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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, August/September 2012

Minimize Risk in Food Automation Systems

by David McCarthy

If yours is like most food plants, you have a fair amount of automated equipment in your facility. Automation has a major impact on your plant’s ability to maintain quality and achieve any number of key goals, including meeting regulatory requirements.

Installing or upgrading an automation system brings risks to manage. These can range from minor annoyances to misbehavior so serious that it can put your regulatory compliance in jeopardy or, worse, put people, product, or equipment in harm’s way. Here’s what you need to know to keep these risks in check.

Common Challenges

Food plants may automate for many and varied reasons. Automation projects can range from minor equipment modifications measured in hundreds of dollars to complete facility overhauls that cost millions of dollars. While no two are alike, they come with common challenges. Every project, regardless of size and scope, needs a well-articulated vision of the project objectives, along with sufficient resources, time, and planning to execute the project—and comes with an array of technical issues. Stumble in any of these areas, and risk will rear its head. Following best practices, however, will go a long way toward success in the form of an efficient and more profitable plant.

A clear project vision will keep your team pulling on the same side of the rope. Your business objectives for the project, whatever they may be, must be communicated to all team members and periodically reinforced through the life of your project. This goes a long way toward avoiding the very common risk of failure to meet business objectives. Technical people love to tinker and, if left to their own devices, may produce beautiful, feature-laden systems that might actually detract from your primary goal. Keeping everyone informed, not only of what you want to do but also why you want to do it, is an important step in a risk-reducing approach.

Planning Leads to Perfect

Proper planning is the next key ingredient in keeping your risks under control. Failure to plan properly can result in delays at best and potential disasters at worst. Start your plan with a schedule of when things need to happen. You will likely need to account for supplier selections, development time, factory acceptance, installation time, start-up, training, trial runs, and full production.

Next, work through logistical hurdles you will need to navigate. Automation projects usually require some sort of plant downtime during their installation. To account for this, your plant may need to stockpile finished product in advance of the downtime period. It’s a good idea to have a disaster recovery contingency plan in place, to produce or package somewhere else, in case unforeseen delays occur. During installation, your project team may need operational utilities and other systems, with support staff present even though production is suspended. Make sure that all relevant parties are aware of these requirements to avoid unnecessary delays and cost overruns.

How much automation you can install at one time depends on the size of the downtime window. From a project standpoint, longer downtimes are better, allowing the company to simplify many complexities associated with phased installations, where there are often a large number of temporary connection points, all of which represent points of potential failure. From a business perspective, small downtime windows are generally preferable, because downtime generally equates to lack of profit, and lack of production could make meeting order commitments difficult. Negotiate an acceptable balance between the needs of production and the needs of the project, and make sure everyone has bought into these decisions.

Build the Right Team

It’s an understatement to say an automation project involves a lot of technical details and associated risks. Technical challenges will often surface with control equipment, computer hardware and software, and the integration of components. But the risks can be minimized. Systems integrators, who are immersed in such projects all the time, can be great partners in this process.

To keep your risk to an absolute minimum, it’s essential to have experienced and highly skilled people on your project. When choosing a systems integrator for the project, make certain the firm is well versed in your process and technology platforms. Check references to be sure their clients are happy. Regardless of their size, make sure they have available resources to work in your time frame.

On most automation projects, the technical team will include a systems integrator, along with plant or corporate engineering and plant or corporate I.T. resources. Select an experienced project manager to lead the team. The project manager must manage the plan, project schedule, and scope, and ensure that everyone understands the project objectives, as well as their respective roles and responsibilities.

Control Equipment

To ensure success, the team must pay close attention to the physical control equipment—things like control panels, plant floor controllers, instruments, sensors, computer workstations, and servers. Evaluate the physical environment in which the equipment is located, check to be sure all of the ordered and assembled parts and pieces are in compliance with their intended use, and confirm signal types, power requirements, air requirements, and network and electrical wiring connections.

Another best practice is to realize that control equipment could be damaged in transit, given the excessive vibration that can damage delicate electronic components. Ship by air ride van or another vibration-reducing method.

It’s equally important to give special attention to the integration of control equipment. Upstream and downstream systems may require integration and/or modifications to accommodate your project. Existing networks, servers, and databases may need alterations, and all of these areas must operate properly before, during, and after your project is installed. The key is to lean on your technical team for the heavy lifting, which includes proper installation and integration of equipment with the rest of the plant.

Software: Start with a Solid Functional Specification

The automated system at your plant likely includes custom software, written specifically for your facility. You will find it running many important systems, including plant floor controllers, graphical user interfaces, customized scripting, and database management. Decision makers, stakeholders, and the technical team must agree in advance on software requirements to ensure success and minimize risks that could range from a long painful startup to potentially catastrophic consequences to people, product, or equipment.

Everything starts with a solid functional specification, usually produced by the systems integrator. This document details all automated operations, including interlocks, sequence, and device activations; how people interact with the system; human/machine interface screen definitions, security, overrides, alarms, configuration, and navigation; what data is collected, how it is queried, and how it is presented; and any information exchanged with other systems.

Once all decision makers approve a functional specification, the technical team develops software in conformance. During development, it is essential to check progress adequately and periodically. HMI screens can be confirmed with easily produced screen shots; system reports can be exercised to check operations and data collection; operator tracking logs can provide insight into what functions have been tested; and signed quality assurance forms can provide additional insight into the testing processes.

Before installing a new automation system, a robust factory acceptance test is needed to ensure everything is working as promised.

Thorough Testing

With automation projects, loose ends equate to risks. Before installing the new automation system at your facility, a robust factory acceptance test, normally performed by the systems integrator, is needed to ensure that everything is working as promised. Decision makers and the technical team should agree in advance on a test plan based on the functional specification for both the factory test and site installation.

A key part of the FAT involves thorough testing of control equipment to ensure that it hasn’t been damaged in transit and performs to specification. Make sure the factory test is scheduled well in advance of the installation at your facility, to allow time for any required corrective action.

In addition to the FAT, another best practice is to test the software. Depending on the nature of your plant process, the custom software will go through a variety of dry runs and wet runs prior to moving into production.

Trained Staff = Success

Although it may seem obvious, don’t overlook the fact that automation success requires trained staff. An essential part of minimizing risk means properly training those responsible for operating and maintaining the system.

It’s imperative for the technical team to schedule operator and maintenance training during installation. Operations staff needs hands-on training with the new system; maintenance needs more detailed training in troubleshooting and maintaining control equipment.

As soon as the technical team has confirmed proper operation, operations personnel should run the system. This will accelerate their ownership of the system and their ability to effectively operate and maintain it. It’s important to have the systems integrator revisit the system with the operations staff after a few weeks of operation to be sure everything is working as intended.

Reaping the Rewards

The goal of any automation project is to complete it sooner rather than later in order to more quickly reap the benefits of the new technology. But reaching the finish line in record time means little without project success. The key is to establish clear objectives up front, carefully plan the project, and ensure that everyone is on the same page from start to finish. The experience and capabilities of the project team, including the systems integrator who designs and executes all or a majority of the project, also cannot be overstated. n


David McCarthy is president and CEO of TriCore, a national systems integration firm based in Racine, Wis., with offices in Glendale, Calif., and Mesa, Ariz. Before he founded TriCore in 1991, McCarthy served in various capacities at Alfa Laval/Tetra Pak, including manager of engineering for its U.S.-based food engineering company.

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