How to find the right recipe for successful system integration solutions

The success of a bourbon plant's system integration requires a smooth combination of controls and information.

By Bob Vavra, content manager, CFE Media December 14, 2016

In the rolling hills of the Bluegrass State, Kentucky bourbon is a way of life and a big business. In the Jim Beam plant just outside of Frankfort, Ky., the business of turning corn and other grains into bourbon is a process of hurrying and waiting. As this week’s bottling of Kentucky bourbon begins, new 50-gallon, charred oak barrels are being filled with the liquid mixture that will sit and ferment for at least two years before it can be legally called bourbon. The bourbon is one of 19 spirits and mixers-everything from gin and vodka to cognac and cordials—manufactured under the global Beam Suntory portfolio.

Take away the history and the allure, however, and manufacturing alcohol in large quantities is a batch processing job. It’s all about getting the right mix of ingredients in exactly the right proportions. Installing a batch management software system is largely the same thing, only with a human element. The challenge is to bring a system to the field that makes everything flow smoothly and delivers both control and information.

Finding the right formula for system integration

Making Kentucky bourbon is a precise process in that it not only is recipe-based, but that recipe actually is codified: The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits lays out the specific requirements for bourbon made for consumption in the United States:

  • It must contain at least 51% corn.
  • It must be aged in new, charred white-oak barrels.
  • When it is distilled, it can be no more than 160-proof (80% alcohol by volume, or ABV).
  • When it is put into the barrels, it must be no more than 125-proof (62.5% ABV).
  • Bourbon of less than 4 years of age must have an age statement on the label.

All of this is designed to maintain the unique, American character of bourbon and Kentucky bourbon in particular—95% of all bourbon in the U.S. is manufactured in Kentucky.

Those exacting standards are what Stone Industries had to work with when they were hired by Beam Suntory to design the software package for the expanding Frankfort Jim Beam plant. With production of some Beam Suntory products being moved from Cincinnati, the system had to manage not just the bourbon process but all of the other liquors and cordials.

"The plant needed a more sophisticated batching program," said Matt Yarrison, Ph.D., process engineer for Beam Suntory. "We had Wonderware running on [a] small portion of [our] plant, and our head of corporate process engineering, Mike Parris, looked at Stone Technologies’ skill with InBatch (the Wonderware batch software product) and Allen/Bradley controllers. They got tasked with bringing a new plant here without diminishing quality."

The system integration and batching task fell to Randy Richerson, project manager of Stone Technologies, and his team. "It’s a step change in complexity and automation," said Ryan Williams, project manager and liaison for Beam Suntory. "The key was to get the system automated as much as possible and to achieve the reliability of automation. We also wanted to take advantage of the traceability of InBatch. The other trick also was work on bulk liquids receiving … to automate that and provide on the fly off-loading."

"To call it a project is really not accurate," Williams added. "It’s a whole bunch of projects starting with the original project by Randy to many other projects by myself and our Beam Suntory team." Since the original process move from Cincinnati, nearly the entire plant is on the InBatch system, all PLC5s have been upgraded to ControlLogix, several new expansions have been added, and batch orders have moved from IBM’s AS400 to SAP. 

Building a software foundation for process control

The focus was on building the right software system for the Jim Beam plant. "In this role, we were just programming services," said Williams. "We didn’t supply electrical design, and we didn’t supply the process design. We had to take the team’s design and make it work as a single process control system."

One key was managing the variety of tanks and liquid delivery systems that can fill raspberry liqueur one day and gin the next. "It’s not so much the number of ingredients—8 to 10 ingredients cover most of our recipes," Yarrison said. "There [are] four trains we can produce on, and one of those trains can be pulled from 15 base streams of liquids. What was important was the integration of the PLCs so that they could talk to InBatch and make sure everything was running smoothly. If there’s a hiccup, the system parks everything in a safe state so we don’t risk injuring anyone."

"We had to be a little creative in our programming to reduce the total number of required phases from over 4,000 to 183 by multiplexing phases from InBatch, using focal units, and carefully following the S88 model," said Williams. "It’s not the most complex process, but it’s a pretty big installation and is very well integrated across several PLCs, processes, and systems."

One area of importance was coordinating information on valves. "One of the keys areas in the process is the valve matrix," Williams said. "Originally it was supposed to be seven product streams and 12 ingredient product feeds. That’s a total of 84 valves that had to be monitored and managed." Budget constraints caused the valve matrix to be removed in favor of a completely manual system with flex hose connections. The team compromised with corporate, and the installed matrix consists of three product streams and 12 ingredient feeds for a total of 36 valves. This design provides the exact functionality that they need today. 

System integration is a learning process

While Beam Suntory is an experienced batch manufacturer, and Stone Technologies has experience in batch processing systems, the specifics of this job required learning a little more about themselves and a lot about each other.

"Everything we used were technologies we were familiar with and were experienced with," Williams said. "From a technology standpoint, these were the latest versions of Wonderware, latest firmware from Rockwell, and many different control network technologies which is a challenge on any leading edge project."

"I think we gained an in-depth knowledge of [the] bourbon industry and the rules around bourbons," he added. "They (Beam) get to understand who the players on our side were and their expertise."

Williams credited Richerson, the original project manager on the first InBatch project in Frankfort; Sean Brennan, Stone’s InBatch expert and SAP specialist with InBatch; Jeff Scheer, who developed the Wonderware system platform, historian, and InTouch programs; Brad Redden, his team’s ControlLogix programmer; and Joseph Pacheco, Stone Technologies’ controls startup and networks expert, for leading the effort to get Jim Beam up on time. "They had fantastic ideas," said Yarrison. "Having a set of fresh eyes improved the information-gathering process. When they came here, we had guys who would tag along during start-ups and learned about troubleshooting. Now we’re developing our own Wonderware screens."

"From the operator side, when they need to troubleshoot, they’re able to from the HMI," Williams said. "We’ve given them enough information to do their jobs without overloading them with information. From the standpoint of overall integration, we now have streamlined batch and visualization development support for future modifications."

Even in a business where it takes three years for your finished product to be ready for consumers, the bourbon business is growing rapidly. In 2014, a Fortune magazine article on the bourbon boom noted a report from the Distilled Spirits Council of America that showed exports of bourbon from the U.S. had grown from $374 million in 2002 to over $1 billion in 2014.

The new 50,000-barrel storage warehouse under construction in Frankfort is one sign of such growth. Yarrison said there are currently 1.5 million gallons of bourbon onsite at any given moment; this store expansion will allow that to increase by 33%.

That’s why Yarrison is pleased to have a flexible and accurate batching system in place now that can help the facility grow to sate the thirst of consumers.

"There still are a few areas to be integrated," Yarrison said. "We’re slowly expanding the scope of what we do. When we get upper management involved in how phases work, it’s a whole lot easier to maintain. One of the nice things is that the network architecture is fairly easy to keep up."

"From an installation standpoint, I think it’s such a neat, large, and elegant batch solution," Williams said. "Matt and his team have done a great job of adopting it and owning it as designed. It’s been a great story from start to finish."

"Many times you work with customers, and they operate hands-off. They don’t want to own until absolutely perfect," he added. "This was a great partnership. As we brought on new products and made incremental improvements and tweaks to the models, we were quick to deploy them so that everybody takes advantage as fast as possible."

Good system integration ideas ferment more quickly than bourbon, but both leave a good taste in your mouth when they finally reach maturity.

Bob Vavra is content manager, Plant Engineering, CFE Media,