8 Benefits of Automation for Businesses and Employees

benefits of automation

The costs of keeping workers safe in dangerous manufacturing environments is high and will likely continue to rise as the need for PPE and appropriate workplace distancing increases. In these situations, automation not only presents an opportunity to reduce costs and improve efficiency, but also reduce the human costs—workplace injuries and illness. While automation has always had the ability to disrupt labor markets, the benefits of automation to businesses and to human health and safety far outweigh their drawbacks.

In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the benefits of automation in manufacturing, as well as examples of these benefits in automated bulk material handling, premix processing, traceability and more.

8 Benefits of Automation for Businesses and Employees

According to MIT, automation equipment has the potential to replace 3.3 workers in a given position in the U.S. While this can shrink labor markets, it also has the potential to create the distance between employees now necessary to prevent the spread of illness. Giving repetitive, dangerous, close-proximity work over to machines also has multiple benefits.

1. Reduced Direct Labor Costs

Reduced labor costs are one of the first benefits of automation that comes to mind. With the jobs of three or more workers completed by a machine, the costs of wages must be balanced against the costs of initial investment, upkeep and maintenance. With a proper maintenance schedule, a machine can continue operating effectively for many years for a fraction of the cost of three employees.

Example Benefits of Automation: Microingredient Systems

Automated microingredient systems are one example of highly beneficial automation improvements in bulk material handling and premix processing. These systems are designed to measure and dispense microingredients with precise accuracy and great speed. This eliminates the need for an employee to hand-add ingredients, and frees them to take on more important tasks.

2. Reduced Injuries

Looking at work-related injuries, manufacturing is one of the most dangerous industries, second only to social assistance occupations, such as emergency response. Research shows automation can reduce three out of the five leading causes of workplace injuries, including contact with harmful objects, heavy lifting, and repetitive stress injuries. In total, robots and automation equipment have the potential to reduce workplace manufacturing injuries by up to 72%.

Example Benefits of Automation: Reducing Heavy Lifting Injuries

One of the biggest benefits of automation in manufacturing or bulk material handling is the ability to take employees out of dangerous or physically stressful situations. In bulk material handling, an easy way to reduce heavy lifting injuries is through the use of bulk bags. With the proper bulk bag unloader design, bulk bags and fork lifts can offer a safer alternative to fifty-pound bags, while also making the system more efficient.

3. Reduced Indirect Labor Costs

In 2017, the National Safety Council found the total costs of workplace injuries amounted to $161.5 billion. This includes not only medical costs, but also costs due to lost time and administrative expenses. One of the benefits of automation includes reducing workplace injuries, and also reducing the associated administrative and paid leave costs. This also reduces other indirect labor costs, such as 401k benefits, overtime, sick leave and more.

Example Benefits of Automation: Bridging the Skills Gap

Costs associated with recruitment, hiring and training are another indirect labor cost that automation can help to reduce. These costs, as well as the costs associated with leaving essential positions unfilled, are well-known to manufacturers; by 2030, the skills gap in manufacturing is expected to leave 2.1 million jobs unfilled, costing up to $1 trillion total. Using automated machines in manufacturing, such as robot welding for select welding tasks, can help to decrease the total workforce needed, allow your business to continue growing without expensive recruitment, and allow talented employees to spend time on more challenging, engaging tasks that robots are not equipped to handle.

4. More Accurate Record-Keeping

While a person can easily mismark a sheet or push the wrong button, a machine that is installed and set up properly will always perform the task as directed. This is especially helpful when detailed record-keeping is mandatory, such as tracking required by FSMA and other regulations. When inaccurate record-keeping can create hazards, such as tracking and recalling tainted food, a machine’s diligent record-keeping can also help to protect consumers.

Example Benefits of Automation: Ingredient Tracking

Ingredient automation systems can be integrated with RFID and other tracking systems to ensure accurate, up-to-date record-keeping. This provides end-to-end traceability from raw materials to finished products, with no extra tasks required for workers, beyond the need to verify that the system is working properly. This is one benefit of automation in bulk material handling that not only removes tedious tasks, but also removes human error through mismarking or mislabeling.

5. Improved Consistency

Machines do not get distracted or side-tracked with another task, and there’s very little variability in a machine’s performance. This means the task will be performed the same way every time. From dispensing ingredients to assembling parts and everything in between, automation improves consistency across the process and in the final product, improving quality and reducing costs of product defects.

Example Benefits of Automation: Robot Welding

While humans have the unique ability to assess a process and make adjustments, a robot’s or machine’s main strength is its ability to repeat a task exactly, with no adjustments. Robot welding is one example of this automation improvement in manufacturing. With the ability to complete welds with tolerances as tight as ± 1 mm or better, machines can improve consistency, while the human welder can make more complex welds and adjust the joints, current, travel speed and take other steps as needed.

6. Increased Efficiency

A person cannot be expected to work continuously without breaks. A person also has limits to the speed with which they can work safely. A machine also has limits, though they’re much greater than a person’s. With proper installation and programming, automated equipment can work almost seamlessly together, running at the same time and all but eliminating downtime completely.

Example Benefits of Automation: Automated Routing

When one process is finished, the product must move downstream to the next process, until it’s bagged and shipped. And, for materials to move through a process effectively, they must move to the appropriate storage area. In some cases, this requires an employee to route material to the next process or move to the next bin when the first is filled. This not only presents room for error, but also introduces a shut-down condition if the employee is dealing with another task and is not available to route the material. Automatic routing is an easy material handling automation improvement that can increase efficiency dramatically.

