Process Automation, Controls Boost Production at Yogurt Plant

PC-based Controls Provide DCS Capabilities, But They Can Also be Implemented and Reconfigured More Easily than Dedicated, Hardwired, Less Software-Based Systems

By James Montague

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Sometimes success can be as challenging as failure. For example, too much demand can be as scary as no demand at all, especially when you're lacking production capacity. This is where process automation —lately in the form of PC-based control — can do its best work.

For instance, after discovering Paul and Grant Mathewson's Australian-style yogurt in Noosa, Queensland, Koel Thomae convinced the brothers to bring their family recipe to the U.S., and start Noosa Finest Yoghurt at Morning Fresh Dairy in Bellvue, Colo. Launched in 2010, the new company's full-fat product was originally intended for local Colorado consumers, but demand snowballed so fast that Noosa decided in 2012 to build a new, 25,000-square-foot plant just 50 meters from its original facility, so it could expand distribution to all 50 states. However, it also had to move quickly from producing its artisanal yogurt manually to automating production to keep up with its skyrocketing demand.

Along with measuring and metering ingredients by hand, Noosa's operators had been manually monitoring and documenting critical processes, setting up valve-transfer paths, dialing in mixer and pump speeds, and adjusting temperature control valves. Unfortunately, when problems occurred, they had to spend hours troubleshooting, and often could only speculate on the cause because they couldn't backtrack their data and pinpoint the difficulty.

"We had no expectation our product would take off so quickly, but when we picked up some large retail customers, we had to expand quickly to fulfill orders,” says Wade Groetsch, Noosa's COO. "The only way we could increase capacity was to automate. We also saw demand increasing well into the future, so to meet production goals, we needed a system that would monitor the process, collect data and allow for easy future expansion. And we needed to track data for our quality assurance and for different regulatory reports required by the FDA.”

Fill More Cups
To ramp up production and process controls, Noosa worked with Malisko Engineering Inc., a system integrator in St. Louis, Mo., and Denver, Colo., and member of Rockwell Automation's PartnerNetwork program. In just six months, they jointly designed and implemented an automated control system for yogurt production, clean-in-place tasks and utilities, and integrated Rockwell's PlantPAx process automation system, which includes a predefined process system library to enable Noosa's components to work together. This library consists of software-based, HMI process-object templates with PLC add-on instructions for many process-related functions and control tasks. Using an EtherNet/IP backbone to deliver real-time data throughout Noosa's plant, Malisko's team deployed PlantPAx servers on a VMware virtualized host and deployed thin-client HMIs in the plant floor (Figure 1). Also, Microsoft's Active Directory domain controller was installed for user security, and it uses Cisco's VPN firewall for secure, 24/7 access and troubleshooting from anywhere with Internet access.

"The PlantPAx system-sizing tools coupled with the predefined library of process objects enables us to deploy projects more rapidly,” says Dan Malyszko, operations director at Malisko. "The rich functionality of the library's HMI device faceplates allows users to configure and troubleshoot more efficiently, reducing the need to dive into complex PLC code for routine maintenance operations. Users can save approximately 30% on upfront integration costs by using software libraries such as those in the PlantPAx system.”

Noosa reports its new automation system is easy to set up and operate, and allows operators to capture material tracking information, such as raw milk/cream receiving information, critical temperatures at specific process points, ingredient amounts, batch cycle times and CIP tracking, more easily. Information can now be retrieved to investigate process excursions, which saves troubleshooting time and expense, and eliminates much former guesswork.

This improved visibility into its production process has made Noosa's operations and overall yogurt process much more efficient. In fact, since opening its new facility, the company has increased production capacity by 300% without adding more staff. Likewise, when it started in 2010, Noosa's equipment could only fill one cup of yogurt at a time, but now its two automated lines can fill about 100 cups per minute.

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  • I worked with Noosa Yoghurt to implement the process control solution discussed in the article above. While most of the details on the application are accurately described within the article, this particular application does not use PC-based control. Noosa uses a Rockwell Automation PlantPAx process control system built on a server and thin client architecture – the actual control resides within a programmable automation controller (not a PC), despite how it’s referenced in the article.

    In my experience, PC-based control takes the control functions found on a programmable controller, encapsulates them in software, and executes program tasks and I/O communications on the PC’s processor along with other overhead related to the host operating system. PLCs and PACs, on the other hand, are more robust and include more control capabilities than those offered through PC-based control. These could include motion control, integrated safety and advanced PID process control. At Noosa, the PAC-based PlantPAx platform provides the ability to add additional I/O, controllers, and servers without adversely affecting the base characterized architecture of the system – this flexibility would not be possible within a PC-based system. Dan Malyszko Director of Operations Malisko Engineering, Inc. Denver, Colorado

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