Labor shortages drive investment in feed mill automation

Domnitsky Yaroslav |

Data collection and traceability have added the benefits of automated systems in feed mills

As the second-generation owner of Easy Automation, an equipment supplier for feed mills and fertilizer blenders, Brady Gaalswyk is passionate about his company’s role in global food systems.

“It’s a salt industry of the Earth that feeds the world,” he says.

But as a member of the next generation, he also believes the industry will need to make rapid changes in the coming years to deal with inflation, labor shortages and changing economics. consumer demand.

“There are a lot of good things about the animal feed industry,” he says. “But we can’t do that for 40 years. We are not going to stay flat-footed. »

While there are certainly facilities that push the boundaries of what is possible with current technology, feed mills have generally lagged behind other industries in automation and data collection, says Gaalswyk. However, he and other experts see this trend changing over the next few years – automation is a clear answer to tough labor markets and, moreover, can help attract young, tech-interested workers into the industry. .

“I’m still cautious, but automation really doesn’t replace humans,” says Scott Braun, director of engineering at WEM Automation. “But in the age of labor shortages, there is a good place for automation.”

Automation is an investment in the future

Apart from the necessities created by government mandates, such as monitoring the use and inclusion of antibiotics, animal feed mills are not as ready to adopt new technologies as, for example, food processors. The focus on animal feed remains keeping costs as low as possible for their customers – the animal producers who often face low margins.

“The view is that there is a fairly high cost to updating the automation and moving to a more data-rich system – there is definitely a question as to whether I’m going to get a return on my investment” , says Braun. “I think a lot of mills are very careful when investing their money.

But rising labor costs, he says, have started to change that in recent years. Talent was already hard to come by for feed mills, perhaps because they tend to be located in rural areas where workers are scarce. So, as competition for labor has intensified, factories are increasingly looking for ways in which automation can help reduce labor costs.

In a recent example, Braun says, WEM helped install automated microbins to dispense special food ingredients while food is being processed. Previously, he says, the mill relied on human labor to find, retrieve and open these ingredients.

“We did a major upgrade to basically remove dirty, dusty work that nobody wanted to do,” Braun says. “They made a big investment because it’s hard to find people.”

The pandemic, in addition to accelerating retirements and reducing the overall workforce, may also have made new funds available for pet food processors to invest in upgrading their plants. , according to Chad Brenton, director of engineering for CPM Beta Raven.

“Because more and more people are cooking at home, there’s more demand for protein,” which has increased demand at all levels of the animal production industry, Brenton says. “At CPM Beta Raven, we’ve hired 12 people in the last eight months because customers want more and more projects to get done.”

Benefits of data collection

With more automation, Gaalswyk says, comes more opportunities to collect data about a plant’s processes. And, in general, this data falls into one of two categories – data related to mechanics such as the frequency or duration of a motor’s operation, and data related to product content, such as the amount of ingredient used, and when. Both types of data can prove useful to feed mill operators and can help reduce costs in the long run.

“For example, we can track every time a motor has been running in this facility,” Gaalswyk explains. “If it was on for a quarter of a second or three hours, we can tell you how long it was on.”

Without automatic data collection, Braun says, power plant maintenance schedules are often based on estimates of uptime. More data can allow for more accurate maintenance – for example, a computer system can trigger maintenance based on a record of how much material has passed through a pellet die, rather than the number of hours elapsed.

Collecting data on mechanical systems can also help prevent accidents by detecting equipment damage, spills, or even dust that could create an explosion hazard. Adding bearing temperature monitors, for example, can even allow a computer to automatically shut down equipment before a crash occurs, Braun says.

Ingredient tracking, Gaalswyk says, can also prevent human error and contamination issues — potentially allowing plant operators to know exactly which products might be affected by tracking each piece of equipment a product has touched.

“It’s the ability to see where a problem has gone wrong without guessing,” says Brenton. “About two years ago we had a customer whose operator put the system into manual mode and then accidentally administered a triple dose of a drug that was given to chickens and basically killed 10,000 chickens. It took weeks to figure out what was wrong, when with data collection it could have happened right away and even prevented shipping.

The potential for reduced errors — and financial losses — is generally a well-known benefit of automation and data collection, Brenton says. However, feed mills are also likely to realize significant cost savings through data-driven efficiency increases.

“Take maize, for example. Most recipes can tolerate a 5-10% variation” in including corn, Brenton says. “But the more precise you are, the more you realize you’re saving money with that precision. Even going from a variation of 1% to 5% on a one-ton lot is a big savings. »

The same is true on the mechanical side, says Gaalswyk, where data can help managers find bottlenecks and reduce energy consumption.

“Many facility managers know their facility very well and are very knowledgeable,” he says. “But they don’t know what, in a perfect world, their facility could do.”

Data collection can also help pet food producers unlock new potential revenue streams, Gaalswyk says, by helping them improve the traceability of their ingredients to offer product lines to higher-paying markets looking for more. certified organic, local and sustainable food products.

Benefits of traceability

Traceability, alongside potential advances in formulation, remains one of the areas where technology has yet to catch up with consumer demand, says Gaalswyk. While automated sensors can easily track where an ingredient went through a mill, finding out what happened before it arrived and after it left the facility is another story.

“We literally operate in silos,” he says. “We do a good job of locking it down when it’s in our control, but when we’ve turned it off it’s not at the same level.”

Within the feed mill, Brenton says, the industry could also benefit from technologies that aren’t yet mature. One need, he says, is for reliable moisture sensors that can detect changes in specific food ingredients such as alfalfa. If sensors could accurately detect how dry or saturated an ingredient is, it could go a long way to preventing downtime caused by moist foods clogging the system.

There is also a growing focus, Brenton continues, on the need for data security in light of the growing reliance on cloud storage and several ransomware attacks against major companies in the industry.

“Whenever we start talking about networking and computer hardware, everyone thinks about it right now,” says Brenton. “People are becoming aware of their vulnerabilities.”

But while the industry is beginning to realize the risks, it’s also beginning to see the possibilities of connecting more devices to the internet — and to each other.

“For me, what’s most exciting is that control devices continue to get smarter and smarter, allowing us to look at data differently and draw conclusions that we couldn’t before.” , says Braun.

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