Once the preserve of technology-driven corporate executives, wireless technology is increasingly making its mark in the food processing sector. One of the leading exponents of the technology has been APV's, which has developed a radio tagging system for the food and dairy industry.
As part of a range of traceability solutions APV, a business unit of Invensys , developed the radio frequency 'tagging' system for mobile tanks, known as 'pods'. It enables the control system to monitor a product batch throughout its lifecycle wherever it is located in the plant.
APV claims that the system has been widely acclaimed by retailers and food manufacturers alike for its contribution to product safety and was recently chosen for installation at two modern food process plants in the UK.
APV says the basis of the radio tagging system is that it delivers increased production efficiencies. Previously a product might have been heated in a mix tank and hot filled into large size pouches. These pouches were then chilled in a tumble chiller and manually loaded onto "tote bins" which in turn were taken to the chilled room. Manual intervention was again required to carry the pouched products for mixing with other ingredients or for packaging.
By contrast, APV says that its system involves heating the product in the same way, but in this case it is passed to a scraped surface heat exchanger and chilled to the desired temperature before being consigned to a pod.
Larger batches of consistent product can be made available for further meal preparation, which is another advantage of the tagging system, APV claims. In the production of ready meals, for example, 'pods' full of different sauces can be transported to the ready meals preparation area and pumped into hoppers for depositing individually into the different recipes. As the pods contain far larger quantities of product than the pouches, there will be fewer interruptions to production caused by a shortage of a specific sauce.
Each pod has a specially designed 'electronic signature' which is transmitted to the control room. This allows the status of the pod to be tracked at any stage of the process. Production staff can identify the type and age of the product, whether the pod is empty or full, or awaiting a cleaning cycle. This, APV says, not only contributes to plant efficiency, but, even more importantly, it supports the need to improve plant hygiene.
The operator can check the tracking cycle to establish whether the pod has been cleaned prior to refill. In addition, there is a 'fail-safe' mechanism, which automatically prevents refilling in the event that the pod is mistakenly connected to the filling station without first passing through a cleaning routine.
The system has also been designed so as the product temperature can be monitored from the point at which the product passes into the pod for transfer to the chilled room and finally combined with other ingredients or packaged into containers. According to APV, this means that the plant operator is alerted if the temperature of the processed product rises above predefined limits. The system also logs when the product has been consigned to the cold room, providing an audit trail which helps manufacturers to monitor the entire supply chain and ensure that the product is removed in chronological order.
The system incorporates automated yield reporting to provide an assessment on product losses. In addition to being more accurate than existing paper system, APV says that these reports alert production staff to any increase in product losses and help pinpoint where they might be occurring so that the necessary remedial action can be taken.
With increasing legislation for production audits and product traceability, APV says it has been concentrating its efforts to help manufacturers maintain and improve quality levels. The company added that it is resting its hopes for the success of the radio tagging system on its ability to accurately track each batch of product. Furthermore it is hoping that the system's ability to increase efficiency and reduce costs will in turn lead to its take up on on a global basis.