With new technologies and developments come new possibilities in terms of production efficiency. Many manufacturers are wondering if they should stick to their manual batching processes or venture into the switch towards an automated system. The decision is not easy and both approaches clearly have their pros and cons. In manual processes the operators perform the tasks which normally contributes to a higher degree in flexibility or manual control. At the same time, it usually involves a higher error rate and leads to inefficiencies in the process chain as well as initial investment.
Sharon Nowak, Business Development Manager for the Food and Pharma industry has worked with numerous manufacturers and has the experience to know exactly which criteria should be looked at before committing to an automatic batching process.
Is the switch from a manual to automatic batching worthwhile? - Five factors to consider before switching to an automatic batching process.
- Current manual process time: This includes total time currently dedicated to the manual transfer of the ingredients/powders to the weigh station as well as the time currently being taken to manually weigh the batches. For example, when evaluating a system where bags are loaded to a process in a specific weight, the engineer must look at not only how long it takes to weigh the precise amount to go into the process, but also how long it takes for the operators to transfer and open the bags from their point of origin. If the system were automated with a type of pneumatic transfer device moving the product direct to a weigh station above the process, then overall batch times could be significantly decreased, allowing for additional batches to be run in a shift and production efficiency to increase.
- Ingredient costs: A manual system such as that described above can also include a high degree of error in actual batch accuracies. These inaccuracies can easily add up to added ingredient costs and deviations from product quality. Integrating automatic batch weighing devices such as gain in weight hoppers on load cells or in conjunction with volumetric feed devices, or loss in weight (LIW) feeding devices can help to improve overall batching accuracies considerably, thus saving on ingredient costs as well as product quality.
- Overall Labor costs: In addition to the time requirements above, manual transfer and weighing of the ingredients can be very labor intensive. Automation of material handling and weighing of the ingredients can reduce this labor cost significantly.
- Evaluation of batch amounts of major, minor and micro ingredients: In some cases where a product recipe may require a large number of ingredients, with many small percentages of minute ingredients or “micros”, it may be more cost efficient to combine automated and manual batching. Automated material handling and batching would be recommended for the majors and minors, with manual batch weighing of the micros. This also needs to be evaluated against ingredient costs; however, since some high value micro ingredients can be batched using LIW feeders with very high accuracies. This would then result in better ingredient cost savings as per above.
- Requirements for product and process safety: An automated batching system can also result in significant improvements in product and process safety as well as product quality. A typical automated system, whether material is being delivered from drums, bags, IBC’s, or super-sacks typically includes an unloading station and then transfer to a batch weighing station. A variety of system design options can be easily integrated into this system to prevent any ingress of foreign material into the product, or egress of powder out into the plant environment. It is important when evaluating any batching system design that full discussions be held with the system provider to understand the options available. Finally, it is important to note that especially now in the time of COVID 19, automated batching and dispensing stations will greatly minimize interaction of operators, thus helping to maximize social distancing and improving overall process safety.