7. Freedom From Monotony

Automated equipment is ideal for repetitive tasks. A machine can be programmed one time and work quickly and consistently for the rest of its useful lifetime. By contrast, humans perform better when tasks are engaging, requiring critical thinking and multiple skill sets. Removing monotonous, repetitive and, often, dangerous tasks, allows employees to take on more challenging and important tasks. Machines should not be expected to monitor themselves, and trained personnel must be able to calibrate, test and verify that the machines are working properly.

Example Benefits of Automation: Automated Controls

Automated controls are designed to free employees from the monotonous task of moving material or products through the processing line. Without automated controls, employees may stop a machine when it’s finished, move the product to the next one, and start it. While this might only take a few seconds, it’s inefficient and introduces monotony that, when in close proximity to high-powered equipment, can be dangerous. With synchronized, automated controls, each process starts and stops automatically.

8. Continuous Improvement

With automated equipment performing the same tasks consistently, there are fewer variables to measure. This makes it easier to monitor a process and isolate problems. By placing sensors at key points in the process, managers can track variation and maintain accuracy, or make corrections to improve the process. With different workers performing a process in slightly different ways, it is more difficult to uniformly make improvements.

Example Benefits of Automation: Sensing Motor Overwork

Machine sensors have nearly unlimited uses, but one of the most common is the ability to reduce error and prevent shut-down conditions or potential hazards. Sensors monitoring amp draw on particular machines can detect when the motor is overworking. This can show when a load is too heavy and weighing instruments may be off. It can also reveal the potential for overheating or sparking, which can cause deadly powder fires or explosions. With hundreds of dust fires and explosions occurring every year, claiming hundreds of lives around the world, any potential to use automation to reduce these incidents is a powerful benefit.

Automation equipment can upset labor markets, however this equipment can also protect workers from hazards. Giving dangerous and monotonous tasks over to machines and reducing the total number of workers in a facility has the potential to reduce the spread of illness and reduce workplace injuries, while also reducing costs. For these machines to perform properly, installation and verification are essential. In our next blog post, we’ll discuss the “Trust, But Verify” principle and its importance in  automation.

Troubleshooting Pneumatic Conveyor Problems

Pneumatic conveyor systems are highly effective for transporting a number of different materials, across a wide range of industries. Working with many different materials, different environments and different applications, pneumatic conveyor systems also encounter many different problems. Let’s see how to troubleshoot common pneumatic conveyor problems and possible solutions that can bring the system back online.

Troubleshooting Pneumatic Conveyor Systems: Problems and Solutions

Pipeline Blockage

A pipeline blockage is one of the most common and troublesome problems that can affect pneumatic conveyor systems. This problem can arise in many different ways, so troubleshooting it takes time and patience. If pipeline blockages frequently occur, it’s helpful to note common elements. Does the blockage frequently happen close to start-up? Is the surrounding facility especially humid, warm, or cold? Was the system’s performance slowing prior to stopping, or was it sudden? Knowing these variables can help to pin down the cause of the blockage and solve it.

First, check the air mover, including air pressure and inlet air velocity, relief valves, air supply lines and filter. If the air velocity is too low for the material, it won’t move properly through the pipeline, and can form clogs. If the system is showing wear and tear or if it is not set properly, it won’t be able to move the material at the right rate.

Check the feed pipeline. If there is too much material feeding into the system, this can also create a blockage. The air mover is designed to handle a particular feed rate, and over feeding will reduce movement and eventually cause a blockage. Check the feeder controls and ensure that they are accurate. Track the material flow rate against the conveying line pressure to see if the material flow is consistently inaccurate, or if surges are occurring.

Erosive Wear

Hard, gritty particles can quickly eat away pneumatic system components, especially feeders and pipelines at bends. Erosion occurs through impacts, especially at high velocities, while abrasion occurs through friction when particles slide across surfaces. This creates challenges for both dilute and dense phase conveying.

Rotor tips in rotary valves are particularly susceptible to erosive wear, which can quickly cause air leakages. As air leaks, less air reaches the conveying line, which can cause a blockage. If the filtration system is not regularly cleaned and maintained, particles will enter the air mover and cause it to wear out prematurely.

Particle Degradation

Pneumatic conveying creates a number of forces that can break down particles more than necessary or desired. Impacts and friction against the pipeline and other particles can quickly degrade the materials, especially when the materials are fragile or friable. This not only degrades the quality of the material, but can also create fine powders that the pneumatic system is not designed to work with.

Since the particle velocity is higher in dilute phase conveying, where the materials are suspended in the air and not moving across the pipeline’s surface, moving to dense phase conveying can solve some particle degradation problems. If dilute phase conveying is the only viable option, reducing the number of angle of bends in the pipeline will reduce impacts, and can reduce particle degradation.

Condensation

Many materials in pneumatic conveying systems will clump together or stick to the pipeline if they absorb moisture. Condensation is a common culprit. In some cases, temperatures increase significantly during the day while the plant operates, and drop at night. These temperature shifts will cause condensation to form, which the material will absorb, causing it to clump or stick.

Trace heating or insulating parts of the pipeline can help to prevent this problem. Or, since this problem usually occurs during startup, blowing air through the pipeline for a short period before use can dry the pipeline out. If these solutions aren’t suitable, an air drying system may be required.

Dust and Hazards

Pneumatic conveying systems are totally enclosed, which can help to reduce problems with dust, which creates some of the biggest plant hazards across many different industries. Long-term, frequent exposure to any type of dust generally carries some negative health effects or risks, from lung problems to skin problems to fire and explosion hazards and much more. From seemingly harmless materials like flour—which can and has caused deadly explosions numerous times—to obviously harmful substances like blue asbestos, controlling fugitive dust in and around the pneumatic conveying system is essential.

