Placing a final accent on Automation Fair week, Rockwell Automation’s Plex manufacturing execution system (MES) was highlighted during a tour of the Downeast Cider House in Boston, where its blends are made and packaged. “The facility produces about 125,000 beer barrels of craft cider every year,” said Grainger Flint, director of supply chain. That translates into almost 15 million liters of cider. “For context, there are 13 states in the United States that produce less than that in craft beer.”
Pat Welsh, director of manufacturing enterprise resource planning (ERP) consulting at the Revolution Group, an IT and enterprise-resource-planning integrator in Columbus, Ohio, guided Downeast through the Plex implementation process. “We kicked that off in October 2022,” said Flint. “After about six months, we got to April of this year, and we were able to go live with Plex here in this plant without shutting down and without skipping a beat. Our operators were able to just start up on a Monday morning and just run with Plex. We haven't stopped since. And now seven months later, we've been able to really achieve some awesome milestones. We've been able to reduce our carrying cost of inventory by 10%, and we've been able to reduce our cost of goods sold by 17%. That's great for a small business, especially one that's trying to grow about 20% each year, as we've done in the past.”
Before Plex, Downeast was running its entire facility using Google Sheets and running its accounting software using bill.com. “These are great tools for small businesses,” said Flint. “But as Downeast has grown to be the No. 1 cider in New England and the No. 1 craft cider in the United States, we needed a better tool for what we were using. So now we use Plex.”
Apples are sourced from all over the country and pressed locally before they’re sent to Downeast as tankers of juice, sometimes twice a day to keep up with demand. The apple juice is fermented and then turned into a kind of apple wine. “Our product is not like beer,” explained Flint. “With beer, you're going to be fermenting grains and all that jazz. We don't do any of that. We are more like a winemaker. We take apple cider, and we mix it with yeast. We make more of a wine-like product.”
Apples are harvested throughout the year and stored, explained Flint. “The characteristics of those apples and the mix of those apples will change throughout the year,” he noted. “That gives us different characteristics to the base cider. Those different characteristics are something that we have to control, so that we can always produce a consistent product at the back end all year long. We'll make different adjustments to our blend to make sure that we're getting the right notes.”
The facility runs one can line on which every can of Downeast cider travels. “Every can gets loaded into the depalletizer, and it's automatically lifted onto the line,” explained Flint. The cans descend and enter the twist-rinse, where they're cleaned out, sanitized and then prepared for packaging. Once they come through this twist-rinse, the cans enter the filler before being topped by the seamer machine.
“You need to make sure that they're not sticky with any residue around them, so we clean them off,” explained Flint. “We then get checked one more time by an X-ray. That X-ray makes sure that we have the right fill level and that there are no particles in the cider.”
After the cans are filled and checked, they move to the accumulation table for predetermined packaging configurations. Mixed packs, for example, can include different blends, which must be preloaded with other flavors that are picked by the facility’s Fanuc robot. The trays of mixed packs are then palletized automatically with a TopTier palletizing machine. “All our operators have to do is pick up that pallet and then load it into the pushback racks, where our finished product sits,” explained Flint. Pallets are then loaded onto trucks through the single-bay door, and then they’re taken to Downeast’s off-site warehouse.
“We use Plex at every step of the way in our process,” said Flint. “As soon as the raw material comes through the door, we're going to have a check sheet for it. We're going to receive it within Plex and then it’s tracked at each step of our fermentation process each and every day. We have a check sheet that our quality team fills out within Plex to then track the fermentation. Each fermentation is different for its own characteristics, so we need to track each data point. We can use trends to make sure that we're making the right adjustments at the right time using the correct data for each and every fermentation. That then helps us build the right sweetness levels and the right alcohol levels for our finished product.”
The fermentation process takes seven to 10 days. “We track each and every day, which permits us to determine if we can use it earlier or have to let it sit longer, depending on the attributes of the apples and the sugars within those apples, as well as our alcohol by volume (ABV) target,” explained Flint. “Sometimes we're targeting a higher ABV ferment for some of our higher-ABV ciders. After 10 days of fermenting, we then put it into our bright tanks, which are where we make blends.”
Downeast uses a sort-of apple wine as its base and then flavors it with different fruit juices and concentrates to create the desired flavors. “That process takes about 24 to 48 hours,” Flint said. “Within that process, we track all through-production within Plex. We're tracking all of our stability steps within Plex to make sure that it is a clean and safe product before we can send it out the door.”