Getting food companies to integrate computers is a slow process, according to Smith and Wert. One reason is that the Food and Drug Administration is very cautious about approving new technologies. The agency requires food processors to validate the accuracy of computers and sensors, the two researchers say.
"We've come a long way in proving the efficiency and reliability of computers in food processing," Smith says. "But we still deal with a fear of technology and the mind-set that computers are like they were in the 1970s and '80s. Then, computers were bulky and expensive, and sensors were unreliable. Our work at Purdue is critical to show the accuracy of sensors to companies and to the Food and Drug Administration. We hope to prove that computer-integrated food processing is a win-win situation for the manufacturer and the consumer."
That "win-win" mind-set is shared by companies like Nestle, General Mills and snack-maker Frito-Lay, which are all on the cutting edge of computer-integrated food processing.
"Using computer-integrated manufacturing takes a lot of commitment by research and development departments and a fairly big investment in software, hardware and the re-education of the work force," Smith says. "But timeliness, product consistency and quality are the payoffs."
The research performed in the lab at Purdue not only is helping smooth the way for technology in food production, but it also is a conduit to the food industry for computer sensor and software manufacturers. Smith says the food industry is starting to embrace the value of production-line sensors that can measure complex food components, such as milk fat or the level of fructose in frozen grape juice.
"One tenth of one percent increase or decrease in fructose can cost a manufacturer $1 million per year," says Smith. "That makes a $10,000 to $40,000 electronic sensor, immersed in the product, a very good investment. The sensor can monitor the production process and sense chemical changes instantaneously. When such tests were performed manually, the changes often weren't noticed until the bad batch of juice was already packaged."
One recent project involved testing soup for a consistent viscosity. The product quality depends on the ingredients in the soup thickening to a desired consistency. The lab team members ran the soup through a pipeline by an electronic sensor (a Nametre Viscometer) that has a probe oscillating as the product passes by it. The computer test revealed the viscosity measurement in "real- time," while a manual test of viscosity would have taken 20 to 30 minutes to perform.
"Our job is to test the product both manually and with a sensor and correlate and compare the findings," Wert says. " If we can show the soup manufacturer a consistent result, the company will be more likely to integrate sensors and automation into the workplace."
Steve Bresnahan, senior project engineer at Frito-Lay headquarters in Plano, Texas, says automation not only saved money for his company, but, with one product line, also increased sales.
"We used a product moisture sensor to measure the in-process moisture of our tortilla chips," Bresnahan says. "The result, coupled with a model-based, closed-loop control system, was a more consistent finished product. When we applied a similar sensor and control to our potato chip process, consumer preference for our chip over our competitors' shot upward from parity to 70 percent just by making each chip consistently meet product design. And that turned around the sales for our potato chips."
Bresnahan adds that at Frito-Lay, automation doesn't necessarily replace people, it just allows them to function more efficiently.
"We're constantly in the process of re-educating our work force to meet the challenge of new technology," he says. "Because computers are doing the technical work, our workers can spend more time taste-testing and focusing on product quality."
According to Smith, new career opportunities are being created by computer-integrated food processing. The Purdue food science program is the largest in the country, and its graduates have experienced 100 percent job placement over the past 13 years. Smith says they are finding jobs with food companies on the verge of computer integration or with the computer sensor manufacturers.
"Our graduates have hands-on experience with the latest technology in computer-integrated food processing," he says. "And right now, that's a hot commodity."
Sources: Steve Smith (765) 494-7908; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Bresnahan (972) 334-4183
Writer: Kate Walker (765) 494-2073; e-mail, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
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