Entry and exit points present particular hazards. Pneumatic conveyor systems often work with materials that are prone to create dust, which can accumulate around belts, bucket elevators, hoppers and other equipment at either end of the conveyor. Dust collection systems at these points are essential.

Besides containing dust, eliminating ignition sources is also vital. Electrical arcing between faulty lines is a common culprit for powder fires and explosions. Regular maintenance, inspections and replacements when necessary can help to prevent this.

The right pneumatic conveyor design can help to keep your plant running smoothly and safely. Work with an experienced equipment manufacturer to optimize this part of your system, and ensure it works seamlessly with the rest of your equipment.

Pneumatic Conveying Design and Materials

questions to ask manufacturers

Pneumatic conveying systems use air to create propulsion that moves materials from one place to another. Though other types of mechanical motion, like belt conveyors or screw conveyors, can be more efficient, pneumatic conveyors offer a number of advantages. When working with particular materials, pneumatic conveyors can also solve problems and reduce risks.

Pneumatic Conveying Basics

Pneumatic conveying must be completely enclosed. Since pneumatic systems rely on airflow, they won’t be effective if there is an airflow leak. For this reason, pneumatic conveying systems are particularly effective for materials that are very fine, such as powders and granular materials. These substances are common across a wide range of industries, from pet food processing and food and beverage industries to mining and chemical processing to renewables and many more. The applications and advantages of pneumatic conveying systems are vast, but proper pneumatic system design is essential.

Pneumatic Conveying System Types

Pneumatic conveying systems might use blowers, exhausters or other mechanisms to create air and transport materials from one part of the process to another. These different pneumatic conveying system types are generally divided by velocity and suspension. If the material is conveyed at a high velocity and suspended in the air, it is considered dilute phase conveying or suspension flow. Materials conveyed at low velocities aren’t suspended in the air, and are considered dense phase conveying or non-suspension flow. Most of these pneumatic conveying systems can be used for continuous flow applications or batch applications.

Dilute Phase Conveying

In dilute phase conveying, also called lean phase conveying, the materials are sucked through the pipe at a relatively high velocity. Nearly any material can be conveyed this way, though materials with larger particle sizes or higher densities will require high velocity. As the material shoots through the pipe, it contacts the sides, so this can be problematic when working with friable or abrasive materials.

Dilute or lean phase conveying may operate at velocities between 12 and 18 m/s. Fine powders may require velocity around 12 m/s, while fine granular material might require around 16 m/s. Dilute phase conveyor systems might operate through negative or positive pressure using a vacuum generator or pressure generator, such as an exhauster or blower.

Dense Phase Conveying

In dense phase conveying, the materials move along the sides of the pipe, and are not suspended in the air. Depending on the pressure, velocity, and the material itself, it may move through the pipe in varying ways. It might move in dunes along the bottom of the pipe, move in pulses through moving beds, or move in solid plugs between air gaps. Since this process is usually gentler, it’s better suited for more fragile or abrasive materials. Dense phase conveying is also better suited for longer distances and higher throughputs, where dilute phase conveying can become challenging.

Dense phase conveying typically operates at much lower air velocity, as low as 3 m/s in some cases. Since dilute phase conveying can easily cause damage to the pipe through erosion or damage to the particles through impacts, dense phase conveying has become increasingly popular for many different types of materials. Dense phase conveying also requires that the materials meet criteria for permeability or air retention, or the materials won’t move through the pipe. Some materials are conditioned prior to the pipeline feed point in order to meet these criteria.

Environmental Considerations in Pneumatic Conveyor System Design

When designing the optimal pneumatic conveyor system, it’s important to first consider your material’s characteristics. Understanding it’s density, flow rate, permeability, particle size, moisture content, friability and other key factors will help the system work most effectively and prolong its life.

There are other factors that are important to consider as well. The environment around the pneumatic conveyor system can affect its operation. Humidity and air temperature affect air pressure and velocity, which will change how the system works. As air temperature increases, the density of air decreases, which will affect the air mover. If the air is colder on startup, for example, and warms over time, the conveying air velocity will be lower to start with, which can block the pipeline.

Humidity around the pneumatic conveyor system can also create challenges. The water vapor contained in the air (humidity level) changes with temperature and pressure. If the air is saturated, a change in temperature or pressure will create condensation. If condensation comes into contact with hygroscopic material, it can ruin the material and damage the system.

Taking these considerations into account when designing your pneumatic conveyor system can help to improve efficiency and extend the lifetime of your system. Work closely with your equipment manufacturer, and give them detailed materials characteristics, process requirements, dimensions, and environmental considerations to optimize the system.

Screw Conveyor Design Basics to Optimize Your Conveyor

Two spray nozzles and a screw conveyor.

Screw conveyors are a simple, affordable and highly-effective material transportation method, when the conveyor is designed properly. The screw conveyor design can determine how quickly material moves through it, how the material is dispensed, and it can help to avoid problems, such as overworking the drive. Let’s take a closer look at screw conveyor design tips and tricks.

Screw Conveyors Design Basics to Optimize Your Conveyor

The basic design of a screw conveyor is simple, yet there are many ways to customize it. These screw conveyor design changes may appear to be subtle, however their impact on the overall functionality can be quite noticeable.

A basic screw conveyor uses a central shaft surrounded by screw flights. This mechanism is surrounded by an enclosure, which is open at either end to accept and dispense materials. Screw conveyors and screw feeders are similar in design, except screw conveyors are designed to transport material from one part of the process to the next, while screw feeders are designed to measure it as it flows.

