6 reasons why automation improves beer making

Application Update: A beer equipment manufacturer uses off-the-shelf automation components to build affordable equipment and systems for craft brewers.

By Adam Kosmicki November 11, 2014

American Beer Equipment (A.B.E.) is a division of Norland International, a globally renowned bottling and packaging company. While Norland covers nearly every aspect of bottling water by supplying systems to companies located throughout the world, A.B.E. designs, manufactures, and supplies a comprehensive line of beer brewing and canning equipment to the rapidly growing craft beer industry. The A.B.E. side of the company takes the same total solution provider approach to the craft beer industry as Norland does with water.

A.B.E. develops equipment for making and processing beer, from grain mills and grain handling to beer brewing platforms and fermentation systems. It also makes carbonation tanks, and canning and bottling lines in its 80,000-sq-ft manufacturing facilities. Many of these items are supplied with automation systems which the company designs, installs, and commissions (Figure 1).

One of the ways in which A.B.E. helps pass on savings to customers is through intelligent use of automation. Over the last 10 years, it has gone from custom programming of specially designed circuit boards to using off-the-shelf programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to reduce costs, increase productivity, and improve reliability. A.B.E. finds that its customers’ plant personnel throughout the world are familiar with PLCs, facilitating their internal support efforts.

In addition to PLCs, A.B.E. uses other off-the-shelf automation products whenever possible, for the reasons below. 

6 reasons to use off-the-shelf automation for beer brewing

  1. Reduced upfront engineering development time
  2. Decreased design and commissioning effort
  3. Straightforward programming using accompanying free software
  4. Ability to make changes easily
  5. Replacement sourcing readily available from established suppliers
  6. Easy upgrades.

In addition to reducing upfront engineering development time, A.B.E. has found that using standardized products makes sourcing replacements and upgrades much easier for its customers.

It was a challenge to select the right supplier, but because the company knew getting the right solution would be the key to its success with off-the-shelf automation, it approached this step with care. 

PLC selection for a modular system

The modular system design of A.B.E.’s canning lines is an important feature for its customers, as many are new breweries needing a solution that can expand easily as their business grows, such as going from 30 to 60 cans per minute.

A.B.E. spent some time researching different PLCs until it found one with modular structure that works well with its expandable designs. The chosen PLS comes with free programming software, and its affordable price helps the company control costs.

The PLC allows A.B.E. to start with the correctly sized controller for the system instead of having to use a larger, more expensive model that would add cost and complexity. In addition, the PLC does not require a mounting base, which saves space to maintain a small footprint, leaving room for future I/O expansion.

When A.B.E. needs to expand the system, it simply connects the existing CPU and the additional new I/O modules via an expansion port. Being able to add up to eight I/O modules to the system allows it to achieve the scalability needed by customers at an affordable price (Figure 2).

Selecting the right PLC was just the first step to helping A.B.E.’s customers build a better brewery, as flexibility and reliability are prime concerns. 

Smooth production

Solutions can fill up to 5,000 bottles an hour or 85 bottles a minute. While this figure may not be very fast in terms of the bottling lines found at brewers of mass-produced beer, it stills requires quick reaction times from the automation system and the plant operators.

For example, without proper sensors and alarming, it may take 30 seconds or longer to identify a problem in a bottling line downstream of the filling operation. It could take another 30 seconds to start reacting, and another 30 seconds to begin a planned slowdown or shutdown. With bottles coming at the rate of 85 bottles a minute in just 90 seconds, there could be 140 bottles or more coming from the filling equipment to downstream equipment. This makes communication among systems and with operators essential.

A.B.E. uses clearance sensors along with staging sensors all along the bottling lines to maintain proper production and safety levels, with every automation system talking to the others. If one system runs out of packaging film or another system stops because a cap wasn’t tightened properly, each upstream system receives a signal notifying it to begin slowdown at a specified rate or shut down, depending on the nature of the problem.

While A.B.E. has a good system of sensors in place, it tries to help customers avoid these situations altogether by using the alarm and data analysis capabilities of the human machine interface (HMI) to troubleshoot possible problems before they occur (Figure 3).

The HMI can send an alarm as soon as an operation goes outside programmed parameters or alarm limits. Furthermore, HMI data analysis tools can help operators identify areas that need attention to prevent an incident from occurring. These tools include trending and other graphical representations of data that make it easy for operators to identify problems before they escalate into serious incidents that could slow or stop production, or even affect safety.

For example, the HMI’s built-in graphics offer easy-to-understand reporting on CO2 pressures, filter status, and fluid pressures, all of which are all critical for controlling beer quality and processing. Customers use HMI charting tools and features to make sure all parameters are within specification. This not only increases uptime, but also allows improvement of operations as production processes are fine-tuned to reduce waste, save energy, and improve quality.

A.B.E.’s customers also appreciate the ease of use that comes from the HMI’s touchscreen, and they find the HMI is very easy to modify. For a low cost, customers get an HMI that provides advanced recipe features and powerful data logging. Recipes allow the company’s customers to quickly switch from production of one type of beer to another, a necessity to keep up with ever-changing consumer tastes. Data logging facilitates compliance with track-and-trace and other regulations.

The HMI panels provide a high level of local operator interface at the equipment or at a section of a production line, but customers also need remote access capabilities, which, fortunately, are a built-in feature of the HMI. 

Remote monitoring, diagnostics

Many of A.B.E.’s customers are smaller breweries or new businesses that rely on a limited number of production personnel to cover several lines or areas of the plant. The remote access provided by its HMI helps customers to maximize the efficiency of each employee to achieve production goals.

The HMI chosen includes a low-cost app for use with iPads and iPhones, and access to and from the HMI from the app is extremely easy to configure. This gives customers’ operators and technicians the ability to remotely access real-time data from anywhere within the facility, or even outside the plant if desired (Figure 4).

The app boots up more quickly than browser-based access. It also enables authorized workers to access data much faster than they would with a browser. Workers can interact with operational data that’s automatically and correctly sized for their device’s screen. When changes need to be made, the app works with the HMI to execute such actions quickly, much more rapidly than with a browser.

Using off-the-shelf automation components whenever possible allows A.B.E. to spend more time designing new solutions instead of focusing on internal components. This in turn allows the company to provide innovative and high-quality solutions to customers at prices they can afford.

– Adam Kosmicki, engineer, A.B.E. division of Norland International; edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, mhoske@cfemedia.com.

Key concepts

  • A beer equipment manufacturer American Beer Equipment (A.B.E.), uses off-the-shelf automation components to build affordable equipment and systems for craft brewers.
  • Using off-the-shelf automation components whenever possible allows A.B.E. to spend more time designing new solutions instead of focusing on internal components.

Consider this

What reasons might you have for using off-the-shelf automation components?

ONLINE extra

This online version of a November Application Update article has more information than appeared in the print and digital edition.


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