With Siemens, I was able to celebrate International Craft Beer Week in August by visiting several of the larger craft brewers around St. Louis. Anheuser-Busch-InBEV has been seriously hurt by the increasing popularity of the craft brewing industry, not least because of the fact that many leading craft brewers are refugees from the big brewers, of which AB-InBEV is the biggest.
One such is Florian Kuplent, co-founder and brewmaster of Urban Chestnut Brewing Co. Born in Germany and educated at the University of Munich, Kuplent worked for Anheuser-Busch for eight years before co-founding Urban Chestnut. Although Urban Chestnut is in the midst of an expansion from its original brewery to a new, much larger one that will make it (counting both locations) the second largest brewery in St. Louis, Kuplent told me, "I may not be the best person to give you a tour of our automation. I really don't care about it. My job is to make beer."
Those of us who work as automation professionals often forget that we produce a means to an end and not an end in itself. Our customers, clients and co-workers are engaged in making beer or petroleum products or consumer products or chemical formulations or whatever.
Kuplent showed me his bottling line, which had to be the slowest bottling line I've seen in probably 30 years. It bottles about 1500 bottles an hour. The bottles move with agonizing slowness through the washer, filler and capper, and then are hand-loaded into boxes.
"We don't need it to go any faster," Kuplent told me. "When we move, we are buying a faster one, because then we'll need it. We bought this one used, and we will sell it to another brewery."
Urban Chestnut uses automation, be sure of that. It has a very nice batch automation system, which runs the mash mixer, lautering tun and the brew kettle. The brewery has about 25 recipes, but it actually runs only six or seven of them regularly.
When the company moves to the new brewery, since it is a whole city block long, it will probably go to a central HMI, so that workers can see everything that's going on without taking a very long walk. For now, as Kuplent noted, there are two rooms, one for the brewing and one for the bottling line, and they're separated by an archway and a sanitary curtain.
So what can this tell us? Sometimes, in the high tech world—and automation is certainly part of that world—we want to use technology simply because it is cool. Companies often push new technologies on customers long before the customers need it or can really use it. However, as Urban Chestnut shows us, the use of appropriate levels of technology—not necessarily the newest—makes it possible to make product with high quality, high reliability and high repeatability.
The two technologies that are pushing into, or being pushed on, the process industries are wireless sensor networks and mobile worker applications. The jury is still out on both of these technologies, although it looks like both will actually add value over time.
I asked Kuplent if he thought mobile worker technologies would add value to his brewery. "You mean, like being able to start the brew kettle from my smart phone in the morning at home? Not really," he said.
On the other hand, with the millennial generation, who seem to be born with a smartphone grafted to their hands, those very same mobile worker technologies may be essential to the way they want to work in manufacturing and in the process industries.
Pardon me, while us grey-haired, early adopters wait and see.