In any industry, automation is based on goals: solving problems, minimizing risks, and reducing costs. The same is true for feed mill automation. There are a number of ways that feed mill automation can improve the end product and solve or reduce problems throughout the operation. Though some facilities may automate all processes at once, step-by-step automation is also a viable option. Feed mill automation can drive ROI in the following ways, and many of these benefits may occur simultaneously, depending on which process or processes you choose to automate. We’ve updated this post in 2021 to provide more information and some more specific examples of these automation improvements.
7 Ways Feed Mill Automation Drives ROI
1. Reducing Labor Costs
Automation not only ensures that tasks are completed consistently, but also eliminates the need for manual operation. Repetitive tasks no longer require physical labor, and free up manpower for more sophisticated and important jobs. Automation can also protect workers from safety risks, either by removing them from dirty or dangerous environments, or by putting reliable safety controls in place.
In a manual batching operation, there may be one or multiple scales filling as workers monitor them. As the scales fill, the workers start and stop the process until the scale is filled to a desired amount. During this process, the worker must monitor the process the entire time, or risk over-filling the scale. Making this process efficient either requires multiple workers monitoring multiple scales, or requiring one worker to monitor multiple scales and increasing the likelihood of error. With feed mill automation controls, the system monitors the scales, and one worker can monitor, calibrate and maintain the system.
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2. Enhanced Production
Enhanced production is one of the most common factors driving ROI in feed mill automation. With the right design and maintenance, automation can streamline processes and remove the need for breaks and pauses. The right machines can also work at a faster rate.
Feed mill automation drives ROI by making it easier to run multiple processes at once, and reducing error between each process. For example, a batch mixer must run for a set time period to fully mix major, minor and micro ingredients together. If the batch mixer runs too long, the ingredients can start to separate, and the system runs less efficiently overall. A worker in charge of monitoring the batch mixer can easily become preoccupied with another task, such as monitoring or managing another machine, helping another employee, cleaning up a spill, or many other things. The batch mixer will continue to run until the worker starts the next process. This ultimately delays all upstream and downstream processes too. Feed mill automation helps to prevent overruns and ensures each process flows smoothly into the next.
3. Measurable Regulatory Compliance
Feed mill automation can simplify regulatory compliance for rules like the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), among others. Track and trace is an important part of FSMA compliance, but can be difficult to accurately implement without systematic controls. Tracking lot numbers manually not only introduces error, but takes up workers’ time and energy. Lot tracing can easily be automated, and it will greatly improve accuracy. With a reliable, automatic system in place tracking where your ingredients came from, what they went into, and where the product ultimately went, you can reduce liability and meet compliance requirements with minimal costs.
Accurate measurements are important for maintaining product quality as well as FSMA compliance. In a manual feed mill operation, accurate measurements are often reliant on record-keeping done by machine operators. A worker might fill a scale, record the amount on a chart, and weigh the next ingredient. However, this presents multiple opportunities for error; accidentally recording the wrong amount, marking the wrong line on the chart, accidentally skipping an ingredient, and many other things. With system automation, these amounts can be automatically and exactly recorded.
4. Consistent Testing
To prevent moisture, toxins and other substances from ruining ingredients and the finished product, proper sampling and testing is essential. With automated sampling and testing, you can gather uniform, accurate information about ingredients and products. Detecting excessive moisture in ingredients from the start will prevent product from being contaminated, and allow you to hold suppliers accountable for defects. Detecting aflatoxins and other harmful substances in ingredients also reduces liability, as well as product loss. With feed mill automation for testing and sampling combined with automated track and tracing, any problems with ingredients or products can be accurately recorded.
While an automated system cannot require that a test be performed, it can provide reminders that help to reduce error. While it’s easy to forget an important test when things get hectic, or skip it to save time, it’s harder to do when the system explicitly asks if a test has been performed. A simple mechanism like a checklist helps to reduce humor error and reduce the incidence of deliberately skipping a step. For example, adding a test confirmation reminder for aflatoxins upon receiving a corn shipment can help to reduce the chances of using contaminated ingredients.
5. Reducing Batching Errors
Batching is one of the most common areas for feed mill automation, and often offers the highest initial ROI. By automating your batching and mixing processes, you can substantially reduce error and variation. When your recipe is programmatically controlled, corn, soy, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other additives are each exactly measured. With an easily re-programmable controller, you can even change the recipe without significant downtime.
Microingredients present some of the biggest opportunities for error. Since microingredients are required in much smaller amounts than major or minor ingredients, even seemingly small errors can be significant. In manual systems, microingredients may be added by hand to the mix. It’s very easy to miss a scoop, scoop the wrong ingredient, or add two scoops, especially when a process is repetitive and fast-moving. Microingredient systems measure and add these ingredients automatically, reducing errors significantly.
6. Automatic Routing
Automation of the batching process is usually the first section of the feed mill to be automated, but the addition of downstream routing of material can enhance the payback of the system. If the system has to wait for the operator to setup the routing of material to the downstream packaging or load-out, then valuable production time can elapse while waiting for a route to be selected.
By reading the amps in use, an automated feed mill system can detect if a conveyor or bucket elevator is currently in use or if it’s finished and ready for refilling. This tells the system where to route the ingredients and helps to prevent delays in between. While an operator might route to the wrong bin or might be working on a different task when a bin is filled, an automated system will switch automatically to the right bin.
Through most zones, feed mill automation makes hazard analysis and critical control points easier to regulate and monitor. By gathering more data, more often, with less manpower required, you can get holistic, up-to-date information about your production line. You can also eliminate risks altogether by automating repetitive tasks with a high risk of human error. Automated regulation ensures that critical control points are monitored at the same time, in the same way, with no exceptions.
If the belt on a conveyor or bucket elevator isn’t tracking properly, the bearings aren’t properly lubricated, or the machine is working harder than it’s supposed to, it can cause a spark. Since powders and dust proliferate in the relatively tight space of an elevator shaft, a spark can ignite a powerful and deadly fire or explosion. Automated feed mill systems use current and voltage monitors to track when the conveyor is overworking and either stop the system or require a maintenance check-up.
Before starting or continuing feed mill automation, plan and design your system carefully. Conduct ingredient testing to ensure that the system is suitable for your recipe, and be sure to factor any maintenance costs into your ROI calculations. With the right system automating the right process, you can realize a return quickly and eliminate risks at the same time.