standardized,” Tramp says. “And the integration of industrial PCs, communication protocols and the speed of those protocols have made it less important today to have a certain brand of automation throughout a plant. New industrial-style components have modules which are hardware and software combined that allow the communication from machine to machine or from machine to umbrella software platforms to happen quickly and easily.”

Stoll agrees that today’s process control systems and IIoT solutions are, for the most part, vendor agnostic. “Typical PLC-type platforms can ‘speak’ over the open platform communications (OPC) protocol. This protocol is universal across automation vendors. As for IIoT platforms, the landscape changes daily but all these platforms can communicate with most PLC platforms and integrate with each other, with ERP and management execution systems (MES), with common representational state transfer (ReST) API’s or open database connections. Integration no matter what platform or system you choose should not be a concern.”

From a process control standpoint, many human-machine-interface (HMI) packages now offer viewers that enable supervisors and plant managers to view automation controls remotely through either desktop or mobile solutions.  Even though technology exists to control things remotely, most operations prefer actual process control to be limited to view only from a safety standpoint.  “When it comes to data however, the sky is the limit in what you can report, analyze and manipulate,” Ensch says. “Advanced reporting packages can be configured to produce and distribute production data as well as provide real-time dashboards to see how a plant is running from your home or wherever your business takes you.” The various solutions can be on-premise or cloud-based.

Most plants have the IT connectivity needed to implement remote device access. Stoll says security has been a big concern as IT and operational technology (OT) come together. “Remote connectivity, security, and personal device use are key drivers for today’s consumer driven environments. Many modern systems can push data to the cloud or a software-as-a-service (SaaS) environment to give end users a contextual read-only view of a plant or line, while maintaining complete security at the plant level. We think this type of security segmentation will become more common over time as the currency of having more real-time data is realized.”


Control considerations

When adding process controls and automation to a pet food or treat processing facility, there are some important features to discuss with the supplier. “When evaluating equipment automation, the first question I would ask is if the code is available,” Tramp says. “Equipment manufacturers and software suppliers may have some part of the automation code blocked due to its uniqueness but 90% of the code should be open and available for adjustments as necessary to someone who has the proper software.”

Tramp also recommends evaluating the operator safety features inherent in the process controls. “Look for automation tied to key equipment access points and doors that prevent the system from operating if those protocols aren’t met. There are a lot of different ways to handle that. Wenger’s approach is to electronically lock out the machine if all of the appropriate safety keys are not in place and sending a signal to the system to verify that.”

Dryers are often the largest energy users in pet food operations and offer a significant savings opportunity when fully automated.
Another recommendation is to fully vet the supplier. “System integrators and control system companies come and go,” says Jay Davis, business development, Repete, Sussex, Wisconsin. “Ownership stability, financial viability and a culture of innovation and re-investment are good indicators of a provider’s ability to be a reliable long-term partner. It’s a good idea to expect the provider to show you proof of its long-term commitment to support older systems, as well as its newest technology. Make sure that the provider has good processes, people, and look closely at its customer base.”  

By ensuring consistent product quality, a process control system can reduce product waste. Gilles Maller, vice president, sales and international, Clextral, Tampa, Florida, says a system that continuously monitors processing conditions and adjusts to changes in production parameters ensures better process and product consistency. “Look for a machine that offers real control of all individual parameters, such as full control of the temperature profile on the extruder. Control of an extruder can include automatic start-up and shut-down sequences set for each recipe and product. Start-up sequences can consume a lot of raw materials and generate waste.” Control of the conditional parameters optimizes the process and becomes operator independent. Maller says that with Clextral’s automated process control system on its extruders, processors have achieved up to 20% in energy savings.

A practical tip is to include an additional spare input/output (I/O). “Once you start automating and you measure the results, you will want to do more,” Ensch says. “If you don’t have extra I/O it can be a big deal sometimes to add one. Some companies will choose not to add that I/O up front because there is a cost to it but the cost of adding it later and not being prepared can be 10 times the up-front cost. It can be as simple as adding a horn or a flashing red light, but there seems to always be something that companies want to add.”


Cashing in

Newman says there is a middle ground between the dream of total plant automation and process visibility and the reality. “There is the ideal of fully connected systems where everything integrates — PLCs, HMIs, QA data, MES and ERP platforms — to provide complete performance monitoring, machine learning, predictive analytics, and process control. Then there is the reality for most manufacturers who have equipment they need to get more life out of and entrenched software systems that aren’t going away anytime soon. Most manufacturers do better by starting with a targeted project that can deliver value quickly and a roadmap of how that will integrate into a larger solution. For a fraction of the cost of buying new equipment, a small- to mid-sized company can connect legacy equipment and become an IIoT facility with visibility into their processes — anywhere, anytime.” 

The effect of better visibility to the bottom line can be substantial. “The top two issues resulting in a loss of profitability in pet food manufacturing are overfilling and overdrying of product,” Newman says. “Process control systems that visualize live data for operators can save a company millions of dollars. One example of that is a recent client who identified overfill as a problem. When we investigated the overfill issue, we found that the average overfill was 6.5%. This is a $4 million annual problem for this mid-sized customer. By visualizing real-time data, this company can expect to see a 50% reduction in overfill.”

"We all want to be that person that has the data, has the knowledge, and can execute quickly because the context is correct," says Travis Stoll, director of service and technology, Shick Esteve.

A comprehensive view of costs and potential gains associated with proposed automation is possible with digital twin technology. Digital twin refers to a digital replica of physical assets, processes, people, places, systems and devices. “With a digital twin of a factory and the desired output, any scenario can be evaluated resulting in realistic insights into the impact on production, costs and the required level of automation to achieve the desired results,” Dubbers says. “Processors are surprised by the potential bottlenecks that can be found and the level of insight that a factory automation supplier can provide with the available data in a production plant. This effort can identify in advance what the best balance is in the degree of automation and the desired flexibility to make a factory future-proof.”


Wired for data

Automation platforms are limited by the information collected and analyzed. “The more sensors at critical points, the smarter your system can be,” Stoll says.

Process controls have come a long way in the past 10 years and processors are now able to amass facts and feedback across nearly every area of the production environment. Combining that shared data, working with an external solution provider that offers deeper insights with data analytics, gives the processor access to very powerful information. “Consider leveraging a solution provider that has a focus on process efficiency and can support you and your operators in real-time decision making so you can be focused on what you do best: making pet food,” McKeithan suggests.

“Transforming information to knowledge and into better decisions is the behavioral challenge.” Dubbers explains. “The system must provide clear and well-presented information and support the development of knowledge that is tuned to the needs at the user level.”

Read more about pet food processing on our Operations page.