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IoT Data Management Targets Food Safety at Processing Plants

May 13th, 2018 Retail - Manufacturing - Features
By Claire Swedberg
Somax offers a maintenance-management system for Internet of Things data that links to a sanitation department and offers prescriptive maintenance, follow-up sanitizing and quality control to help prevent contaminations.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is poised to help boost food safety from farm to consumer, and the technology development and deployment have been taking place on multiple fronts: from smart-farming tools to cold-chain management. But many contaminations take place at food-processing plants, and IoT technology is also being used to prevent these incidents by enabling the monitoring of equipment and conditions as products are processed. This alerts companies when a potential for contamination is present, such as with warm temperatures or the presence of fluids.

Food processors typically have stringent food-safety guidelines in place, and many use sensors to monitor conditions. But the actual following-through on food-safety recommendationssuch as the British Regulatory Compliance (BRC) and Safe Quality Food (SQF) standardsmay be a weak link for many companies, says Jay Wright, the sales and marketing VP of maintenance management software company Somax.

While food-processing equipment is becoming smarter and can capture relevant data about conditions, there is still little consistency in how that information is stored and accessed. Food-processing plants also face an internal challenge related to the separation of their maintenance and sanitization departments, Wright says. The two departments often operate independently, he explains, so when maintenance is conducted, the need for sanitization follow-up might not be communicated to the proper individuals, and records of what has occurred may be incomplete. Maintenance can often introduce sanitation problems in the food-processing operations.

Somax has been providing maintenance-management solutions for the food- and beverage-processing industry for the past three decades. During the last five years, however, it has focused on linking maintenance and sanitization data to prevent contaminations, as well as on offering IoT-based data management. Most recently, the firm began offering sensors64 different types so farthat track conditions such as temperature, humidity and vibrations, as well as door-closure data, all collected wirelessly.

Companies such as Dean Foods, Kings Hawaiian and Tennessee Bun Co. are using Somax software to manage maintenance and sanitizing, with plans to incorporate IoT sensor-based data.

With most IoT solutions, Wright says, "The challenge is that there are disparate systems for maintenance and sanitation. The information is in completely different systems or databases," and many lack any communication. Therefore, in some cases, maintenance may take place without proper follow-through on sanitization.

Systems like FactoryTalk, from Rockwell Automation, capture equipment-specific information and bring it into a central repository for analysis. Equipment manufacturer CERTUSS makes IoT sensors for its steam generators used in food processing, as do similar companies that serve food processors.

These processing machines come with sensors and software to manage data, and each machine often becomes its own isolated island.

Somax offers a layer that sits on top of this kind of data, in order to create actionable insights, as well as drawing data from Somax's own external sensors from legacy equipment. The company's app and software are designed to complete much of the problem-solving for a food-processing plant before staff members need to intervene. The system is designed to provide prescriptive maintenance that not only identifies a pending problem, but also prescribes possible solutions.

Skilled Labor Assistance
Technology such as the Internet of Things can not only bridge gaps between departments, Wright says, but also take on work that was previously managed by skilled employees. In fact, he notes, when it comes to challenges in both maintenance and sanitization at processing plants, the number-one concern is in hiring and retaining skilled labor. Many employees are short-term, may lack the experience to respond to a wide variety of challengessuch as a failing motor or unexpected conditionsand may not speak English as a first language.

So although the plant has proper operational and safety procedures in place, with sensors capturing data to understand the conditions of equipment and the atmosphere around the product, employees might not always respond appropriately to the data. "Most plants are very good at setting up the proper food-safety plants," Wright states. "Following the plan is what can be harder."

With the Somax solution, the sensors can collect data often on a minute-by-minute basis. Previously, that task was carried out manually, and far less frequently. The software sets up parameters that should not be exceeded, including temperature or vibration levels. If the data indicates a problem, the software uses all of the available sensor-based data to determine the best corrective action. For instance, if a motor is overheating, it can determine what steps are required to troubleshoot, repair or replace that equipment before it can fail.

Users at the plant can carry a mobile phone or tablet running the iOS- or Android-based Somax app. Upon receiving an alert, they report to the location of concern and follow the steps provided to address the problem. Once finished, they then select that prompt and forward a request to the quality assurance or quality control officer.

The system prompts the sanitization department to dispatch a worker to properly sanitize the area, in order to prevent product contamination. The software then stores data regarding the procedures completed, and provides the plant with a record of that event, along with notifications if any proper procedures did not take place.

Rodent Traps and Temperature Rises
Most food-contamination issues occur due to a lack of proper sanitization at the processing plant. Therefore, Wright says, a system such as this one is poised to prevent many of those issues, simply by identifying problems and recommending corrective actions.

For instance, some plants use IoT-based rodent traps, which can be deployed around the facility's exterior to ensure rats or mice never reach food and related ingredients. If a sensor detects that a trap has been triggered, that data is forwarded to the software, which then transmits a notification that the trap needs to be checked. The information includes data indicating the processes required to dispose of a rodent, reset the trap and ensure that proper sanitization takes place.

One of the greatest health concerns is in regard to temperature levels. If ambient temperatures exceed a healthy level within a processing area, the Somax software can direct individuals to the place of concern. The employees can use the app to help identify what is causing the rise in temperature, ensure they have addressed the problem and report to sanitization if cleaning is necessary to ensure that no bacteria has formed.

Legacy systems often do not come with sensors, however, and that is where Somax's own sensors, using a proprietary wireless system, come in. The sensors (which Somax has been selling for the past year) transmit data every minute to a gateway located up to 1,000 feet away. The gateway can collect data from as many as 250 sensors, and then forward that information to a server via a cellular connection or an Ethernet cable. The cost of Somax sensor starts at $50 each, while the gateway is priced at $350 and access to the data costs $100 per month. As such, Wright says, an entire system can be up and running, in many cases, for less than $1,000. By reducing the need for the manual checking of sensors, he adds, and by identifying and prescribing solutions to problems, it can provide a return on investmentin some cases, within hours of deployment.

The next step for Somax is to provide automatic sensor recommendations and suggested corrective actions for each new piece of networked equipment a customer installs. That feature will be released by the end of this year, the company indicates.