A Whole Systems Approach To Automation

Source: PMA

Whole Systems approach to automation

Do you have a technology roadmap for your company? If you don’t, you need one.

A technology roadmap is important to have as you develop your automation strategy and how implementation of any technology or automated system will affect your entire production process.

In order to create a smarter workplace, systems need to work together. The goal is not to create stand-alone autonomously operating units, but to have an integrated, comprehensive, more labor efficient system.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • System integration is critical. For companies to truly “work smarter” by reducing labor dependence or becoming more efficient in labor uses, technical solutions cannot create redundancies or disconnections from existing processes or work flows. Too often, companies implement new technologies and buy or develop new equipment and software as stand-alone systems when the real value lies in the ability of these systems to cross-reference and share data. Integrating your company’s data collection and analytic systems allows operators to extract substantially more value from collected data. Expanding integration beyond your company’s internal systems to external data adds even more value. A good example of the benefits of integrating with external systems is the advances experienced in field monitoring capabilities. Expanding geographic information systems coupled with progress in sensor technology is providing new opportunities for noninvasive plant disease detection and other field monitoring activities.
  • Watch for problem displacement. By focusing on solving a problem with one part of your system without consideration of its consequences, you may inadvertently create problems in other areas. Many in the leafy greens processing segment of the produce industry learned the lesson of product displacement and system integration when automating their production lines. It was quickly learned that bin dumpers, wash lines, drying systems, elevator speeds and bagging machine rates had to be fully integrated or efficiencies went down and lines needed to be adjusted to prevent idle equipment time. Today we see that we not only need to match equipment to work together and communicate with each other, but equipment construction and food safety properties are also important. For example, some companies are transforming production lines and installing automated systems to reduce labor inputs but also understanding that while automation can reduce human contact, proper equipment construction is also needed to enable proper sanitation. Both will improve product safety. This means robotic systems have to be built to withstand the harsh chemicals and processes involved with daily cleaning and sanitizing activities.
  • Be prepared to examine the whole production system for modifications when introducing new technologies. It is commonplace to focus on the design of an automated harvester or wash line and perhaps overlook the downstream and upstream ramifications that piece of equipment might have on the overall operation. For example, what may get lost in the design and technical elegance of a harvester are the modifications to overall romaine production agronomy and handling to fully take advantage of the automated harvester. Ground preparation to enable the jet cutter harvester is critical. To maximize yield and provide a “target” region for the water jet cutter to strike the plant, varieties have to be selected that exhibited a more upright posture and a tighter leaf wrapping so as not to interfere with the water jet. Of course, the harvest platform itself had to be developed to not only facilitate the movement of the cutting head down a row, but also to transport romaine to a small work crew to load bins or totes. The harvest equipment had to be constructed of stainless steel and be made to be easily washed down and sanitized daily. Drives and speed adjustments had to be made so that harvest rates could be synchronized with packing rates. Finally, adjustments were needed downstream in the processing plant itself to permit proper handling of these new varieties of romaine and the products made from the romaine had to be adjusted to assure customers continued to receive high quality products. This systems approach has been critical to the overall success of the automated harvest machine. One can certainly envision the importance of these same considerations for other automated or mechanized harvest solutions or processing lines.

It is important to note that once you make a technology investment and you are in operation, the work is not done. A technology roadmap is a dynamic, fluid, continuous process of evaluating your systems to ensure the company is meeting its objectives. Part of the roadmap process is to routinely assess the operating systems to make sure they are accomplishing what they were intended to and to look for new opportunities to improve. Assessment includes asking whether you are gleaning all you can from the available data and whether there are any remaining data gaps. It is asking whether your systems could be providing more value to your operations and whether your resources might be put to better use than they currently are.