Food Processors Gain Steam with the Internet of Things

Steam plays a crucial role in industrial processes ranging from food and beverage manufacturing to healthcare, automotive, and beyond.

In food processing, steam is used primarily for three purposes. It provides indirect heat. It sterilizes equipment. And it’s used for food applications, such as in an oven to make bread crusty.

As you can see, steam is pretty important. And when your boiler breaks down, halting production, it can cost you big time. Traditional steam systems are typical culprits for high maintenance costs, low efficiency, and poor steam quality. All of these things can eat into your bottom line.

To learn what a better solution might look like, we spoke with Holger Deimann, an industrial engineer and current president of CERTUSS America, a company that manufactures steam generators for many industrial uses, including food and beverage.

Deimann described two major recent advances in industrial steam generation: remote monitoring of equipment and condition-based maintenance. Both of these advances are made possible by the Internet of Things. These factors help solve the problems identified above, allowing manufacturers to better focus on what they do best: creating fabulous food.

The Internet of Things: The future is now

Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of talk surrounding the Internet of Things (IoT) — a vast network where almost any device can be connected to the internet and to other devices via sensors.

These devices communicate with one another, sharing data so that they (and we) can respond to the immediate environmental conditions. For example, a connected refrigerator could tell you when you’re out of eggs or when that opened jar of pasta sauce you forgot about finally goes bad.

The consumer IoT (i.e., the one that your refrigerator is connected to) has been slower to take off than initially predicted. But the Industrial IoT (IIoT), which applies the same principles to industrial equipment, is already proving to be a game-changer. According to an analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute, factories will be, by far, the biggest beneficiaries of the Internet of Things through 2025.

This shift toward smarter facilities is particularly evident in the food industry. A recent article in Food Industry Executive highlights two main areas where the IIoT is having the greatest impact:

  • Food safety. Perhaps the biggest implication of FSMA for processors across the board is the new monitoring and documentation requirements. These might be summed up as “data or it didn’t happen.” We explored the food safety benefits of the IoT earlier this year in an article about wireless temperature monitoring, which allows companies to know exactly what temperatures their products are exposed to across their entire supply chain and distribution channels.
  • Logistics. This is the area where the IIoT is really ahead of the game. Many food manufacturers are already leveraging machine-to-machine communications to:
    • track their inventory in real time,
    • monitor system performance to implement proactive maintenance (an approach known as predictive or condition-based maintenance), and
    • monitor plant and transport conditions to ensure safety and quality.

As you can see, the IoT has the potential to help processors solve some of their biggest pain points. Let’s look at how CERTUSS is making this happen in steam generation via remote monitoring and condition-based maintenance.

Remote monitoring boosts stability, reduces downtime

The basic idea behind the IIoT is that sensors on various devices send real-time data back to a cloud database. This allows you to monitor system performance and flag potential problems before they occur.

CERTUSS has developed their network using SIM cards, the same technology that’s in your cellphone. Deimann notes: “Everyone’s already running around in the plant with their cellphones. So why not put a cellphone card into a steam generator? We can then collect the data from there.”

Using the SIM cards, the generators collect and send data for 60 operational parameters, including temperature, steam pressure, and flame signal, to a cloud database in Germany, the company’s main headquarters.

“By using the technology we have nowadays, we can greatly reduce problems due to operator error,” Deimann says. “Everything can run more stably, with reduced downtime losses and maintenance.”

For example, he says, “we can see if a certain generator is out of range with anything—gas pressure, oil consumption, water supply, temperature. We can log on to the generator, call the client, and say, ‘Hey, something’s wrong: why don’t you press this, why don’t you do that.’ If there’s a problem, we can pinpoint its source and devise an exact solution. We can see whether they have the needed component on hand, whether we need to send a technician to fix the specific issue, or if we might be able to adjust a software problem remotely.”

The benefits of this type of system are obvious. First, as you likely well know, on-site maintenance calls can cost a pretty penny, especially after you factor in labor and travel expenses. And if the technician doesn’t have the required parts on hand, it could very well turn into two or three service visits. This is all time that your processing lines aren’t running.

