Detect a problem before it occurs or alert an operator as soon as it does. It seems so elementary, but many bakeries still rely on flashing warning lights and blaring horns to signal the maintenance crew to jump into action and figure out what’s gone wrong after production comes to a grinding halt.

Today’s ingredient handling systems, however, are often applying advances in digital detection to pinpoint potential problems remotely.

“The world has become a global economy, and the means for communication has improved as well to accommodate this in our industry,” said Darren Adams, vice president of engineering, The Fred D. Pfening Co. “We are able to log onto our systems’ PLCs anywhere in the world to see real-time systems operating and to implement software system modifications and improvements. We can download the systems operation trend data and charts at any time, which allows us to go back to look at past data that may help find recurring operational or batching issues, as well.”

By connecting a control system to a secure industrial virtual private network (VPN) router, many equipment companies can troubleshoot issues from anywhere without travelling to the bakery. In fact, Louis Schwartz, business unit manager for ingredient handling systems, Gemini Bakery Equipment/KB Systems, noted the capability to connect has become increasingly affordable.

“In addition, recommended maintenance intervals can be built into the control program, and notifications can often be sent via text message or email to both the bakery’s and vendor’s contacts,” he said. “This can be beneficial to both parties, because the vendor can advance orders or manufacture spare parts required, and the delivery time to the bakery can then also be reduced.”

Jason Stricker, vice president of sales and marketing, Shick Esteve, pointed out it’s not possible to make physical repairs or conduct remote maintenance for equipment in ingredient handling systems, but a data management system through the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) provides the information to direct onsite personnel to the equipment that needs attention.

“The overarching goal of a data management system is to provide customers with a forewarning of an impending maintenance need versus being reactionary to a failed piece,” he explained. “By constantly monitoring the critical process parameters, we can often predict when something is nearing end of life. This allows customers to schedule focused maintenance efforts around planned downtime rather than repairing post-failure.”

Jack Kilbride, vice president systems and automation engineering, Zeppelin Systems USA, observed that modern control systems provide visibility into the process by comparing current and historical data regarding a bulk ingredient handling operation.

“Bakers need to monitor the data regularly and check for changes in pressures, temperatures, fill rates and more,” he said. “When an anomaly is found, you can investigate thoroughly the portion of the process where the operation of the system has changed.”

Becoming familiar with all components is critical when troubleshooting a pneumatic ingredient conveying system, suggested Tom Leach, national sales manager, pneumatic conveying systems, Camcorp, a member of the Scheuch Group. These parts include the blower, piping, filter receiver and the various valves such as airlocks, divert valves, butterfly valves and slide gates, to name a few.

“It’s important to have a good understanding of these parts’ function and design features,” he said. “And don’t forget the controls, the brain of the pneumatic system. Understanding the normal operational state of the equipment and the system will help when it comes to discerning problematic issues.”

Kevin Pecha, sales manager, AZO Food, observed that smart technology also enhances an ingredient system’s reliability.

“Good programming methodologies help to not only promote consistent functionality of the equipment but also monitor for signs of issues such as valves taking too long to switch or motors pulling higher amperage ratings,” he said. “Some changes to hardware may be needed to take advantage of some control items.”

However, Mr. Stricker stressed, bakeries need to do their detective work when a system’s controls signal that something has gone awry.

“Proper PLC and HMI programming will provide visual alarms when things are not operating as intended. It is difficult for a PLC to provide the exact cause,” he noted. “It can only point you to the malfunction. Determining the cause of the failure is really the territory of the data management or IIOT portion of the controls.”

Still, digital technology and software today is a lot more intelligent — some may argue intuitive — than just a few years ago.

“Smart variable-frequency drives (VFDs), which can control multiple motors, allow for the data capture of motor amperage of each connected motor,” said Joe Lewis, marketing, Sterling Systems & Controls. “This allows the ingredient batching controls system to monitor and sound alarm warnings if conditions fail.”

Most control components, he added, can be interconnected with minimal wiring using Ethernet communications to capture data and transmit it to PLCs.

Mr. Schwartz observed that programmable controls also verify that a system is in good working order before it’s fired up. Prior to starting a conveying air blower, for instance, there must be a clear path to the correct destination, such as a bin or holding tank, which then must be vented in some way.

“Instrumentation and signal devices, such as limit and pressure switches, provide the ‘permissives’ that allow the final desired action to start,” he said. “If a system does not start, the permissives for a given operation can be checked and then used to easily determine what is preventing the system from starting. While the ladder logic may need to be checked, it is also possible to show permissives on an operator terminal to make it much easier to determine the cause of the problem.”

To ensure an ingredient handling system is working correctly, the Bühler Mercury system evaluates the weighing cycle for the ingredients and compares each of them under normal operation against times when there are issues. John Hunter, sales account manager, bakery and ingredient handling, Bühler Inc., noted the system monitors fill times to determine any issues with silo discharge or the evaluation of transfer pressures for the pneumatic system to ensure accurate system performance.

Since the pandemic started, he added, Bühler stepped up its 24/7 automation support system to allow the company or a bakery’s supervisors to monitor ingredient handling operations remotely.

“When carrying out maintenance remotely, the control system can be accessed without needing to go to the production office,” he said. “This can be accessed using an iPad, tablet or smartphone, using the Bühler Mercury system.”

Mr. Lewis suggested integrating preventative maintenance planning software into the system controls. This application allows for maintenance scheduling for the entire facility. Additionally, the maintenance manager can set up multiple components and operation centers with alarms, spare parts planning and scheduling of maintenance personnel.

Moreover, he said, remote supervisory controls along with the ingredient batching system allows various departments to interact and work with the automated batching control system from their remote offices. Outfitting a system with alarms and high-quality sensors also can detect potential problems.

“Don’t skimp on this feature of an automated ingredient batching system,” Mr. Lewis said.

For security reasons, don’t forget to monitor the programmable controls, too, to make sure any tinkering of the system is done by someone who thoroughly understands the formulas and the process, especially when it comes to minor and micro ingredients. Just a small tweak can cause product quality issues.

“Was the program modified? Changes in the sequence of operations may be the culprit of system issues,” Mr. Leach said. “Understanding the fundamentals of minor ingredient systems will prevent even the seasoned programmer from making a change that could have detrimental impacts to a system’s performance.”