Addressing old challenges with new controllers

04 June 2018

Suzanne Gill looks at the features of modern machine controllers that can offer benefits in food industry applications.

Right across the food industry there is a need to eliminate downtime, reduce waste, increase throughput, reduce cycle times, increase production flexibility and optimise asset usage.

John Rowley, industry manager at Mitsubishi Electric, argues that all of these issues can be addressed through automation. He said: “Look beyond traditional SCADA/PLC based systems and turn your attention towards the machine controllers that define the production efficiencies of individual lines and which can also help manage the flow of data.”

Most PLCs today include features that can directly address current food production challenges. “Take batch control as an example,” said Rowley. “Recipe creation and management, automatic execution of recipes and the simultaneous execution of multiple recipes on a single line can all be accomplished without ever leaving the familiar PLC environment, eliminating a layer of PC complexity.”

Further PC middleware can now also be removed, with the PLC linking seamlessly to higher-level management systems. “These PLC edge computing functions have the ability to pass data to and from higher level databases or management systems directly from the plant level control system and this can open-up a whole new level of visibility on production processes,” continued Rowley.

Today’s PLCs also offering data logging capabilities, the incorporation of robot CPUs to ease the transition into robotics and a platform to address cyber security. The PLC can also become a hub for condition monitoring activity, driving an environment of predictive maintenance and asset optimisation.

Many of these PLC capabilities are recent additions. Traditionally, control requirements in the food and beverage industry have been stable with multi-functionality being the norm, with PLCs needing to offer PID, implement recipes, and the ability to handle processes based on weight/pressure and temperature. In addition, HMI panels need to comply with spray & wipe standards IP66/IP65/NEMA4.

Added value
"The lengthening chain of supply has highlighted food safety issues and the importance of traceability, said Cara Bereck Levy, a Unitronics’ spokesperson. “So, the ability to securely log production data is now critical. A PLC capable of logging, manipulating, and securely sending data has added value for food applications. Some PLC manufacturers now enable their controllers with SQL support.”

Embracing standards
According to Darren Reeves, consumer goods manager at Lenze, the demands being placed on the food and beverage industry is leading end users, machine builders and system integrators in a few clear directions. “They want to embrace standards for communication and data sharing. That makes new systems easier to integrate, and simplifies their adaptation, improvement and management in operation. For many of our customers, considerations like the PackML standard are becoming increasingly important.

“There is also a need for greater customisation to help companies differentiate their offerings and gain competitive advantage.” As production machinery becomes more sophisticated, automation systems have a larger software component, which has become a larger portion of overall system costs. Rapid development environments can cut the time and cost involved in the production of software, allowing system designers to spend more effort on the features that truly differentiate their machines.

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