System integrator expands brewery can line

Wicked Weed Brewing increased production by a factor of five.

By Eric Casciaro December 16, 2019

Since 2017, Quantum Solutions Inc. (QSI) has participated in multiple upgrade and automation projects for Wicked Weed Brewing, completing significant enhancements and expansions to its can fill lines in its craft brewery.

The client

Wicked Weed Brewing is a craft brewery located in Asheville, N.C. Since 2011, it has developed signature flavors and stylish names like Bedeviled Golden, El Paraiso and Lieutenant Dank. In 2017, it entered into a partnership with the Anheuser-Busch (A-B) family of craft brewers, giving it access to marketing, distribution and capital support, while maintaining freedom and control over its own operations.

Wicked Weed had plenty of beer knowledge and skill. What they needed, though, was a greater presence across the country to capitalize on its partnership with A-B.

The problem

Wicked Weed began an expansion of its production operations. However, this proved to be challenging. With the current single-can production process, the brewer was maxed out and could not meet its targets.

Wicked Weed would need to not only expand its beer-making facilities, but also its packaging process. The setup included systems that worked okay, but were inadequate for ramping up to meet the wider production demands. It became obvious quickly the production operations would need to be automated.

David McWain, project manager for A-B, said it’s quite difficult to implement an automation that works quickly. “Most integration companies and automation companies don’t pass the first performance test the first time.” The test is usually a requirement of line efficiency, or what percentage of its full capacity the line is running.

For example, if a line has a capacity of 250 cans per minute, and because of problems that cause stoppage of the line the overall production is only 200 cans per minute, that’s an efficiency of 80%. Wicked Weed did not have a good handle on its line efficiency because the line itself was not automated. This led to an additional opportunity for enhancement. Automating the line would allow Wicked Weed to know how efficient it was, be able to diagnose future problems faster and develop more efficient solutions.

However, McWain said, that’s not always a given.

The solution

A-B partnered with a contractor to design, build, and program the automated production lines. The goals included increasing capacity and swift alarm resolution, all of which would lead to more efficient use of the line.

Multiple steps, as in any automation project, were involved. QSI got engaged from the start, consulting on electrical design. Engineers from QSI provided guidance on all aspects, including the human-machine interface (HMI) layouts, alarms and trigger systems.

An interesting twist to the standard automation process also arose early in the project. Because of Wicked Weed’s production layout, one of the steps involves a right-angle pusher. Cans filled and packaged into either 4-packs, 6-packs, or cases wait at the end of a conveyor. When the appropriate quota has been met, they are then pushed off at a right angle for the next step. An additional challenge is this quota varies by the brew and the packaging requirements, which means flexibility in design and action are a must.

This became a problem because slight irregularities in the alignment of the varying packs or cases mean sometimes those bundles getting pushed to the side would bump against a fixed barrier and alarm the line to stop. Stopping the line means cans and packs weren’t moving through the process fast enough and the line was experiencing downtime and, overall, the facility was not running as efficiently as it could.

To overcome this bottleneck, QSI consulted on a solution involving a variable mechanical stopper to align the various cases or packs before pushing. QSI brought engineering experience and combined it with a real-world solution to the problem. The stopper could be adjusted for the number of packs necessary in each push, it could appear or disappear as necessary (depending on the packaging requirements), and it would help ensure proper alignment at each push, meaning there would be less blockage and less downtime.

Once the mechanical designs were in place, electrical design and programming were necessary. QSI engineers worked to customize not only the software underneath, but the external interface as well. They designed and programmed the HMI system, developed a series of alarms and triggers and programmed everything to interact seamlessly.

The results

McWain, who had been overseeing can line expansion, said QSI passed all its benchmarks with spectacular margins: “98% line efficiency, they passed on the first try,” he said, adding it was unusual. Most automation projects don’t pass with the first implementation. For QSI to be able to hit the benchmark, it meant faster completion of the project, at a lower cost, with higher satisfaction.

McWain also said QSI’s ability to create real-time solutions to open questions was impressive. Often, responses from engineers in other projects could take up to a week, delaying projects and adding significant barriers. With QSI, solutions usually came back quickly, sometimes even the same day. “Really, very timely solutions to open items,” he said.

And overall, the expansion and automation project has gone well. A-B has continued the relationship with QSI, too, including them in multiple projects since the first. These investments have helped Wicked Weed increase production from 30,000 barrels a year to 150,000 now, with a target for more. And McWain decided to work with QSI directly, rather than going through other contractors. Why? “It’s their ability for real-time solutions,” he said. “Which is pretty big in the automation world. And all their solutions were cost-efficient.”

Eric Casciaro is CEO Quantum Solutions Inc.

Quantum Solutions Inc. is a member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA).

Author Bio: Eric Casciaro is CEO Quantum Solutions Inc.