How to Write Better Electrical Specifications for Food Manufacturing Equipment

There are certain performance expectations your food processing equipment should meet to maximize your return on investment (ROI). Failing to establish and standardize equipment specifications (specs) during the procurement process can directly impact your plant’s safety, sanitation, efficiency and profitability.

You may be thinking, “But Michael, I already have a specs list written out, and it’s worked perfectly for us so far.” And that may be true! However, in my experience, many small- and mid-sized companies have room to improve in this area. 

Often, growing companies will have a simple specifications list that isn’t robust enough to be practical when scaling up or building a brand-new production line or food plant. Other times, their existing equipment specifications list may underperform because it was developed years ago and hasn’t been updated to reflect the latest technology or government regulations. The list goes on.

Many factors must be addressed while developing an equipment specifications list for vendors. In this blog post, we’ll focus on electrical specifications, an often overlooked area that can completely derail a project when done incorrectly.

9 factors that impact the effectiveness of your electrical specs

1. Hardware brands

As food manufacturers incorporate more complex automation into their facilities, it’s a good practice to standardize the hardware throughout their process areas. Specifying a particular brand of hardware will simplify maintenance, mitigate the risk of operator error and reduce the number of controls and spare parts needed for individual processing lines.

For example, if you mix and match American Allen-Bradley hardware protocols and European Siemens hardware protocols in your plant, you’ll need to find a maintenance team that can safely perform work on both or hire additional qualified personnel for the separate hardware. Some original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) may charge extra to adopt your standards, such as a German OEM that typically uses Siemens hardware. In my experience, it’s often worthwhile to specify your standard platform upfront.

2. Communication protocols

Each facility has its own manufacturing execution system (MES) that tracks and analyzes production data to provide real-time insight into production metrics, line status and inventory.  Integrating multiple systems to automate a line becomes more complex when individual pieces of equipment are manufactured using different platforms. Sending OEMs your standardized communication protocols during the bid process can lead to a smoother product handoff and faster startup.

3. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs)

A common mistake I see in facilities is mismatched or outdated programmable logic controllers (PLCs) between different pieces of equipment. This is less important if the components don’t interact, but since the PLC is the “brain” of automation equipment, it can lead to failure in interconnected lines.

While it’s possible to integrate a line with different PLCs, it’s certainly easier and quicker if all equipment is manufactured using the same communication protocols. Consider a facility with a line that includes a weighing system, packaging machine and palletizing system. All three pieces of equipment must have communication wiring connecting them to streamline product handoff, report faults and automatically start or stop a line depending on the analyzed conditions. A communication error at any point can cause a stop in production. Also, troubleshooting errors becomes more difficult when trying to interface between different PLCs, such as Allen Bradley and Siemens PLCs.

It can also get expensive to resolve issues between equipment with different hardware. In one project I worked on, we solved interlocking communications between two pieces of equipment by adding a secondary PLC on the upstream equipment that matched the downstream equipment on the line, with the sole job of translating I/O from one communication protocol to the other to enable automatic start/stop functionality and error reporting. Before that upgrade, each piece of equipment operated standalone and required manual reset and restart of the line. This solution cost the owners thousands of dollars in hardware alone, not to mention the downtime due to programming and debugging the upgraded system.

4. Human-machine interface (HMI) configurations

Owners can design their plant’s HMI configurations to reflect a variety of preferences. For example, do they want a low-performance controller that is PC-based or an advanced HMI controlled by the PLC? Maybe somewhere in between fits your budget.

Regardless of the final selection, standardizing HMI configurations will ease operation for plant personnel and prevent disruptions in production. For instance, I’ve worked with facilities that use multiple programming laptops with different versions of Windows and programming software to support their legacy equipment alongside the more modern equipment. Imagine if your maintenance team has to troubleshoot six different types of HMI software. That will only extend downtime while the manufacturer sorts through the appropriate protocols. 

5. The specific food plant environment

The environment impacts both how equipment is manufactured and how much it will cost. Your specs should clearly distinguish the different areas within your plant to prevent incompatibility issues and sticker shock. 

For example, non-washdown areas typically have cheaper requirements than ready-to-eat processing areas where equipment and control panels are exposed to vigorous sanitation procedures. The electrical specifications for equipment and installation should clearly define the materials and methods of construction to suit the environment, including the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) or IP6X level of the panels, standoff supports for conduit and shields for HMIs.

6. Evolving technologies

It’s important to avoid getting gridlocked in the “We’ve always done it this way” mentality. Technology evolves rapidly in the food manufacturing industry and even more quickly in the world of electrical controls and automation. As you’re developing or updating your specs, invest time researching current best practices and the latest advancements.

I highly recommend working with an experienced system integrator who can help identify opportunities to improve the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) of your machinery and processing lines. For example, a knowledgeable partner might recommend additional automation opportunities or updating the control system in your equipment to a faster processor with advanced data collection capabilities. 

7. Facility age and project scope

If you’re building a brand-new facility, you have the opportunity to integrate the best of the best into your specifications. The slate is clean, and the world is your oyster.

Upgrading or expanding an existing facility requires additional legwork — and may require more capital investment. First, identify the current specifications used in the facility. Depending on the setup and age of the system and the size of your project, it may be more cost-effective long term to upgrade the entire facility to the latest technology. 

An outdated system could drive up the cost of working with an OEM. Consider a facility’s plant network that uses technology from 1999 and doesn’t have ethernet capabilities. You wouldn’t specify that each OEM needs to provide an ethernet switch, but that missing component may require the OEM to use legacy protocols. Owners often pay a premium for the OEM to source legacy control hardware and integrate it because it’s a custom job. At some point, the system will also become so outdated that parts will be unavailable altogether. Evaluate your opportunities and upgrade to keep up with the competition!

8. The level of detail

Specifications provide a standardized measure for quality control in your facility — but only if done correctly. Vague, unclear and/or incomplete specifications can reduce their effectiveness and significantly delay the procurement, purchase and installation process. 

An OEM or electrical contractor responding to a request for proposals (RFP) with ambiguous specifications may fill in the blanks using their own standards, which are not guaranteed to match your desired caliber. Did they give the low bid because they cut a few corners? This can affect equipment efficiency, reliability and function, sanitary conditions and even require rework in the event of a failed system integration. 

9. OSHA and NFPA requirements

Make sure your specifications require compliance with the latest versions of all applicable codes and regulations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) adjust their requirements yearly to reflect the latest safety standards. Ensure your specifications don’t hinder compliance, especially in older facilities. Pay close attention to ingress and egress codes, since they change often. NFPA 70 covers the National Electrical Code (NEC), which is the benchmark for safe electrical design and installation. 

Working with a qualified partner

I’ll conclude with a final piece of advice: Lean on a knowledgeable partner throughout this process. There are a myriad of factors to consider when developing and reviewing your specs list. The last thing you want is to overlook a detail that could create challenges and delays for your personnel and operation. 

At Stellar, we partner with plant owners to ensure every detail of their facility — from wire colors and case packaging to hygienic design — is tailored to meet their business needs and goals while adhering to the strict codes and regulations of the food manufacturing industry.

Want to learn more about how to improve and standardize your specifications to facilitate the equipment procurement process? Email us at foodforthought@stellar.net or give us a call at 800.488.2900.

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