Machine builder Blentech cuts machine commissioning time in half
Blentech Corp., a major manufacturer of food equipment, recently created a new, fully automated continuous rice cooker for sticky rice used in ready-to-eat sushi. Because the preferred consistency of the sticky rice varies among sushi suppliers, Blentech custom builds most of its machines to suit each end user’s specifications. Blentech engineers begin every machine design with one of three standard templates for programming code and then customize each program for specific machine capabilities, such as performance and throughput. The change has allowed the company to shift from reusing 20% to 30% of code to 60% to 70%, cutting commissioning time in half.
Just 20 years ago, sushi was still a rarity in America, confined mainly to Japanese restaurants in major cities like New York and Los Angeles. Today, American shoppers can easily pick up packs of ready-to-eat sushi in supermarkets and even convenience stores. The increasing international appetite for packaged sushi has driven up demand for the short-grain sticky rice, which, along with raw fish, forms the foundation of most sushi recipes. In turn, manufacturers who make sticky rice have come under pressure to ramp up production by adopting new cooking methods.
Many sticky-rice manufacturers begin as small, regional food processors. They operate industrial kitchens where the rice is cooked manually in oversized pots. To keep pace with the spreading popularity of sushi, many of these food processors need more sophisticated systems capable of producing 500 lb to 2,000 lb of cooked rice per hour. Blentech’s new, fully automated continuous rice cooker meets these output demands and delivers the degree of “stickiness” desired by the customer. Blentech custom builds each rice cooker, and most other machines, to suit each end user’s specifications. The California-based company also engineers equipment ranging from industrial-size meat tumblers to batch cooking for sauces, soups, and other liquids. About 70% of Blentech’s customers are batch sauce processors that offer various ground- and diced-meat products, such as taco meat and sloppy joe mix.
Programming: templates, customization
Blentech engineers begin every machine design with one of three standard templates for programming code—base, intermediate, and advanced—then customize each program for specific machine capabilities, such as performance and throughput. Until recently, Blentech’s engineers were reusing just 20% to 30% of the programming code from the templates because they lacked a standard format for mapping performance data to the control system for each new machine. This includes vocabulary and definitions related to machine states or event data. For example, where one engineer might describe the abort state as a transition to the idle state, another engineer might describe it as the execution of holding state logic.
Without one integrated design and modular programming platform, inefficiencies were abundant, and engineers could only reuse a small portion of the template’s code for each design. As a result, engineers needed up to seven weeks to manually code program settings, commission, and calibrate each custom machine differently at an end user’s site.
“We realized we needed to modularize programming code so engineers could readily reuse more of it to help reduce programming hours, maintenance, and commissioning time,” said Dan Voit, COO, Blentech. “Modular programming guidelines provide reusable definitions, structures, and lines of code so programmers can better leverage prior work,” Voit said.
Machine design optimization
To alleviate these design inefficiencies and get customers up and running faster, Blentech invested in one integrated automation architecture and programming environment for motion and machine control. “It made clear financial sense to upgrade our equipment to dramatically reduce the amount of time it took to program and install every machine,” Voit said. “And the new solution provided a perfect opportunity to radically redefine the way one niche market—our sticky-rice manufacturers—do business.”
First up was Blentech’s HydraTherm, a fully automated rice cooker for the growing sushi market. This was not an easy task because hydration control is critical to the consistency, taste, and overall quality of cooked rice and other grains. Specifically, “full absorption” is the only way to produce authentic sticky rice, and it requires precise control of the hot water as it’s added to the rice during the cooking process. The HydraTherm’s automated commands help ensure the level of moisture is within 1% of an end customer’s specification, helping improve product quality.