Screw conveyor designs can be customized in many ways. The following are a few of the ways that manufacturers might customize a screw conveyor design to suit the needs of the application and materials. Note that this is not an exhaustive list; there are other ways to customize the screw conveyor to meet material handling needs.

  • Pitch: the distance between the screw flights
  • Shaft: the size of the central shaft, or the absence of it
  • Construction: what the enclosure, shaft, flights, and other components are made of
  • Capacity: how much material can move through the screw conveyor in a set time
  • Speed: how quickly the screw conveyor moves
  • Length: the total length of the conveyor
  • Incline: whether the conveyor must cover vertical distance, and how much

Screw Conveyors and Materials Characteristics

The characteristics of the materials being conveyed impact the screw conveyor design significantly. There are many different materials characteristics that can impact the design, but the most important are included below:

  • Flowability: Materials that flow very easily won’t require as much power to move, and will move faster. Materials that are more dense and sluggish will require more power, and will move slower.
  • Corrosive: Corrosive materials will eat away at the screw, shaft and enclosure if they are not made from a resistant construction. Certain stainless steel grades or nickel alloys are ideal when working with corrosive materials.
  • Abrasive: Abrasive materials will wear away at the screw, shaft and enclosure through friction. Abrasion resistant alloys will help to reinforce screw conveyors with these materials.
  • Angle of Repose: The angle of repose will affect the material’s flow at varying inclines. If the screw conveyor is transporting materials across a vertical and horizontal distance, this will be particularly important.
  • Special Characteristics: Many special characteristics can affect the screw conveyor’s operation and design, such as levels of moisture or oil, clumping, toxicity, stickiness, dustiness, flammability, explosiveness and more.

Flight Pitch, Number, Paddles and More

The pitch on the screw conveyor flights are an important consideration. At full pitch, the spacing between the flights is equal to the diameter of the feeder. At half pitch, the spacing between the flights is half of the diameter of the feeder. If the pitch across the flights is the same, pressure will build up towards the end of the conveyor. The pitch will also partially determine how much material moves through the feeder.

There are many ways to customize the screw conveyor pitch to adjust for the material characteristics, including the following:

  • Progressive or Variable Pitch: A progressive or variable pitch is generally ideal for drawing materials out of a hopper evenly. In this case, the spaces between the flights increases to draw the material out of the hopper.
  • Double flight: A double flight adds another spiral-shaped piece around the shaft to further increase the conveying power or amount. Double flight screw conveyors might also be progressive or variable pitch.
  • Paddles: Adding paddles between screw flights can help to make a more gentle mixing and conveying action. This is especially helpful for brittle or friable materials or those prone to clumping.
  • Ribbon flight: While a regular screw flight is solid all the way through, a ribbon flight has spaces between the flight and the shaft. This helps sticky or viscous materials move through the screw conveyor more easily.

Customizing your screw conveyor design can help to prevent material from getting stuck in the conveyor, prevent overworking the drive, and extend the useful lifetime of the conveyor. Carefully consider your materials, processes and facility layout, and work with an experienced manufacturer to design the ideal screw conveyor for your needs.

How to Choose Liquid System Pumps

comparing liquid system pumps

Pumps are one of the most valuable and integral parts of a liquid system. Whether you are working with liquid systems in food processing, pharmaceutical products, chemicals, or something else, it’s important to get the right pump. Choosing the right pump for your liquid system design depends on the characteristics of the fluid, as well as metering, volume, continuous flow or pulsation, and other factors. Let’s take a closer look at the most common types of liquid system pumps.

How to Choose Liquid System Pumps: Comparing the Most Common Liquid Pumps

Centrifugal Pump

Centrifugal pumps use an impeller to generate centrifugal force and move liquids. These pumps are some of the most commonly-used across a wide variety of industries. However, when it comes to liquid systems in food processing, centrifugal pumps can run into challenges. These liquid system pumps are ideal for liquids with relatively low viscosity, such as water and light oils. Centrifugal pumps are also ideal for steady flow applications. Slippage or cavitation can occur when conditions change, so centrifugal pumps are not ideal when metering is required.

Diaphragm Pump

positive displacement pumpA diaphragm pump is a type of positive displacement pump which uses a flexible, reciprocating layer of plastic or rubber to change the volume of a chamber and force liquid through. While a centrifugal pump is designed to work continuously, a diaphragm pump uses a pulsing motion. This makes it ideal for metering liquids. Diaphragm pumps can also work with thick, viscous liquids and suspensions with abrasive solids. The pump drive can be pneumatic or electric, so it can be used in liquid systems installed in challenging environments as well.

Gear Pump

A gear pump uses the intermeshing teeth of gears to move liquids. These pumps are repeatable and capable of generating high pressures, so they’re suitable for many different applications. However, suspended or abrasive solids can wear down the gear teeth, so these pumps work best with liquids with high lubricity, like fats and oils. These liquid system pumps should not run dry, so it’s a good idea to use a sensor on the supply tank to shut off the pump when liquid isn’t present.

Sinusoidal and Progressive Cavity Pumps

Sinusoidal pumps use a wave-shaped rotor to create moving chambers and move liquid through. This pump is gentle and predictable, making it ideal for thick suspensions in food processing, such as pie fillings, jams and salad dressings. Though these pumps are more expensive than the previous models, they are also easy to maintain and highly effective for challenging, viscous liquids.

Progressive cavity pumps are similar to sinusoidal pumps in many ways. Progressive cavity pumps use a corkscrew-like rotor inside of a flexible sleeve to create moving chambers and move liquid. This pump also generates low shear and gentle force, so it works well with thick liquid suspensions.

