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Industrial ovens get smart

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Whether it is alarm indicators, maintenance and batch timers, or exhaust and recirculation motor controls, new features are providing users with unprecedented power over their product output and valuable information.

Efficiency the key driver

“A major challenge is when food manufacturers reach production capacity in their existing processes. Rather than investing in additional production lines, they start looking for other options to improve the efficiency, and therefore the capacity, of their line,” said Rockwell Automation global industry technical consultant for the food industry Joop van der Meer.

“For example, capacity can be improved by up to 10% by simply reducing the amount of downtime.”

Although early adopters of the technology were invariably big companies, the concerns over reliability, efficiency and repeatability are issues faced by oven users at all commercial levels.

Van der Meer said that while the larger corporations may own several processing facilities, the fundamental control methods and principles--on a plant-by-plant basis--remain consistent with those of smaller applications.

“Both high-volume producers and smaller food manufacturers can encounter similar production difficulties and often have trouble obtaining meaningful and accurate diagnostic data,” said van der Meer.

Available features in standard industrial ovens include temperature controls, safety devices to ensure that fuel is shut off when the flame dies out and some control over different zones in the oven, but changing the product or automated reporting on a particular line are generally not offered.

“In my experience, industrial ovens rarely provide diagnostic information for on-the-spot factory-floor maintenance or troubleshooting,” van der Meer said.

Customers need flexible control systems able to change processes, and they need more information on any deviations from the plan.

These were common elsewhere in the manufacturing industry, but industrial oven users, focused on increasing flow-through volumes rather than worrying about efficiency concerns, were slow to take them on board.

Follow the recipe

Smo-King, which started in smart ovens 15 years ago, built ovens with smart controls before their customers asked for them.

“We build ovens that are predominantly for smoking meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, and of course, cooking, but 90% of the ovens we build are smoke ovens. They are all microprocessor controlled and programmable,” said Smo-King managing director John Hodgkinson.

“We saw it as an opportunity to enhance the design of our equipment,” he said.

Hodgkinson said that allows the user to control oven temperature over a number of steps in the cooking process, including final food core temperature, steam generation, air speed and time.

They can be programmed to start at any time, even remotely, and if there is a power failure, when the power comes back on, they will start again where they left off.

“The consumer basically selects a product and loads a program into the system and that controls the speed of the line, temperatures in the oven, coolers (if they have them), it also sets any auxiliary equipment linked into the system,” said Hodgkinson.

Control over the entire production cycle is the ultimate aim, allowing manufacturers to network the oven to a supervisory control system and extract data from the system.

“When customers get more information from these lines they can improve their speed because the cooking time of an oven usually determines the overall speed of the line,” said Hodgkinson.

The factory floor

The big challenge now is taking sophisticated electronic equipment out onto the factory floor, where high-pressure sanitation, hot and humid conditions, and questionable power supplies – brown outs, black outs, lightning strikes – make for a harsh environment.

Continuous reporting on line performance allows ovens to deal with the rigours of the factory floor in a tremendously effective manner.

Instead of simply flaring up when a part breaks, users are alerted as a process begins to falter, giving adequate time to fix it, and ultimately reducing production downtime.

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