Case Study

Wildfire prompts fruit producer to upgrade automation

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Contributing Writer, Automation World
A wildfire engulfed Blue Bird’s Wenatchee, Washington, plant in 2015 and put pressure on the fruit producer to rebuild quickly. The rebuild included an industrial network upgrade and better equipment monitoring.

Recent wildfires in California have reminded us of Mother Nature’s fury and the helplessness of individuals and companies as they lose everything in moments. Just as the 2017 wildfires in Northern California wiped out vineyards, the 2015 wildfires in Washington State wiped out a key facility of legacy fruit producer Blue Bird, the oldest cooperative in Central Washington.

Before disaster struck, Blue Bird’s $10 million processing and packaging plant in Wenatchee, Washington, processed about 12 tons of cherries an hour and 600 bins of apples a day. The regional fruit company receives more than 750 acres of pears, cherries and apples from 193 co-op members.

Rebuilding afterwards meant populating the new plant with updated sensing and packaging equipment. Blue Bird also called in local system integrator AlarmPro to design an industrial networking infrastructure that could manage the larger volumes of data that would result from the new equipment. Like other U.S. food producers in the connected era, Blue Bird also wanted better data sharing between operations and its corporate office. The previous plant’s network was a patchwork of aging equipment, with unreliable performance that required hours for file transfers between local servers and off-site locations with very limited network security.

AlarmPro’s network design included D-Link’s DXS-3600 Series L2/L3 managed switches to support a wide range of features, such as a virtual local area network (VLAN), multicasting, quality of service (QoS), and security and routing functions. The plant's network design also uses an IBM AS/400 server to connect to distributed networks with web applications or work cells on the plant floor. Process and packaging equipment software connects to the AS/400 server and allows production data to move to the enterprise or throughout the plant.

“All packaging and boxing systems are segregated, and then they speak to a central server that is located off-site,” says Jon Herrera, owner of AlarmPro. “Some systems also talk to the grading and sizing equipment.”

With this distributed design, Blue Bird can monitor process and packaging lines via multiple control rooms in the facility, but also remotely. Equipment vendors can log in to view equipment parameters for maintenance insights. Plus, the managed switches enable Blue Bird to segment and prioritize its network traffic for better optimization and security.

IT protocols used for this network design include Open Shortest Path First (OSPF) and Multi-Chassis Link Aggregation Group (MC-LAG), which provide redundancy.

The Wenatchee fruit facility's new cherry line has a total of 42 lanes with three parallel sizers and 54 drops, up from 28 lanes and 32 drops for the previous facility. One of the sizers — 12 drops longer than the other two — enables the company to pack organic cherries or Rainiers simultaneously with other varieties.

“All fruit processing is very involved — from washing to drying, sorting, grading, stickers, boxing and all the secondary packaging functions,” Herrera says. “All of these systems work together.”

Sorting and grading fruit — a critical part of the process — has been automated at the new facility, relying on numerous sensors to measure quality. The upgraded optical imaging system for sorting and grading is now three times faster than it was with the previous plant, according to Blue Bird.

“Each cherry is photographed 60 times in a fraction of a second to analyze color, size and blemishes—a highly advanced process that speeds the sorting process,” Herrera says. “In fact, because of this automated capability, cherries that were discarded in the past can now be sold to other markets.”

The networking gear offers 10 Gb Ethernet speeds and 40 Gb uplinks, along with small-form-factor pluggable ports (SFP+) that can have eight or 24 ports with the addition of an expansion module. The new robust network also can support capabilities like wireless and network-based print services, Herrera notes. New expansions on the horizon could include forklift routines via wireless networking to help locate, pull, store and ship fruit products.

The entire design and commissioning took 11 months. With the upgrades to the production facility, Blue Bird is ripe to build upon its more than 100-year legacy.

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