Intelligent automation – the final frontier.
People make mistakes. But when people in feed mills make mistakes, the results are always costly. It’s just a matter of degree.
As feed mills move toward an ever-higher level of automation, people are being taken out of the equation. Facilities have begun operating with almost no direct labor, aside from people who maintain equipment and manage through uncommon situations that may arise.
Those people aren’t in the mill monitoring equipment. They’ve shut off the lights and left, returning only if needed to fix equipment or perform normal maintenance.
This is “lights-out” automation, the final frontier in process automation.
Lights-out is automation to the fullest possible level. When you’re at lights out, your plant floor operates on its own, maintaining the established level of product quality and preventing product waste. No one has to hover over equipment, watching for problems that might arise. Although lights-out mills are rare today, good ones exist.
The ultimate goals of a workerless plant floor are feed safety and the ability to immediately substantiate product integrity. In short: provable safety. It’s what mills, their customers and the federal government all want. The need for greater safety has already given the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) more teeth.
Imagine having the capability to quickly prove to a customer that what you supplied was of the utmost integrity and quality. The ability to pull a report in a few minutes and head off liability at the pass can prevent lawsuits.
Today’s common, fully automated mill still places a lot of responsibility on equipment operators. Operators have to know the state their process areas at any given moment. At a mixing station, for example, there may be six or eight batches in flight amounting to several tons of material. In this scenario, if the operator doesn’t know the state of all processes when a problem occurs, the run usually gets aborted. Material gets scrapped. A substantial amount time and money are lost.
Lights-out shifts the shifts knowledge from the operator to the system. In doing so, it prevents people from making mistakes and adds tremendous advantages:
A sophisticated system operating at lights-out will intrinsically know the status of every batch of feed in flight at the time of an equipment failure. Once the equipment failure is fixed, Repete systems can return to normal operation with no loss of product or concern for product integrity. And it can do so with a single button push.
At lights-out, a system adapts to equipment whose operating characteristics vary with changes in outside temperatures. It will shut down or bypass actions during equipment failure. It will pause operation at the failure and give service personnel the opportunity to fix the issue, then we can resume the process from the point of failure most often with a single button click.
We call this a “thinking” system. Like a smart coach encouraging an athlete, a thinking system even knows how far it can push equipment to achieve the best possible run rate for maximum throughput and ROI.
Any mill can achieve this level of automation, regardless of the operation’s uniqueness. It doesn’t matter if your mill operation is exceptionally unique as long as you can answer this question: How will should I recover this mill for any and all possible circumstances? A well-designed lights-out system will have the answers. It will take into account all scenarios and be prepared to handle any disruption.
As time passes, it becomes more important for equipment to be resilient and highly self-recoverable. A mill’s existence may depend on it, as compliance regulations increases and competitors conquer this final frontier.