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An operator pushes a button to fill a hopper until the weight reaches a target and then releases the button

Image: Opto 22

Industrial Computers Cost-effective solutions for ingredient batching, material handling & mixing

Dec 15, 2017

The feature discusses how automation is the key to replace manual batching processes, which ultimately make measurements more accurate, results more predictable and products more uniform across different machines, shifts, and plants. A read on…

Whether it’s making sure that grains are stored without excess moisture, weighing raw materials for chemical production or batching and mixing ingredients for baked goods, automation is the key to better results. System integrator, JA King sees the benefits of automation every day.

Founded in 1939, the company provides products and services to customers in a wide variety of fields but customers’ bottom-line needs are similar—reducing costs, improving quality and accuracy and gaining more business insight through data.

Challenges faced

Based in North Carolina and with multiple locations throughout the southeast and mid-west, JA King specialises in precision measurement in automation and process control. From truck scales to calipers and from bulk bag handling to manual parts kitting systems, the company’s expertise often leads them to customers still using manual processes.

A typical JA King customer, for example, performs batching manually, using buttons and switches. An operator pushes a button to fill a hopper until the weight reaches a target and then releases the button. But a manual operation like this requires the operator’s full attention for an extended period of time. In addition, it’s subject to inaccuracies—variations that may affect product quality or cause raw material wastage.

The obvious answer is to engineer automated solutions to replace manual processes. With automation, operators can start a process and then move on to other tasks, measurements become more accurate and the results are more predictable, products are uniform across different machines, different shifts, and different plants, pre-programmed recipes let operators easily switch between products, more accurate raw material forecasting reduces waste and historical data provides traceability for compliance and quality analysis.

Reducing automation costs

But PLC-driven automation can be prohibitively expensive. To engineer a control system to automate ingredient batching, including material handling and mixing, JA King decided to use a more cost-effective PC-driven solution. One of their first steps was to find an automation supplier with both reliable hardware and inexpensive software drivers.

“Our introduction to Opto 22 came mainly through online research,” says Joey Spruill, Senior Software Developer, JA King. “Opto 22’s industrial Ethernet I/O is known for its quality—it just keeps on working. And their free .NET OptoMMP SDK library gives us exactly what we need for programming.”

Solution for batching projects

A typical batching solution, Spruill describes the company’s typical solution for multiple batching-type projects and states, “We use anywhere from one to three 16-slot SNAP PAC racks with SNAP PAC Ethernet I/O brains (SNAP-PAC-EB1 or SNAP-PAC-EB2), installed in a tall cabinet enclosure. Typically, one rack is dedicated to analog and digital inputs, with the other dedicated to digital outputs. All I/O connections are terminated in this cabinet using ABB terminal blocks.”

Inside the enclosure, the Ethernet I/O brains are connected to a 5-port Ethernet switch. The switch is also connected to a small PC enclosure, typically mounted in a different location than the I/O cabinet (for example, in an office). Both the I/O cabinet and PC enclosure are assembled at the main JA King facility in Whitsett, NC.

The PC, usually an Advantech fanless embedded PC, runs the custom process control and operator interface software that JA King has created. Each of the customised blending and batching systems JA King’s engineering department builds is slightly different and the engineers have built hundreds of them across many industries.

System monitoring

A touch screen connected to the PC provides an interface for local use. The I/O cabinet can also be connected to the facility network, allowing users in remote locations to run reports or monitor the system. If the PC is online, JA King engineers can also perform remote troubleshooting and install updates. This kind of solution is used in many locations for many types of batching applications.

I/O modules for measurement

Since ingredients in a process are typically measured by weight, Opto 22’s load cell input modules (SNAP-AILC) are used to read the load cell signals. Digital outputs control most material handling for belts, gates, valves, and so on. “If one of the ingredients is water or another liquid, we use meters to measure volume. This is typically done with Badger meters, whose output pulse signals per volume of material—for example, 10 pulses per gallon,” notes Spruill.

Digital input modules like the SNAP-IDC5 count these pulses using the SNAP-PAC-EB1 brain’s counting feature and then convert the count to volume in the PC software. Customers are universally pleased with the cost and time savings that JA King’s automated batching systems provide. And the company is pleased with Opto 22’s product reliability, open standards and a wide range of available I/O signal types.

Future design considerations

“Opto22 products, including the SNAP PAC controllers and I/O will continue to be a part of our design considerations for any new engineering projects, whether it’s batching, mixing, or any other type of automation,” says Spruill. “We also plan to make use of the newer REST APIs that come with SNAP PAC controllers and groove. Using REST and Node-RED, data produced by our systems can be easily integrated into larger facility collection and monitoring schemes.”

The article is authored by Jean Femia, Information Architect, Opto 22

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  • With automation, operators can start a process and then move on to other tasks

    Image: Opto 22

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