Peristaltic Pump

A peristaltic pump uses a flexible hose and an outside rotor to move liquid through. This type of pump is most commonly used in medical applications; you’ll see this pump at work in heart-lung machines and hemodialysis machines. A peristaltic pump is ideal for medical applications because the liquid is completely enclosed. The rotor moves over the flexible tube, but never contacts the liquid, so there is no chance of contamination. For this reason, peristaltic pumps are often used in liquid systems producing pharmaceutical and medical products. They can also be used for caustic chemicals which can be contained by flexible plastics, but can react with other parts of the machine.

Peristaltic pumps operate with tight tolerances and very repeatable flow rates, so they’re ideal for metering exact amounts. The repeated pinching and flexing of the hose will cause it to wear out over time, so a regular maintenance and replacement schedule will be important when working with this type of pump.

General knowledge of the most common types of liquid system pumps will give you a better idea of what you’re looking for, and risks to look out for. As you compare liquid systems pumps, consider the characteristics of the liquid that you’re working with, as well as how you are metering liquids, and the surrounding environment. With the right type of pump, you can minimize maintenance, waste and downtime, increase accuracy, and install a high-performing, long-lasting liquid system.

6 Hidden Expenses Eliminated Through Automation

expenses eliminated through automation

The ROI calculation for automated systems too often comes down to direct labor costs versus the cost of automation equipment. However, there are many aspects to consider. The value and cost-savings realized through automation goes beyond direct labor. If you are thinking about adding or enhancing automation at your facility, consider how the following hidden expenses can be eliminated.

6 Hidden Expenses Eliminated Through Automation

1. Downtime

People are more sensitive to their environment than machines, and will need to rest more often in extreme temperatures or humidity. A person will also become tired or distracted when performing repetitive tasks for long periods of time. Socializing is also important to maintain good productivity and morale, and part of what makes a workplace more desirable. All of these things ultimately amount to additional downtime; required breaks, chatting between tasks, late starts and more. It’s unrealistic and, often, negatively impacts productivity to strictly forbid these types of downtime. However, a machine requires only enough downtime for maintenance. Eliminating these small breaks can add up quickly.

2. Error

People make mistakes. These mistakes might be small, within tolerances, or they might result in product defects and waste. In other cases, these mistakes result in more downtime or slow-downs to fix, or might even endanger other employees. Mistakes can also put expensive assets at risk and increase liability insurance costs.

Of course, machines will do as they are programmed. If they are installed, programmed and maintained correctly, a machine will perform a task within a margin of error every time. Ideally, a person will oversee and verify that a machine is working properly, and have the skills and expertise to fix any problems that arise.

3. Quality Control

Mistakes can cause problems with finished products, however contamination and adulteration are also concerns. Contamination can occur if an employee doesn’t wash their hands properly before handling products or ingredients, or isn’t wearing proper protective gear, such as hair nets. Adulteration occurs when an employee purposely changes a recipe, either adding too much or too little of an ingredient, or adding a foreign ingredient. Whether added deliberately or accidentally, some foreign ingredients, such as pest repellent or cleaning chemicals kept on-site, can be extremely dangerous.

Automation can help to keep recipes on-track with exact measuring, and prevent adulteration or contamination by reducing hand-add opportunities. This can eliminate a variety of costs and risks, including product and ingredient losses, lawsuits, liability insurance, lost reputation and lost sales, and more.

4. Indirect Labor Costs

Automated equipment will reduce total wage expenses, but that is far from the only labor cost. Indirect labor costs such as healthcare benefits, retirement benefits, sick leave, vacation, worker’s compensation, and more all contribute to labor costs, and can be eliminated with automation.

5. Lawsuits

Keeping employees and customers safe requires vigilance and attention to detail. A lapse in safety protocols, training, or a simple mistake can endanger human health and safety, and create grounds for expensive litigation. Taking humans out of harm’s way and automating especially dangerous tasks can help to reduce dangers and lawsuits by employees. Automating processes that are vulnerable to contamination can also help to reduce liability. When considering automation, take a closer look at lawsuits and hazards in your industry, and consider how these costs and risks might be eliminated.

6. Regulatory Compliance

OSHA, the FDA, the USDA and EPA all require that certain safety and quality control standards be met to protect employees, consumers and the public. Record-keeping is an important part of this process. Automating production, labeling, tracking, and cleaning processes can make record-keeping easier and more accurate. A person might forget to mark a sheet, mark the wrong column, or enter the wrong number into the system. A machine or a sensor can send information directly to the system, making real-time records that are accessible at any time.

To get an accurate ROI valuation on automation, consider all the costs associated with labor, quality control, liability and production. Some of these costs may be small and add up over time, while others may be big, infrequent expenses. Consider each carefully when making your decision, and consider how these expenses might grow or shrink in the future with production.

Why Is My Load Cell Inaccurate? 11 Problems and Solutions for Troubleshooting Load Cells

Accurate load cells are critical to get the right mix. There are many different types of load cells for different processes, all of which can become inaccurate for different reasons. In this blog post, we’ll discuss a few of the ways your load cell may become inaccurate, what these problems look like when they occur, and how to troubleshoot load cell problems. We’ve updated this post as of July 2020 to include more common problems, solutions and troubleshooting strategies for load cells.

