We take for granted what an important role electricity plays in the food chain; from powering microwaves to keeping fridge-freezers running. Yet even before products reach the hands of consumers, a constant supply of reliable power is required to ensure that food is produced safely and properly. Steve Hughes, Managing Director of power quality specialist REO UK, explains how electrical engineers can protect food manufacturing plants from power quality problems.
The food industry has changed significantly in the last two decades. Due to fluctuating consumer demand and tightening legal requirements, food manufacturers have been required to invest in new means of operating effectively. This has typically involved plant managers investing in new technologies, from more efficient equipment to digital data-collection software.
For example, the alarming number of food recalls in recent years has led to a legislative push for better traceability of ingredients. This particularly came to the fore after the infamous horsemeat scandal of 2013, which significantly damaged the public’s perception of the food industry. As such, manufacturers must now keep comprehensive data on every part of an ingredient’s journey, which is only possibly with data collection software.
However, this is not the only way that food production facilities are changing. In addition to the rising prevalence of data collecting sensors and software, there are many new pieces of equipment being installed to improve process efficiency and product quality.
In particular, plant managers are turning to packaging equipment that uses laser microperforation to control packaging airflow and therefore improve product shelf life. This equipment uses lasers to create very small and evenly spaced holes in packaging in a consistent and efficient fashion.
Each of these developments is good news for consumers, who have more assurances of product quality and freshness. However, they pose a challenge for electrical engineers tasked with ensuring high plant power quality as few plant managers immediately consider upgrading power supplies when specifying new technology.
For example, laser microperforation equipment uses high frequencies that significantly hinder the performance of conventional power supplies. This means that usage of the equipment causes power quality problems, including voltage fluctuations that result in decreased laser power output and an unpredictable performance. If the equipment is not performing properly, it is unlikely that the food packaging will be as breathable as it should be and this leads to inaccurate best-before dates and a possible risk to consumers.
To address this problem, electrical engineers must ensure that the equipment has an effective switch mode power supply (SMPS) that can handle the unique demands of the application. This can be challenging, as every operating situation is different and off-the-shelf power supplies may not be suitable for a particular set up.
The best course of action is for electrical engineers to consult a power quality specialist that can provide an effective solution. REO UK, for example, designed the REOTRON SMP due to customers requesting a product that could make laser perforation equipment reliable.
This SMPS uses specialised control algorithms on capacitive loads so engineers can maintain voltage and current accurately, leading to a lower project reject rate. It also features liquid cooling that can be easily connected to the existing liquid cooling systems used by most lasers.
The REOTRON SMP can also be connected to remote monitoring modules such as the REODATA-GSM. This provides performance data that plant managers can use to determine if and when maintenance is needed. As with the other data that plant managers must collect during the production process, electrical engineers should install effective power line communication (PLC) filters to remove harmonics that occur due to data transmission and high frequencies on power networks.
With these power quality problems addressed, food can be monitored effectively as it moves safely along the production line and arrives in stores with a good shelf life. From there, it’s only a matter of powering fridges and electric ovens to see the food through the final part of the food chain.