Wireless boosts productivity, plant safety at Sugar Creek

Wireless technology allows meat processor to closely track in-process products as well as plant personnel

By Kevin Higgins

sugar creek

“We’re pushing responsibility for success in the process to the lowest level.” Sugar Creek’s Edward Rodden discussed how the company’s wireless infrastructure investment is equipping its production teams with the information they need to improve productivity.

Data transmission beyond a tightly controlled closed loop is nothing new for Sugar Creek Packing Co.—“We’ve used Emerson’s mesh wireless networks for seven years,” noted Edward Rodden, chief information officer—but a newly minted plant in Indiana that includes a highly automated production line provided an opportunity to create a fully connected factory of the future. Much of the plant’s new wireless communications and analytics capabilities leverage solutions from technology provider Cisco Systems. Cisco’s RJ Mahadev, lead-IoE service solutions, joined Rodden in describing the company’s new facility and technology-enabled initiatives at the Smart Industry 2015 conference.

Founded in 1966, Sugar Creek is a copacker, manufacturing further processed bacon and other protein products under contract for branded food companies and foodservice operators, such as restaurant chains. Second-generation ownership nurtured organic growth that tripled revenue since 2000, with a production network of five facilities. Last year, Sugar Creek embarked on its most ambitious growth plan to date: acquisition of a brownfield site in the Indianapolis area and expansion to 418,000 sq. ft. The new plant, which was commissioned in July, is expected to generate $350 million in annual revenue. “We will finish the year with well over $600 million” in company revenue, Rodden said.

Brick and mortar is the least of the changes. The Cambridge City, Ind., site boasts one of North America’s highest capacity lines utilizing the sous vide process (literally, “under vacuum”), a water-emersion technique favored by fine chefs but new to high-volume food. To optimize use of the new technology, management determined a new approach to production was warranted. Eschewing the top-down structure typical in meat plants, high-performance work teams with significant autonomy were put into place. To be effective, those teams need quick access to real-time machine and sensor data.

Wireless enable analytics

Pork bellies are a major raw material in Sugar Creek’s operations, and the company had introduced a pork belly procurement system based on radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags affixed to the 700-1,100 carriers in its facilities that transport each belly through the production process. Cook temperature, smokehouse dwell time and other factors affecting product shrink are captured by sensors and transmitted via the RFID tags to a data historian. That experience increased the firm’s comfort with the more ambitious infrastructure installed in Cambridge City, though the goal was the same: increased productivity. To achieve its goals, “We’re pushing responsibility for success in the process to the lowest level,” Rodden said. Raw materials constitute 70 percent of production cost, and a one-point increase in yield would more than offset the $6 million capital cost for the project.

Video surveillance constitutes a big chunk of the cost. The plant has 254 cameras protected by stainless-steel enclosures, adding literal meaning to the term plant visibility. To illustrate how cameras and wireless communication enhance visibility, Rodden described a hypothetical plant visit by a key customer, a common scenario in today’s food manufacturing relationships.

The plant manager greets the customer and rep when they arrive and gives them temporary security badges, which are implanted with a real time locating system (RTLS) that will track their movements during the visit. The customer may request process data isolated in production machines, triggering an iPad request from the plant manager to IT to populate the data in an isolated server. Before leaving, the customer receives an e-mail with instructions on how to access the data.

Personnel tracking boosts plant safety

Tracking visitors’ movements would constitute a poor return on the company’s $6 million investment, Rodden conceded, but his example highlights the plant connectivity the installation was designed to provide. Plant refrigeration is delivered through 80,000 lbs. of ammonia, and if sensors detected a leak, a network sensor would determine wind direction and the location of all personnel before broadcasting an evacuation notice and the best exit route to radios, phones and other devices.

“We’re all worried about security,” Cisco’s Mahadev observed, “but we never have a budget to deal with it. Think of securing the plant and information for the sake of operations,” including secure access by customers to data and vendors to the programs they have installed. 

Mahadev advocates an outcomes-based approach to implementation. “What hurts enough to spend money?” he asked. “If you’re not clear about what you need, IoT [Internet of things] vendors will sell you things you don’t really want to buy.”

Just as the Internet disrupted people’s shopping patterns and entertainment options, it will usher in sweeping changes to industry. More than 25 percent of today’s Fortune 500 companies no longer will exist in 10 years, said Mahadev, citing a Cisco study. On the other hand, a recent SCM World/Cisco survey titled “Smart Manufacturing and IoT” concluded that end-users who have embraced the technology have cut unplanned downtime and product defects in half, to 5.8 percent from 11 percent in the case of downtime and 2.5 percent from 4.9 percent for defects.

Resolving existing problems drives many connected factory projects, he said, though that’s the worst case scenario. Cost reductions via optimized operations are a better motivation, and the best scenario is a desire to expand capabilities and increase revenues. Sugar Creek’s sous vide initiative exemplifies this, concluded Mahadev.

The three-phase Cambridge City project got underway a year and a half ago, according to Rodden. RTLS and video analytics integration currently is being addressed. He estimated project completion in about a year’s time.

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