11 Problems and Solutions for Troubleshooting Load Cells

hermetically sealed digital load cell

Figure 1. APEC’s Digital Capacitive Load Cells

1. Total Combined Error

All measurement devices will have some degree of error that is not preventable. In load cells, this is shown through non-linearity and hysteresis. Since some level of error is unavoidable, there aren’t load cell troubleshooting strategies for this. However, this is acceptable as long as the error is less than the error tolerance of any ingredient. Additionally, non-linearity and hysteresis are less problematic in particular situations.

Non-linearity describes the weighing error over the entire load cell range. Smaller changes will create less error due to non-linearity, while a change from zero to maximum capacity will cause the greatest effect. Hysteresis is the difference in the results between increasing the load from zero and decreasing from maximum. Similar to non-linearity, error due to hysteresis is more noticeable when dealing with larger loads. So, when working with batching, this inevitable error is generally less of a problem compared to larger loading operations.

2. Temperature Changes

Dramatic temperature changes cause metal to warp. Traditional load cells are built using strain gauges, which are delicate metal pieces. Dramatic temperature changes will affect the function of the strain gauge, and therefore the load cell. If the load cell is exposed to cold nights and then hot, direct sunlight, or surrounding equipment heats up the area, this can cause inaccuracy. To troublehshoot this load cell problem, you might take temperature readings at different times, and shield the equipment from the sun if it causing dramatic temperature shifts.

3. Creep

If a load cell remains under pressure for a long period, it becomes susceptible to creep. This isn’t a problem in batching operations at two or three minute intervals, but load cells measuring storage silos or other containment units for extended periods will need to account for creep.

Want to Get Inside the Mind of A Master Engineer?
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Written by APEC’s Owner and Founder Terry Stemler

4. Load Cell Response

All load cells require a set time to return to zero before they can accurately measure a new load. If the process begins to refill the vessel before the load cell(s) return to zero, the measurement won’t be accurate within the error tolerance. Allow enough time between measurements for the load cells to stabilize and response time will not be an issue. To troubleshoot this load cell problem, test the load cell response upon installation and with calibration, to ensure it remains stable.

5. Balanced Load

The load must be properly balanced on the load cell, or the load cells must be arranged to accommodate for unbalanced loads. Where multiple load cells are used, they must be mounted so no other part of the vessel or container takes on a part of the load. For a sitting vessel, this generally means the load cells must be situated between the vessel and the floor. For a mounted load, bumpers and checkrods used to stabilize the load cannot also support its weight.

6. Vibration

Excessive vibration, usually from other nearby processes or sometimes from passing trucks or heavy equipment, can disrupt the reading. Troubleshooting this load cell problem might involve moving the source of the vibration or moving the load cells and attached equipment. Dampening devices such as layers of rubber or cork can also absorb the vibration. If the vibration is cyclical, it can also be electronically filtered out by a weight controller.

7. Windforce

Air currents exert force on a load cell that can disrupt the weight of the load alone. Usually, this is not enough to cause significant inaccuracy, but strong, consistent windforce can disrupt the reading. This might come from intense winds outdoors, or from strong air currents used to prevent dust buildup.

8. Noise

When the load cell transmits its electrical signal to the weight controller, interference, or noise, can disrupt it. Radio signals and electromagnetic signals both cause noise, which includes electrical currents, other data transmission signals, even strong wireless signals. Proper shielding around the load cell cables and grounding of the shield can prevent interference from noise. Using a capacitive digital load cell can also help to prevent signal loss due to noise. In a capacitive digital load cell, the signal is converted to digital locally within the load cell, so there is no loss of signal across the cable length or at bad connection point.

9. Moisture

Moisture can also inhibit the signal from the load cell to the weight controller. Moisture, perhaps from steam, excessive humidity, or equipment washing, most often enters the load cell through the cable entry area. Hermetic sealing will prevent moisture from damaging the load cell and internal components.

10. Signal Jitter

A number of factors can cause the weight signal from a load cell to “jitter;” moving unsteadily upward (or downward, as in a loss-of-weight feeder) instead of in a smooth line. The hopper’s or vessel’s movement while weighing, material entering the vessel unevenly, an agitator preventing sticking, or unshielded noise can all cause the signal to fluctuate. A weight controller averages the fluctuation and creates a smooth analog signal, then converts the signal to digital. However, if the weight controller isn’t working properly or isn’t installed properly, signal jitter will disrupt the measurement.

11. Damaged Load Cell Connections

Often, multiple load cells are used to measure a load. When these load cell signals are not combined and summed properly at the weighing instrument, it can cause noticeable error. This can occur due to faulty connections between the load cells and the instrument. Corrosion from acids or salts can cause connections to corrode, thereby disrupting the signal.

12. Scale Instrument

Both the load cell and the scale instrument are important in determining accurate measurements. The scale instrument, or the scale head, must be able to integrate effectively with the load cell. A typical load cell is accurate with 5,000 divisions, which might not be accurate enough for the application. However, a finely-tuned scale instrument can divide by 10,000 or even 20,000. This would allow a 100 lb load cell to show increments of .01 or even .005 lbs, respectively. Though this would not be considered standard, the ingredient or application could call for additional accuracy.

13. Conductive Dust

Most load cells use a strain gauge, layers of very thin, conductive metal, to measure weight. Just as moisture can disrupt the load cell’s function, so can conductive metal dust and debris. If a load cell is not properly sealed and environmental metal dust or even salt. Capacitive load cells do not use a strain gauge, but can also be disrupted by conductive dust. However, capacitive load cells are easier to hermetically seal and prevent disruption.

14. Damaged Components

Though a load cell can be reinforced to withstand difficult environments, the internal components are delicate. A heavy impact, as well as corrosive chemicals or salts, can damage the inner workings of the load cell and cause it to malfunction. If you notice intermittent misreadings, or if there is more error than usual, the strain gauge or capacitor within the load cell may be damaged.

