Fully-Automated Cheese Brine System
When you see a horse pulling a little black buggy like in the picture above the last thing that may come to mind is industrial automation. That was a true statement for myself also until being involved with a fully automated cheese brining project with an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) that was installed in a cheese plant in the middle of an Amish community. This is an example of a smart forward-looking business owner knowing that to stay competitive they must automate. This investment allowed for a process to be run “lights-out” (with minimal operators required). Through the investment the end customer was able to increase productivity, improve quality, and ultimately remain competitive in the United States and globally. The OEM had installed several manually operated brine systems in the past and was now listening to the market and providing a fully automated solution. With a manual system, the tasks are labor intensive, and several operators are required to run the equipment. The systems also required hydraulics to move the staging cages. Hydraulic systems are historically challenging to maintain and require great attention, especially when dealing with food product. Sure Control’s Customer the cheese equipment manufacturer had the following goals, in conjunction with their customer:
- Eliminate the hydraulic system with a fully automated electromechanical servo system.
- Reduce the number of people required to operate the system.
- Create an automatic inventory that monitors the time in brine and alerts production when cheese blocks have completed their cycle
The automated system consists of 18 servo driven cages, eliminating the need for hydraulics. The hydraulics were replaced with custom engineered food grade Parker Hannifin ETH Electric Cylinders. The cages are used to stage the cheese blocks in the brine solution for an operator determined amount of time. The servo system is a Rockwell Kinetix 6500 system communicating via Ethernet to a Contrologix PLC.
The system also has 36 vision cameras (one on the inlet and one on the outlet side of each cage) allowing automatic staging of cheese blocks in cages. The vision cameras control air operated gates that create brine solution flow which controls the movement of the blocks of cheese. This automatic movement reduces the requirement for operators to control the flow of product.
The cages are programmed to track the total number of blocks of cheese in each cage and the time submerged in solution. When the dwell time has expired, the HMI informs the operator that a cage is ready to unload. The operator then initiates the unload process and the servo driven electric cylinder system advances the cages until the cheese is unloaded. Once unloaded, the blocks float down to a conveyor that moves them to packaging.
The Smile Delivered 😊
Acceptance of the system required continuous operation of the system without issues. With a few minor updates to improve cheese block movement, the cheese processor achieved these results. In addition, with the implementation of this system, the cheese processing company was able to realize all three goals of eliminating hydraulics, reducing workforce, and improved WIP management. Here at Sure Controls we measure success by whether a customer is smiling at the end of doing business with us. This was a great challenge for all parties involved and through the process the OEM (our customer) and the team at Sure Controls were able to deliver a 😊.