Date Created: 09/04/2020
At the time of this writing, we are in week one of the COVID-19 shutdown. People are working from home and dealing with what some are predicting as the new normal. While we all hope this is not the case, it does give one pause to think about the what-ifs of this becoming a new normal. This, along with an aging population and a newer generation with less desire to work in the mills, prompts us to think about how to best prepare for such a future.
In my role as CEO of Repete, I talk to many companies around the world, and these topics are on the minds of industry leaders. I will share some thoughts and ideas from these discussions in a list of choices and practices that may help you going forward. And the good news is that all of these capabilities are available today, but more about that later.
One quick observation is that well-designed control systems do not get sick. This is a little absurd to hear at first, but it is true. Well-designed control systems that have been designed for a high level of automation require significantly fewer human resources and don’t get sick from pandemics, common colds or sore backs. Of course, picking and implementing the right control system can be a challenge.
Here are a few points that will help you know if your current control system is automated to the right level, or if you might need to consider upgrading to a new one.
There is no longer the need to have people standing in various process areas and monitoring systems during operations. Advanced automation systems make it possible for a single operator to monitor the whole mill. Most of our customers have now created control rooms that both house the computing equipment needed to operate the mill as well as the operator that monitors production. When a hardware field failure occurs, the operator monitoring the mill can now simply ask the automation system what is wrong. Armed with this knowledge the problem can be quickly resolved.
Today’s high-end automation can easily do that. You simply select the formula to use, the amount to produce, the destination bin and you’re done! High-end automation systems will also allow you to establish rules to prevent contamination between runs. If a problem does occur in your hardware field, a single operator monitoring all process areas can easily identify the issue and have a maintenance person resolve the issue. Then with a single button click the mill will return to operation. No longer do you need operators to have high levels of tribal knowledge about how the mill works. And no longer do you need to worry about an operator leaving or not returning from vacation.
This is a great way to reduce costs, errors, and dependency on human resources. A good way to do this is to integrate your ERP order system into web-based order routing and delivery software. Once your accounting department has validated a customer credit or payments and releases the order, it can be routed to the plant you have designated to manufacture the product. This is often done by integrating your formulation system as well so that as your order is released from the ERP system, the right formula is attached to the order and delivered to the right mill’s automation system as a unit. Gone are the worries about making the right version of a product, especially during formulation change over periods where you might need to make two different versions of the product on the same day. The order just shows up on the schedule at the plant and all you have to do is take it off hold and it will run, fully automated.
Once an order is run, the automation system will report the materials’ usage and the production amounts for the run that just completed. This happens quietly, reliably and without human intervention. This is a real time saver and has the added benefit that corporate inventory managers will always know what is in inventory at your facility.
Reconciliation programs today can make this much easier by producing take sheets to record inventory, and once it’s entered, it can automate the process of making inventory corrections. Any inventory corrections can then be reported to corporate so that inventories at both corporate and the mills will always match. By the way, the take sheets should be printed without a hint as to how much of a product should be inventoried. This tactic helps to reduce shrink and allows you to better identify abuse.
Today there are many good micro bin systems that offer you the ability to remove this back-breaking work from your operators. Of course, you have to fill those bins, but this is a much more efficient way to deal with hand-add ingredients. A side benefit of micro bin systems over operators is that the accuracy will improve, and mistakes will cease to exist. The cost-effectiveness of micro bin systems has now made it possible to eliminate hand-adds as a process area in all but the rarest cases. If your weight requirements exceed your micro bin system, then tote systems are a good alternative.
Automation systems today have proven they can outperform an operator in efficiency and reliability. Once a recipe has been defined for a product you are making, then there is no need for an operator to be involved. New and modern profiling systems allow operators to dial in a continuous process by specific feed type and from that point forward the automation system will run that feed type again and again with the same quality and high efficiency.
Making load-out a self-service process saves time and ensures that the right product gets on the right truck. New RFID technology can identify a truck as it approaches the load-out scales (or devices) and ensures that only a load designated for this truck and drive will be loaded. In addition, the routing of materials from load-out bins can be automated to compartments on the trucks with little or no involvement from the driver. New high-definition cameras can now make precise loading of trucks efficient and effective. Drivers can move trucks as needed by monitoring their cell phone or mobile device. This and many more advances in load-out technology can help you not only load your trucks at the fastest rates but can be extended to track the deliveries all the way to your customers if desired.
You might not want to hear this but the business of feed manufacturing is becoming a high-tech business. This means that all that data that your new and modern automation system collects becomes invaluable when it comes to getting the most out of your facilities. Step one is to have your data pooled into a place where you can use it. If you are running one or many mills, it is important to have the data moved into one place and organized in an easy to use database. From there you can contrast and compare mills’ performance against each other to see which is doing the best job.
New and modern tools make data mining something that you no longer have to be a geek to do. With the right tools, you can produce a set of reports that can be run by you or any of your plant managers over the network. This is where great value can be gained for your business. You can choose to do your own data mining or ask your automation company to build a set that makes sense for you.
Often, we are not sure just how efficient our mills really are. This can be for a number of reasons, but these days it pays to know for sure. One way to know is to implement an Operational Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) system for your feed mills. You might say, “I didn’t think such a thing existed,” and for most automation systems, that would be true. But a small set of automation system providers have broken the code on how to do this. Repete has mapped OEE functionality to the feed milling operation. This has two great possibilities. One is that OEE has a real-time component where operators, in the control room or out, can easily know what their efficiency is by simply looking up at one of the large billboards placed around the mill. Employees can see when things are falling behind and adjust accordingly. Another benefit of OEE for feed mills is that the data can be looked at over longer periods of time. By trending this information, you can spot things that are slowing down or drifting over time. Once you spot an area of interest you can drill down in your pool of data, described above, and isolate the problem to specific equipment or operational impacts.
Today I only touched on a few of the ways you can prepare for the future. Whether you are trying to adapt to a changing workforce or limit the impact during the next pandemic, there is help for you. Repete has been a leading provider of automation and control systems for over 50 years. We are an international company that ships and installs automation systems all over the world. By investing in leading-edge technology, we can offer you all that was discussed above and more. If you are considering upgrading your mill or are just interested in improving your mill using the ideas above, please reach out to a Repete business development representative.
We also have a team of industry-savvy application engineers to help identify opportunities for optimization and efficiency in your plants. And most Repete application engineers were plant managers in the past. Application engineers are not salespeople; they are customer advocates and experts that are very helpful in exploring how to implement the ideas to improve your mill.
If you would like more ideas and information from Repete about how to improve your mill and make it more profitable. Please contact us today.