Process control sensors in Food & Beverage applications have a rough life. Relentless cleaning with harsh chemicals, intentional large swings in operating conditions, and the perpetual demand to perform flawlessly or else real people might get real sick consuming compromised food products – you’d think it’d be a no-win situation for instrumentation manufacturers.
But as we know with most technical challenges, the higher the stakes, the greater the drive for talented human minds to meet the need head-on. And in Food & Beverage process controls, instrumentation engineers routinely perform feats that might as well be magic to the rest of us.
In this domain, we can find two halves of a whole: one side of a food production system touches the actual human-consumed product, and the other side touches utility services that energize and support the food-contact side.
Utilities here typically take the form of steam, condensate, compressed air, plant water, refrigeration, natural gas, exhaust venting, chemicals, wastewater, and the like.
These services are ‘dirty’ in the sense that they contain various properties that would be harmful to humans should they be allowed to contact any food products, and are also typically aggressive in temperature, pressure, chemical composition, and physical properties.
From this perspective, process utilities are both mission-critical towards producing good, safe food, while at the same time are a potential source of undue issues that we must protect food against.
How do we best manage this delicate balance? As process and controls engineers, we have to intimately understand the challenges that face food process utility instruments so that our specifying, selection, installation, and operation workflows are all technically aligned with the stakes at hand.
To help readers visualize the types of systems we’re discussing, we’ll share below a few examples of common Food & Bev utility applications, followed by three key design elements unique to this industry.
Common F&B Utility Application Examples
- Raw Material Processing – especially for agricultural products, raw material processing typically includes temperature and flow controls for utility water, compressed air, and blanching steam services.
- Ingredient Preparation – bulk raw materials are commonly turned into prepared ingredients using dehydration, evaporation, and separation steps, which are heavily reliant on utility temperature and vacuum controls.
- Fluid Blending and Batching – from soups to sports drinks, syrups to pastes, any material that can flow can be blended and batched to make value-added ingredients or finished products. High pressure and high temperature water, steam, chilled water, and air services are common utilities involved.
- Hazardous Material Handling – milled powders, distilled spirits, and dusty grains are good examples of food products that have potentially hazardous properties. These products often need properly rated utility temperature, level, vacuum, and pressure controls.
- Biological Processes – fish farming, algae propagation, yeast fermentation, and yogurt culture starting are all biological processes involved in food manufacturing, calling for highly accurate hot water, cooling water, compressed air, and steam utility controls.
- Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) – displacing oxygen with inert gas is a standard packaging practice for sensitive food products that might be impacted by normal atmospheric gases. Pressure, temperature, vacuum, and flow controls are often involved with MAP gases such as nitrogen.
- Cooking and Thermal Processing - steam, hot water, and direct-fired gas heating are commonplace in food process, from simple ingredient warming heating to high-temp baking. These applications rely heavily on temperature switches and transmitters for steam, condensate, hot water, vacuum, and natural gas utilities.
- Clean-In-Place (CIP) - as a hygienic process, cleaning food and beverage process systems is equally important as actual production. Cleaning is typically performed either manually or by a CIP System, which automates chemical, water, and heat flow out through the production equipment. These systems call for precise temperature, level, pressure, and analytical instrumentation for steam, water, condensate, and chemical utilities.
Key Technical Design Elements in Food & Beverage Manufacturing Environments
The header above says it all! Of course, you might next ask “what specifications do I select to manage the challenges below?”. Good question! This will be the subject of a future article, as our goal here is to discuss the challenges themselves in detail – in the meantime, please contact us to discuss your application.
Food & Beverage facilities are designed with varying levels of cleanliness and product protection across the site, commonly known as Hygiene Zones. These zones describe risk levels of product contamination and foreign material infiltration, and the hazard controls built into the design of those spaces to mitigate these risks.
A High Hygiene zone usually sees exposed product where the risk of contamination is high, and so employs advanced air filtration, personnel protective gear such as hairnets and smocks, and extensive sanitation procedures.
A Low Hygiene zone usually sees final finished product complete within its packaging, where contamination risk is lower, but conscious care must still be taken using minimal PPE such as gloves, and general cleanliness standards such as point-cleaning of floors and equipment.
Hygiene Zones also have direct implications for instrument selection, controlling materials and styles of devices installed within these zones as a function of their potential contribution towards contamination, and exposure to cleaning chemicals.
Regulatory interests are the next unique feature of Food & Bev projects, in so far as specific regulatory agencies and third-party standard associations will have requirements that must be met on top of normal electrical and instrumentation codes.
In most cases, instrumentation that touches actual product must comply with food-specific agency standards such as 3A, NSF, EHEDG, or FDA. Utility instruments that do not touch actual product may still need to meet part or all of these same requirements, though usually specific to their external features (such that external materials in proximity to but not in direct contact with actual product can still cause transient contamination).
Some applications will fall under further scrutiny by very specific authorities, such as with dairy products falling under USDA, juice products under the JPA (Juice Products Association), and distilled spirits under the DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States).
Combining the two above unique challenges, we can see that Food & Bev manufacturing exists in a tightly controlled, heavily regulated space, where controls accuracy and implementation can make all of the difference between a safe food product and a contaminated, spoiled, or otherwise unsafe food product being released to the market for human (and animal) consumption.
With this in mind, the third unique consideration for process utility control here is around Food Safety - and most importantly, how instrument performance directly ties to human and animal health.
A classic example of such risk is found in food pasteurizers, where the difference of one degree Fahrenheit or one gallon per minute pumping rate can result in an unsafe food product that will lead to a public health emergency.
Overall, instrumentation used in food process utility control must be dependable, reliable, accurate, and repeatable, even under vastly changing process conditions as well as external impact from rigorous chemical cleaning.
As a veteran-owned small business, Whitman Controls is dedicated to supplying premium quality, reliable, technologically advanced instrumentation for use in nearly any application.
Our Bristol, CT manufacturing facility embodies over 40 years of engineering, fabrication, and customer service expertise, serving both end-user and manufacturing customers nationwide through direct and distribution channels.
Our values drive us to provide the highest level of servant partnership that you can find. To discuss your applications or to learn more about our capabilities, please contact us at (800) 233-4401, via email at [email protected], or online at www.whitmancontrols.com.