As an example, one of CERTUSS’ clients is a bakery in Delaware, which uses the steam in its proofing system. “If something goes wrong with the system, they can’t use the steam for the proofer,” Deimann notes. “It affects their process right away. They can’t work.” Calling a service technician involves driving time, parts, mileage—all of which cost money. Bakeries can’t afford to be down for any substantial amount of time, especially during high-volume periods, like the holidays. Remote monitoring significantly reduces these costs.

The idea of remote monitoring can be a pretty radical one, especially for larger companies that are accustomed to keeping their data under tight control.  “Everybody’s talking about the Internet of Things,” says Deimann, “but only a few are doing it. Usually what we see are security concerns about their own IT system.”

CERTUSS directly addresses those concerns by installing separate T-Mobile cellphone cards on the equipment that don’t interact with a company’s IT network. “They only need to allow us either to put a cellphone card into the generator or to have Wifi access via their network or local internet provider.”

CERTUSS also offers an initial period of their remote monitoring service for free on all new equipment. “Our experience is that once they see the benefit of having that kind of system, they generally want to have a continuing maintenance contract,” says Deimann.

Of course, it isn’t just CERTUSS who can monitor and control the systems remotely. Their customers can as well. Just imagine how much energy (and money) you could save by moving your steam from always-on to on-demand.

For example, craft brewers don’t need to have their steam systems running 24/7. When they do need steam, they can turn on the generator from any internet-enabled device. “They don’t have to physically go there and switch it on,” says Deimann. “They can do it with any kind of internet connection, even with their cellphone.”

Condition-based maintenance: A data-driven approach

With roughly 14,000 generators operating in more than 127 countries, CERTUSS collects huge amounts of data on a daily basis. That data provides the foundation for another practice that can save processors time and money: condition-based, or predictive, maintenance.

There are three main approaches to maintenance:

  • Reactive = wait until something goes wrong and then fix it
  • Preventive = perform maintenance on a regular (e.g., annual) basis whether it’s necessary or not
  • Predictive = use data to predict when something might go wrong and fix it before it happens

Most processors have moved away from a purely reactive approach to maintenance because of the immense costs associated with unplanned downtime. But many still use preventive maintenance for many of their systems.

Preventive maintenance is still the best option for some equipment and components. For example, pressure relief devices aren’t operated regularly, but need to be kept in top shape in case of an overpressure event. In this case, annual preventive maintenance ensures the valves are ready if they’re needed.

But for equipment that’s used on an ongoing basis, regular planned maintenance isn’t always the best or the most cost-effective approach.

On one hand, it can result in equipment going too long between service calls. Suppose you have a machine that starts running slowly or using energy at an elevated level. That machine will cost you money every day it’s not operating at peak performance.

On the other hand, regular maintenance can also lead to service being performed too regularly. Suppose you have a machine that’s working perfectly. Do you really need to shut it down and service it just because of the date on the calendar?

Predictive maintenance solves both of these problems. Rather than scheduling maintenance based on time, companies can use data to schedule maintenance based on the actual condition of the machines.

For example, CERTUSS can use data from both an individual company and the thousands of steam generators it has installed to predict when problems might occur. “We can analyze the data and see problems coming up in advance,” says Deimann. “If we have seen a mistake earlier, then we can predict it later.”

This approach leads to reduced downtime, quick startup times, and cost savings, all of which benefit CERTUSS’ customers. “With years of data generated from business in Germany, we were able to reduce service deployments for our own technicians from roughly 18% down to 6%,” says Deimann. “In terms of cost/profit for the client, that’s a huge enhancement.”

Indeed it is. Food manufacturers of all sizes are looking for ways to cut costs and increase efficiency. And in today’s highly competitive market, wireless monitoring and predictive maintenance are the kinds of innovations that will make all of the difference.

Food Processors Gain Steam with the Internet of Things

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