15. Calibration

To stay accurate, load cells require regular calibration. A regular maintenance schedule is the best way to stay on top of necessary maintenance. If the load cell is not calibrated, it is more susceptible to every form of disruption. When making repairs to the load cell, remember to recalibrate afterwards.

One of these load cell problems alone will probably not create a noticeable problem, unless it is extreme. However, several of them occurring at once can cause measurements to be noticeably inaccurate. Careful attention to the environment around the load cell and the equipment, as well as the installation and use of the load cell itself, can prevent many load cell problems.

Preventing Feeder Bridging and Flushing with the TSS Feeder

Ratholing, bridging, and flushing are just a few of the problems that can arise as material flows through a hopper and into a feeder. Instead of dealing with these issues as they arise, it’s best to optimize and feeder and hopper design to prevent or reduce these problems. The TSS Feeder uses a unique dual-auger, triple-flight design to prevent bridging and flushing, and improve accuracy.

Preventing Feeder Bridging and Flushing with the TSS Feeder

What is the TSS Feeder?

The TSS Feeder is specially designed to solve the common problems arising as material flows from a hopper to a feeder, like bridging, ratholing and flushing. Multiple parts of the feeder are powered by a single motor and multiple sprocket and chain drives. One sprocket and chain drive powers the primary screw flights, where materials first enter the feeder from the hopper. Another sprocket and chain drive powers an agitator above the feeder to keep material moving. The final sprocket and chain drives powers an additional, triple-flight section at the end of the feeder. This section moves faster than the primary screw. Each of these components work together to solve flow problems and increase accuracy.

Preventing Bridging

Bridging is a common material flow problem that can occur just above the feeder, where material sticks or clumps together and stops moving into the feeder. This is especially challenging for materials with high fat content, or those that might mat together, or stick together with static electricity.

The agitator on the TSS feeder prevents bridging for materials of all types. The agitator spins slowly through the materials to break up clumps without damaging the materials themselves. Running off the same motor powering the screw flights, the agitator works in tandem with the feeder. This improves flow without requiring extra maintenance or an additional power source.

Preventing Flushing

Flushing is another common problem that can occur with screw feeders, especially when working with fine powders. A traditional screw feeder releases material in pulses as the screw turns. This can cause excess material to flow out and flush after shut-off. Flushing ultimately upsets the accuracy of the measurement, and can cause too much of an ingredient to be added to a mix.

The triple flight section at the end of the feeder is designed to prevent flushing. This section turns faster and the additional flights dispense smaller amounts of material at faster rates. When the feeder stops, only a small amount of excess material flows out.

Improving Accuracy

Flushing, bridging and other problems can make traditional screw feeders inaccurate. The faster, triple-flight screw at the end of the feeder not only helps to prevent flushing, but the feeder is also more accurate. By dispensing a small amount of material at a faster rate at the end of the feeder, the feeder works quickly and efficiently, while reducing the margin of error and maintaining consistent performance.

Traditional screw feeders are relatively simple, and they can be easily overlooked in the overall ingredient system design. However, the wrong feeder can create multiple problems, reducing the accuracy and efficiency of the system. If material flow problems are affecting your system, or you are working with challenging materials that can cause problems, the TSS Feeder may be a solution. Contact us to learn more about this proprietary feeder system and other options to customize your feeder.

How Do I Know When a Process Should Be Automated? 7 Considerations

Electric Robot Welder

Automation can improve the efficiency, safety, accuracy and speed of a process, but it also requires careful planning. There are many factors to consider and it can be difficult to know when a process should be automated. If you are wondering about automating a process at your food processing plant, manufacturing plant, or another facility, consider the following.

How to Know When a Process Should be Automated

1. Current Process Time vs. Projected Process Time

Time is one of the most important factors to consider when deciding whether a process should be automated or not. A machine will perform most simple and repetitive processes faster than a person can. However, it is not only the individual process itself that should be considered, but the surrounding processes as well.

For example, when comparing an automated weighing and batching system to a manual system, it is important to consider the time it takes a person to open and transfer materials, as well as weighing and batching the materials. Automating this process may mean using bulk bags, which will reduce the time needed to open and dispense bags. Conversely, if a process takes only a moment for a person to perform, automation may not provide much in the way of time-savings, unless multiple processes can be automated at once.

2. Accuracy Requirements

Accuracy is another important factor to consider when a process should be automated. If machines are installed, maintained and programmed correctly, they will perform the same task, the same way, within a set margin of error, each time. A person, on the other hand, may be tired or distracted, and push a button or lever twice, add in too much or too little of an ingredient, or perform a process in the wrong order. Automating a process can increase product quality, decrease material waste, and reduce liability from potentially dangerous defects.

3. Process Complexity

In the last decade, automated machines, robots and computer programs have become increasingly advanced. Powered by the right AI, a machine can perform very complex tasks and even apply a version of critical thinking. However, these machines are also expensive. For this reason, process complexity is important when considering whether a process should be automated or not. Simple, repetitive tasks will be most effective and most economical to automate. Conversely, monitoring processes, inspecting finished products, performing maintenance, and other, more complex tasks, are best performed by people.

4. Safety and Hazards

Some processes introduce humans to dangers and health hazards. These processes are ideal to automate. Eliminating stress injuries due to repetition are among the most common benefits of automation. Processes involving dust, toxic chemicals, or fumes should also be considered for automation. While machine parts can be reinforced and shielded from caustic chemicals, it is much harder to adequately protect a person, especially over a long period of exposure. This is why many cleaning, painting, and coating processes are among the first candidates for automation.

