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CASE STUDY

How Rutgers Food Innovation Center Used Automation to Boost Food Quality and Save Time

“We definitely don’t want to go back to the way we were doing it. It was too much work and didn’t pay off.” –Steve Baughman, Senior Maintenance Mechanic for Rutgers Food Innovation Center

Challenge

The Rutgers Food Innovation Center (FIC), based in New Jersey, is a globally recognized business incubator program that supports both domestic and global food companies with product development, market research, sensory analysis, and quality assurance. Additionally, a primary focus of their program is to guide companies with the process of manufacturing food products for public sale in an FDA/USDA-inspected operation.

However, using manual processes for temperature control was making it difficult to deliver a consistent experience for clients and was requiring additional staff time to monitor the processes.

“We couldn’t really tell when you should open the valve,” says Julie Elmer, associate director of food technology at Rutgers Food Innovation Center. “You could see the pounds of pressure, but it wasn’t refined in any way that you could actually set the temperature like you can on an oven. It was just open the valve, okay, close it down. It’s not the kind of cooking you want to do when you’re doing food manufacturing. It requires you to constantly mind the kettle to make sure it’s not getting too hot.”

There were also issues with the transition from the kettle into the filling operation. “We have certain stipulations to meet certain temperature minimums in the packaging process. We need to keep as close to that temperature to keep the quality of the product,” notes Elmer.

However, this was also difficult to do with no precise way to control the temperature. “I can’t tell you how many times in our less refined system we had problems where the temperature would get too hot and the product at the end of the run would not be as good as at the beginning,” says Elmer.

Another pain point was that to meet FDA regulations for tracking equipment temperatures, the FIC had to have someone manually check the temperatures on all the fridges and freezers twice a day and log the data.

“Nothing was automated. Everything was manual,” says Steve Baughman, senior maintenance mechanic. “We had to adjust temperature control manually with the thermometer. The changeovers were also all manual, so it took a lot of extra time.”

Solution

Through a partnership with Omega, the Rutgers Food Innovation Center was able to automate their temperature control processes.

“We saw there was an opportunity to help Rutgers improve their processes and that the Rutgers Food Innovation Center could also serve as a showcase for the products and solutions Omega offers,” says Frank Paytas, a sales manager at Omega.

Using Omega microprocessor-based PID controllers and a wireless sensor transmitter system combined with Omega Enterprise Gateway (OEG) data logging and monitoring software, Omega was able to bring a new level of control to the entire food manufacturing process at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center.

“Having the level of controls and the automation to produce the product as best in class as possible is really part of our objective to supporting companies here,” says Lou Cooperhouse, executive director of Rutgers Food Innovation Center.

With temperature sensors in place, the FIC can now know with certainty what the temperature is of the food they are processing, track optimal temperatures for flavor and quality, and use the controllers to ensure consistent temperatures and consistent product quality.

“It used to be that they could get within 10 degrees of the accuracy for the temperature they were trying to achieve,” says Paytas. “Now they can get within 1-2 degrees.”


Additionally, with the sensors and controllers tied to their facility network so that data is transmitted to the OEG software, the FIC gets real-time visibility, even remotely, into the temperature status of their equipment as well as the ability to collect data over time to look at their processes to see where improvements can be made.

“Our ultimate goal,” says Elmer, “is to learn from the data and how to use it for new products where we’re in a similar category.”


Result

For the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, automating the temperature control and tracking during the manufacturing, packaging, and storage phases have created several key benefits:

  1. Significant time savings.

    Baughman estimates that automation has saved “hours of time.” He notes that with the OEG software even the time to set up and manage the automation is almost eliminated.
    “Now I go to a laptop, plug it in, and it’s done. It takes me longer to turn the laptop on that it does to program a controller. I used to program all our controllers one section at a time. There would be 300 parts to program and you had to manually enter each value. It was hours rather than seconds.”


  2. Improved quality of product.

    The risk of not having an automated process is overcooking or undercooking. For example, temperatures need to be above 165 degrees, but if you cook it over 190 degrees for too long, you’re going to burn it. “Now,” says Baughman, “for all three of my kettles I can set it at 185 degrees and it can go right from the kettle to the jar without problems.”
    Also, being able to track and store temperature profiles of how products are cooked can improve the flavor, quality, and consistency of a product. For example, when cooking spaghetti sauce, the FIC can see how long it cooked for and what the optimal temperature is for taste and then keep that temperature stable so there is consistency in the product.
    “Prior to automation, we would just open a steam valve. It was a rather primitive way of cooking. We didn’t optimize for flavor,” says Elmer. “Automation really does help the quality.”


  3. Remote monitoring.

    Another benefit has been the ability to ensure consistent food storage temperatures 24/7. Because the FIC is open during standard business hours there was the risk of fridges or freezers not maintaining consistent temperatures when no one was on site. However, with an automated temperature control system that uses Omega’s data logging and monitoring software, Omega Enterprise Gateway (OEG), they can remotely monitor temperatures, including receiving email alerts when temperatures vacillate outside the standard to avoid any food spoilage issues.
    “It’s very important to stay within the food safety zone temperature limits,” says Melanie O’Neill, the senior manager of production, facilities, quality, and compliance. “I have the software on my mobile phone and I can go in and remotely see what the temperatures are or get alerted via email.”


  4. Best practices in practice.

    For the FIC, it’s critical that their clients work in a facility that exhibits best practices. “We’re here to give our clients the guidance they need and the tools they need to be successful and that includes working in a facility that exhibits a great deal of hygiene and sanitation,” says Cooperhouse. “It also includes having equipment and operations that are best in class and enable our clients to produce their products consistently every single time.”
    Seeing how much automating temperature controls has helped them, Rutgers Food Innovation Center is happy they made the decision to add more automation to their facility. “We definitely don’t want to go back to the way we were doing it. It was too much work and didn’t pay off,” says Steve Baughman.