As innovations and digital disruptions change the market dynamics of industries globally, automation has emerged as a critical cog in diverse domains. The automation of various processes promotes the utmost efficiency in production, in addition to ensuring higher energy efficiency, decreased use of raw material and reduced dependence on human resources, leading to a drop in the total cost of manufacturing.
These benefits then translate into minimal waste, leaner operations, quicker production processes, faster time to market and higher profitability. Companies specialising in process automation partner with clients in providing integrated end-to-end solutions right from concept to commissioning.
Be it companies in foods, chemicals, pharmaceuticals or automotive, each can benefit from the automation of various processes, from the simplest to the most complex. This is done by linking components into products and the latter into integrated solutions that provide superior, all-round performance. Towards this objective, a 360-degree approach is employed to define the challenge and design customised solutions via innovation and the latest technologies.
Processes for Ready-to-Eat and Ready-to-Heat Foods
A case in point is the food industry. Whether it is Ready-to-Eat (RTE) or Ready-to-Heat (RTH), food processing automation delivers rapid cooking while leaving the authentic flavours and nutritional ingredients undisturbed. These customisable, flexible solutions are designed as per requisite global standards. Therefore, safety, efficiency and eco-friendly features are built into process automation solutions. What’s more, the system minimises product loss in case of electricity outages.
Where food is concerned, typically, receiving and feeding (REFE) is the first operational stage. As a result, REFE equipment is geared for swift operations, hygienic handling and minimal dust formation. Granulation, sieving and milling (GRSM) is the next phase. Here, GRSM machines undertake size reduction, size-based separation and right-sizing of product particles without the food suffering any loss of nutritional value and flavour.
Coming to the RTE food manufacturing process, food safety remains the core principle. Besides, the process needs to be rapid, ergonomic and energy-efficient while developing the requisite food flavours and texture. Keeping these aspects in mind, there are some general stages in manufacturing RTE foods, such as unloading and transport, cleaning, transit, pressure cooking and buffering.
Some elaboration is needed on each of the above aspects. In the first instance, unloaded raw materials are transported to the cleaning equipment’s location. At this point, cleaning removes dirt, dust, mud, stones, wood pieces and other contaminants from the main raw materials. Since the cleaning solution could wet the raw materials, mechanisms for drying them are included in the cleaning stage. Quality control checks then affirm the efficacy of the cleaning process.
The next stage is transit, where the cleaned raw materials are loaded into cooking kettles. Buggies or Eurobins of 350-litre capacity are used to hold raw materials. Buggy lifters and tippers are brake motor-driven belt-and-pulley mechanisms that lift the loaded Eurobin to the required height. Their tipping system now tilts the bin to the necessary angle for unloading raw materials into the cooking kettle. Such a system ascertains workers don’t have to lift and tilt the bin, eliminating the risk of injury. The safety features include photoelectric sensors, emergency stops and alarm interlocks.
Pressure Cooking and Other Mechanisms
The pressure cooking stage follows. Industrial cooking kettles represent the basic equipment in the food industry. These kettles can cook, mix, stew, pasteurise, sterilise or lower the moisture content in raw materials or partially processed foods. High-pressure cooking improves the shelf life and safety of foods, retains their nutritional value and saves energy costs while imparting better odour and taste, maintaining their attractive appearance and minimising cooking times.
Industrial pressure cooking involves multiple steps. Different raw materials are added at various stages and there is a facility to add minor ingredients. Subsequently, quality control checks can be undertaken.
Such cooking/steam kettles have multiple features. These include automated stop-start and feeding-discharge of products; precise temperature control; uniform heating from all sides; level indicators for accurate material feeding; load cell weighing option for batch-to-batch consistency; and condensate recovery system for water reuse.
Additionally, a scraped surface agitator mixes materials to a homogeneous state and prevents “burn-on” by not allowing any material to stick to the kettle wall. Thereafter, sensors are used to check for process completion. The safety devices and mechanisms include pressure-temperature sensors, pressure relief valves, safety interlocks, emergency stops and indicator lamps. There is also a Clean in Place (CIP) provision for easy sanitisation and maintenance.
The next process is buffering wherein the cooked product is mixed slowly, held at a certain temperature and checked for shelf life. Buffer tanks are equipped with double/twin shaft paddle mixer blades or ribbon blades, the former being the food industry favourite for more than three decades. The twin shaft paddle mixers are automated, mixing products gently to produce a homogeneous mix. Apart from being suitable for wet mixing, the mixers come with safety features such as emergency stop and alarm interlocks while being compatible with a CIP facility for smooth maintenance and cleaning.
Buffer tanks are equipped with a dimple jacket design for high strength, a speed sensor to monitor mixing speed, PID (proportional integral derivative) control for automatic temperature regulation, safety mechanisms such as emergency stop and alarm interlocks and CIP system for quick cleaning/maintenance.
Holding or maintaining the temperature of the cooked materials at predetermined levels for specific periods prevents the growth of harmful, disease-causing microbes. This process can be used for both hot and cold holding.