The last time you went to the grocery store, you probably didn’t give a thought to the number of food processing computers it took to prepare and package the food you put in your cart. You probably didn’t think about the environment of the food processing facilities either. But think about how the act of cooking dinner can make a mess in your kitchen. Multiply that by a few hundred thousand servings and you get an idea of the challenges that major food manufacturers face. Those challenges are particularly relevant when it comes to finding the best computers for food manufacturing.
Food Manufacturing Standards
The food product industry is subject to a huge number of regulatory standards and sanitation concerns. As a result, manufacturers are especially sensitive to ensuring that every part of their production line is optimized for speed, performance and cleanliness. In fact, the FDA has gone as far as establishing detailed standards for computerized systems in the food production industry. This makes it imperative for manufacturers to carefully scrutinize all of their food processing hardware decisions. It’s important for food manufacturers to understand the unique hardware challenges for the food industry. That includes 24/7 operation, the need to integrate legacy equipment and the unique environmental considerations inside a food manufacturing facility.
The 24/7 Challenge
In any manufacturing setting, the more goods you can produce, the more revenue you’re able to generate. Many food manufacturers operate their lines on extended, or even non-stop schedules. Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumer, and even many commercial computer systems, aren’t designed to run 24/7. The manufacturing industry has been a major motivator for the creation of industrial grade computer hardware that can stand up to the daily (and nightly) grind of creating products in a non-stop environment.
With industrial PC innovations in heat dissipation, as well as advancements in thin client computing, manufacturing facilities are now able to keep their lines moving with minimal worry about downtime. For food manufacturers that means that the HMI panels, machine vision systems and other industrial control elements of their line can be depended on to run with minimal downtime, freeing up technicians to work on system optimization rather than repairs.
Integrating Legacy Equipment
Modern innovations in wireless communication, combined with the need to adjust to the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), are causing some manufacturers to struggle to keep pace with evolving interconnectivity demands. Completely replacing legacy (outdated) equipment simply isn’t feasible in many food production facilities which may have been originally outfitted decades ago. The ability for newer systems, sensors and software to integrate with existing hardware is a common need for many IT and OT departments. It’s important to select a modern industrial computer that offers both legacy I/O, such as COM ports, as well as more modern connectivity options such as USB-C.
Specialized devices like custom IoT gateways can be installed to serve as the go-between for new and existing systems, providing the additional features and I/O necessary to leverage cloud connectivity and other technologies designed to increase operational efficiencies. In many cases however, solutions like this aren’t simply plug and play, which is why it’s important to work with an experienced hardware provider when selecting new manufacturing computers.
Environmental Considerations for Food Processing Computers
The sheer variety of food and beverage products being produced equates to a plethora of environmental concerns that can complicate the use of computer hardware. Environmental challenges might include:
- Heat from ovens, fryers, or boilers.
- Cold from refrigeration equipment.
- Moisture from evaporation processes, beverage manufacturing and cleaning.
- Vibration from manufacturing lines, mixing or blending equipment.
- Airborne particulates such as salt, seasonings or other flavoring powders.
The Challenge of Extreme Temperatures and Temperature Fluctuations
Temperatures vary for a number of reasons during food production. Usually, there are extreme temperature environments of one kind or another. Whether it’s conveyor ovens, huge frying tanks, hot air dryers, production coolers or flash freezers, both high and low temperatures can make reliable computing difficult for even the toughest hardware. And those fluctuations make it nearly impossible for consumer-grade systems.
For example, we worked with a potato chip manufacturer whose quality control system necessitated an industrial automation computer to be mounted near the exit of a conveyor oven. Not only was it subject to airborne oil particles, but it also needed to operate in constant temperatures in excess of 130°F (54°C).
Solution: Wide Temp Components
The fact is, the majority of standard computing hardware is still designed to operate in an office setting that is temperature-controlled. Industrial computer components, on the other hand, are specifically engineered to withstand extreme temperatures as low as -40°F (-40C) all the way to 160°F (70°C).
The Challenge of Moisture in the Air
A food processing facility is destined to be an area of high humidity. Food preparation often creates condensation. In addition, cleaning activities and solutions add to the moisture. For OSHA compliance, every surface in many food manufacturing environments is pressure washed to ensure bacteria-free handling and processing.
Solution: Water Resistant and IP65 Rated Computers
Be sure to select a food processing PC that is engineered to withstand moisture. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) has developed ingress protection (IP) ratings which grade the resistance of an enclosure against the intrusion of dust or liquids. Need the ability to hose down food processing computers at the end of the day? Make sure you select a fanless PC that is at least IP65-rated. That rating means that the hardware is “dust tight” and protected against powerful water jets.
The Challenge of Excessive Vibrations
A food processing plant is by nature a vibration prone environment. It can be caused from mixing and blending of food to the constant movements of conveyor belts and forklifts. As a result, vibration is an ever present occurrence. And, it can be a serious issue for an unprepared PC.
Solution: Fanless and Completely Solid State Systems
You can do a lot to mitigate PC damage from vibration. But, the first step is to select a computer with built in vibration resistance. A fanless system that is also completely solid state with no moving parts is a good choice. For an extremely shaky location, such as on a forklift, make sure to select one vibration tested to MIL-STD-810.
The Challenge of Airborne Particulate
It’s no secret that dust can cause a wide range of problems for computer systems. We talk to clients every day who remind us that dust comes in many forms. For example, a big part of what makes potato chips so popular is the seemingly endless number of different flavors. In most cases these flavorings are added after the cooking process in the form of powdered seasonings. Like dust, these seasonings can end up airborne and easily enter the vents of computer systems. Eventually, it can build up on internal components and cause system failures and downtime due to shorting and overheating.
Solution: Ventless Enclosures
Eliminating openings in the computer chassis eliminates the ability for airborne particulates to enter and build up on internal components. Ventless and fanless PCs are specially engineered to be cooled without internal airflow.
Summary: Choose a Food Processing Computer That’s Up for the Challenges of Food Manufacturing
For food manufacturers, environmental challenges are an ever-present concern. In most cases, standard computing equipment simply isn’t intended to be used in food processing facilities. Every manufacturing facility is unique, and standards and requirements can differ depending on the particular product. However, the importance of careful consideration when choosing industrial computing hardware can’t be overstated. The biggest change that any manufacturer can make to help cut downtime is eliminating points of failure. The two most common failure points for computer hardware are traditional hard drives and fans.
Not only do fanless and ventless enclosures eliminate component vulnerabilities on the manufacturing floor, they’re also far easier to clean and maintain. By pairing fanless and ventless PCs with solid state storage, food manufacturers can create a reliable computing solution with no moving parts and eliminate vulnerability to airborne spices, seasonings or other particulate.
Check out our customer story with Newly Weds Foods. We worked with them to find a solution to stand up to the environmental rigors of their production facility, including extreme temperatures and 24/7 operation.
Are you looking for a computer to manage your food manufacturing needs? Contact one of our knowledgeable experts to help you select the best computer for your project.