Minimize Risk in Food Automation Systems

If yours is like most food plants, you have a fair amount of automated equipment in your facility. Automation has a major impact on your plant’s ability to maintain quality and achieve any number of key goals, including meeting regulatory requirements.

Installing or upgrading an automation system brings risks to manage. These can range from minor annoyances to misbehavior so serious that it can put your regulatory compliance in jeopardy or, worse, put people, product, or equipment in harm’s way. Here’s what you need to know to keep these risks in check.

Common Challenges

Food plants may automate for many and varied reasons. Automation projects can range from minor equipment modifications measured in hundreds of dollars to complete facility overhauls that cost millions of dollars. While no two are alike, they come with common challenges. Every project, regardless of size and scope, needs a well-articulated vision of the project objectives, along with sufficient resources, time, and planning to execute the project—and comes with an array of technical issues. Stumble in any of these areas, and risk will rear its head. Following best practices, however, will go a long way toward success in the form of an efficient and more profitable plant.

A clear project vision will keep your team pulling on the same side of the rope. Your business objectives for the project, whatever they may be, must be communicated to all team members and periodically reinforced through the life of your project. This goes a long way toward avoiding the very common risk of failure to meet business objectives. Technical people love to tinker and, if left to their own devices, may produce beautiful, feature-laden systems that might actually detract from your primary goal. Keeping everyone informed, not only of what you want to do but also why you want to do it, is an important step in a risk-reducing approach.

Planning Leads to Perfect

Proper planning is the next key ingredient in keeping your risks under control. Failure to plan properly can result in delays at best and potential disasters at worst. Start your plan with a schedule of when things need to happen. You will likely need to account for supplier selections, development time, factory acceptance, installation time, start-up, training, trial runs, and full production.

Next, work through logistical hurdles you will need to navigate. Automation projects usually require some sort of plant downtime during their installation. To account for this, your plant may need to stockpile finished product in advance of the downtime period. It’s a good idea to have a disaster recovery contingency plan in place, to produce or package somewhere else, in case unforeseen delays occur. During installation, your project team may need operational utilities and other systems, with support staff present even though production is suspended. Make sure that all relevant parties are aware of these requirements to avoid unnecessary delays and cost overruns.

How much automation you can install at one time depends on the size of the downtime window. From a project standpoint, longer downtimes are better, allowing the company to simplify many complexities associated with phased installations, where there are often a large number of temporary connection points, all of which represent points of potential failure. From a business perspective, small downtime windows are generally preferable, because downtime generally equates to lack of profit, and lack of production could make meeting order commitments difficult. Negotiate an acceptable balance between the needs of production and the needs of the project, and make sure everyone has bought into these decisions.

Build the Right Team

It’s an understatement to say an automation project involves a lot of technical details and associated risks. Technical challenges will often surface with control equipment, computer hardware and software, and the integration of components. But the risks can be minimized. Systems integrators, who are immersed in such projects all the time, can be great partners in this process.

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