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Considering power quality in food processing applications

08 May 2017

Steve Hughes explains how electrical engineers can protect food manufacturing plants from power quality problems.

Fluctuating consumer demand and tightening legal requirements has required food manufacturers to invest in new ways of operating effectively. This has, typically, involved investment in new technologies, from more efficient equipment to digital data-collection software.

However, this is not the only way that food production facilities are changing. In addition to the rising prevalence of data-collecting sensors and software, there are many new pieces of equipment being installed to improve process efficiency and product quality. 

In particular, plant managers are turning to packaging equipment that uses laser microperforation to control packaging airflow and therefore improve product shelf life. This equipment uses lasers to create very small and evenly spaced holes in packaging in a consistent and efficient fashion.

Each of these developments poses a challenge for the electrical engineer tasked with ensuring high plant power quality. Very few plant managers will consider whether it is necessary to upgrade power supplies when specifying new technology.

Laser microperforation equipment, for example, uses high frequencies that significantly hinder the performance of conventional power supplies. This means that usage of the equipment causes power quality problems, including voltage fluctuations that result in decreased laser power output and an unpredictable performance. If the equipment is not performing properly, it is unlikely that the food packaging will be as breathable as it should be and this leads to inaccurate best-before dates and a possible risk to consumers.

To address this problem, electrical engineers need to ensure that the equipment has an effective switch mode power supply (SMPS) that can handle the unique demands of the application. This can be challenging, as every operating situation is different and off-the-shelf power supplies may not be suitable for a particular set up.

REO UK, for example, designed its REOTRON SMP for customers needing a product that could make laser perforation equipment reliable. It uses specialised control algorithms on capacitive loads so engineers can maintain voltage and current accurately, leading to a lower project reject rate. It also features liquid cooling that can be easily connected to the existing liquid cooling systems used by most lasers.

The REOTRON SMP can also be connected to remote monitoring modules such as the REODATA-GSM. This provides performance data that plant managers can use to determine if and when maintenance is needed. As with the other data that plant managers must collect during the production process, electrical engineers should install effective power line communication (PLC) filters to remove harmonics that occur due to data transmission and high frequencies on power networks.

Steve Hughes is managing director of REO UK.

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