The HydraTherm automates the process of hydrating and cooking rice as it tumbles through a patented auger system to soak, steam, and flavor the product, if needed. One operator can manage the entire system, rather than having multiple operators cooking rice in many oversized pots. Programmable automation controllers (PACs) are used to drive agitators that move rice forward through the cooker while gently mixing it so all kernels are evenly heated by direct steam and hydrated by hot water. The controller uses EtherNet/IP Ethernet protocol from ODVA for connectivity to machine components and other equipment. EtherNet/IP enables engineers to remotely support programs on installed machines and eases integration of the machine with other equipment at an end-user site.
Because food processors often need to quickly produce different types of foods on any given machine, Blentech engineers use human machine interface (HMI) terminals to access pre-stored machine configurations, including specific flavoring additives and moisture content, and command product changeovers. The new control platform also reduces maintenance costs because the HydraTherm functions with fewer parts than traditional rice-cooking operations, making the machines easier to fix and clean. In addition, Blentech can optimize its stocking strategy because the machine has 75% fewer spare parts than traditional industrial-scale sushi rice cookers. Each machine also includes noncontact interlock switches to help enhance operator safety. The switches have a large sensing range to help reduce unsafe access to the machine and help keep employees and equipment safe.
Half commissioning time
“We reduced machine commissioning time by an estimated 50%” by using the integrated architecture, Voit said. “Now, Blentech engineers can reuse an estimated 60% to 70% of the programming code in our three templates, so we can configure more machines in less time.”
Using one programming environment across multiple machine disciplines—including motion, drive control, and safety—helps reduce design and installation time. One programming environment also provides long-term benefits for end users, including faster machine start-up, reduced maintenance time, and the ability to easily react quickly to changing market demands.
Blentech uses these controllers on most of its product line for the batch cookers; “if a customer calls and wants to add or remove load cells to our equipment upstream or downstream to process a different product, our engineers don’t need to reprogram the machine. They can simply turn on a specification” already in the software, Voit said. The ability to reuse programming code to make changes to a production line saves valuable installation and maintenance time—an estimated 70%—for any segment of Blentech’s customers, especially those that process a wide range of food products on one machine or line. For example, batch sauce processors often need to modify production lines to switch between types or flavors of product.
In addition, Blentech estimates the new automation solutions saved approximately 50% of engineering time when designing, building, and commissioning the machine. The partnership with the automation vendor “allows us to better serve our customers by delivering innovative food processing solutions that weren’t previously available in what are sometimes niche markets,” Voit said. “They work with us to understand our unique needs, and they’ve been integral to helping lower our cost to design, develop, and deliver custom machines.”
– Information provided by Rockwell Automation; edited by Mark T. Hoske, CFE Media, Control Engineering content manager, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Online Extra: Technologies inside Blentech application
To alleviate design inefficiencies and get its customers up and running faster, Blentech invested in the Rockwell Automation Integrated Architecture, including the Logix control platform to achieve integrated motion and machine control, and Rockwell Software RSLogix 5000 software to provide one programming environment.
Allen-Bradley CompactLogix L32E programmable automation controllers (PACs) from Rockwell Automation are used to drive the agitators to move rice forward through the cooker while gently mixing it so all kernels are evenly heated by direct steam and hydrated by hot water. The CompactLogix controller is equipped with EtherNet/IP for seamless connectivity to machine components and other equipment, enabling engineers to remotely support programs on installed machines and eases integration of the machine with other equipment at an end-user site.
Using the Rockwell Automation Integrated Architecture reduced Blentech machine commissioning time by an estimated 50%, Dan Voit, COO, Blentech, said. The Logix control platform uses one programming environment across multiple machine disciplines: motion, drive control, and safety.
If a Blentech customer calls and wants to add or remove load cells to equipment upstream or downstream to process a different product, Blentech engineers “Simply turn on a specification already in the RSLogix 5000 software,” Voit said.
In addition, Blentech estimates the solutions from Rockwell Automation saved approximately 50% of engineering time when designing, building, and commissioning the machine. “Our partnership with Rockwell Automation allows us to better serve our customers by delivering innovative food processing solutions that weren’t previously available in what are sometimes niche markets,” Voit concluded.