5. Material Stability

Some materials are relatively predictable and easy to handle, while others are more chaotic and difficult. A sheet of steel, for example, will move through a process in a very predictable manner. A machine can easily handle these materials and move them along an assembly line. Powders, on the other hand, are more sensitive to outside forces like changes in temperature or humidity. Even slight changes can make them behave in unpredictable ways. Processes working with powders and other difficult materials can still be automated, but these machines may require additional supervision and more careful planning.

6. Labor Costs vs Automation Costs

This is the most common consideration when determining whether a process should be automated or not. When comparing automation and labor, it is important to take all costs into account. Automating a process not only eliminates direct labor costs such as wages and overtime, but it can also reduce indirect costs such as those from work injuries, worker’s compensation, liability, paid leave, overtime, retirement benefits and more. From the automation standpoint, consider costs of maintenance and installation, as well as the equipment itself.

7. Future Growth

Consider your markets, and gauge your expected future growth or contraction. Machines can work much faster than people, and can help you keep up with increased demand and continue growing. However, if you expect a decline in demand in the near future, this added speed and productivity may not be worth the investment at this time.

There are many factors impacting whether a process should be automated or not. In some cases, it is easy to automate a process that is otherwise long, arduous or unsafe. In other cases, it can be a more difficult decision. It can be helpful to make a list of estimated costs and time-savings, safety considerations, advantages and disadvantages when making this decision. Compare these items, and you can be confident in your decision to automate or leave the process the same.

Process Verification in Manufacturing: Trust, But Verify

process verification in manufacturing

In our previous post, we discussed the benefits automation equipment can have on business and on workers. One of the benefits of automation equipment and robots over humans is the machines’ ability to perform the same task continuously, consistently and reliably, without risk of injury and little risk of variation. However, this can only work if the machine is installed and programmed correctly, and regularly maintained. To optimize automation performance, it’s important to keep in mind a simple, but powerful maxim; “Trust, But Verify.”

“Trust, But Verify”

“Trust, But Verify” is a Russian proverb that first made its way into popular English during the Cold War and nuclear missile disarmament. It’s now used in many contexts, including automation. “Trust, But Verify” essentially looks at the process and the result; trust that the process works correctly, but verify that the result is correct.

This is especially important for optimizing automation performance, and ensuring that the process is working. While a person may perform an error a few times and then fix it themself, a machine will continue to perform the process incorrectly until the source of the problem is fixed. This means, without verification, a process may be incorrect for long periods of time. These errors can also multiply across the production line, turning a small problem into a dangerous product defect.

Process Verification in Manufacturing: Then and Now

Previously, a battery of tests was the best way to determine whether a process was running properly. Usually, this involved taking a sample and delivering it to a lab. The lab might test for values such as PH, humidity, temperature, fat content, protein content, sugar brix content, water content, weight, product hardness, elasticity, and manufacturing defects that might affect the visual appearance or the structural integrity of the product. This verification process was slow, with many potential pitfalls.

Now, many of these factors can be tested in real time on the factory floor, often with sensors or spot tests. There’s no need to halt the process while waiting for lab results, or recall product that turned out to test badly. However, this also means that a faulty sensor can cause product defects and incorrect processes to go unnoticed. Though it’s reasonable to trust that a quality sensor works, it’s necessary to verify this as well.

These process verification procedures can help to ensure that the information you’re receiving from sensors is accurate, and that automated machines are performing the process properly.

6 Verification Procedures to Optimize Automated Equipment

1. Calibration

Sensors, weighing instruments and other equipment must be regularly calibrated to maintain accuracy. This is one of the most important verification procedures to optimize automated equipment, and should not be left to chance. Otherwise, the machine’s accuracy is left to chance as well. Establish a clear calibration procedure for each instrument using the manufacturer’s instructions. Make sure workers know who should carry this procedure out, and when.

2. Redundancy

For procedures that must be very precise, or for processes that are prone to error, you can optimize automated equipment by using redundant sensors. While one sensor may fail, it’s unlikely that two would fail at the same time. Using two sensors can also help you see if one has become inaccurate.

3. Reduce Interference

Where possible, use instruments that are digitized locally to the sensor. Electromagnetic interference, vibration, or damage to wires can cause signal transmission errors across longer distances. If you’re transmitting analog values, be sure that you have a secure ground reference, and that the signal is properly spanned.

4. Use Reference Values

Reference values give you a baseline for what is accurate and correct. Without reference values, it’s difficult to know when your sensors and machines are working properly. Use test weights, optical references, voltage outputs and other measures to verify that the process is working properly.

5. Regular Maintenance

Regular maintenance is an essential process verification step to optimize automated equipment. The machines as well as the sensors should both be regularly maintained according to manufacturer’s recommendations. This includes cleaning procedures to prevent the build-up of dust and debris, visual inspections of wires and faceplates, replacing seals where necessary, and more. Some measurement devices, like hermetically sealed load cells, generally do not need maintenance as frequently as other, unsealed devices.

6. Visual Inspections

Establish visual standards and inspections so workers can spot a problem if it occurs. This might include visually inspecting the finished product, or inspecting the product as it moves through the process. Consider the product’s color, size, consistency, or other notable features. Be sure there is a procedure in place for reporting and fixing a problem if a worker detects it.

“Trust, But Verify” works on a fairly simple principle; you need to trust that your process works, but also make sure that it does. Using process verification procedures will not only help you optimize automated equipment, but also prevent problems, reduce costs and give you peace of mind.