New Tool: ProSource
Check out our packaging and processing solutions finder, ProSource.

Craft brewer increases process automation footprint

U.S. craft brewers burst on the scene about ten years ago, signaling the beginning of consumers’ acceptance for a larger palette of food and beverage products. Growth in the craft beer industry has been rapid, due to better distribution channels and mergers and acquisitions.

Oskar Blues Brewery, based in Longmont, Colo., has been part of the industry’s emergence due to its fine beer products, but also innovative packaging approaches, such as cans. That’s right, most small breweries started with traditional bottles and kegs, but Oskar Blues was a pioneer for can packaging in the craft beer space.

With growth came challenges, and Oskar Blues decided to bring in system integrator and consultant Malisko Engineering to improve production output and find more efficiencies on the processing side.

“Oskar Blues couldn’t brew the beer fast enough,” says Dan Malyszko, director of operations at Malisko Engineering, Inc. “The brew house couldn’t produce the number of brews—or batches per day—to keep up with demand due to the manual operation of all valves, pumps, and other processing equipment.”

Oskar Blues was familiar with automation and controls with its state-of-the-art packaging operation, but now explored options on the processing side.

With relatively new, all-manual brewhouse equipment, the focus was on implementing automation to meet great production goals.

“Some brewhouse manufacturers proposed to rip out all of the process vessels and piping, and to install a larger capacity system with automation,” says Malyszko. “We help clients gain efficiency by automating their existing assets and plant investments.” 

The first phase of automation for the process area in the Longmont facility was the beginning stage, where barley malt and water come together to make a mash. Hops are then added as the mash is strained and boiled, and wort is finally cooled down to prepare for fermentation. 

Malisko Engineering and Oskar Blues choose Rockwell Automation’s CompactLogix control platform to allow actuators to open valves, adjust motor speeds, and monitor process variables: temperature and flow for these large process vessels and transfer lines.

With input from Oskar Blues brewing staff, Malisko Engineering implemented a main control panel that connected to existing standalone instrumentation and a remote I/O panel comprised of EtherNet/IP solenoid banks that provided pneumatic control of the valves. The main control panel located on the second floor brew deck also housed a new touchscreen interface centralizing control of the system which helped eliminate production inefficiencies.

“The first floor of the brewhouse is where all the process piping, valves, instrumentation, and pumps reside,” says Malyszko. Before the centralized control system and process monitoring was commissioned, operators would have to run up and down the brew house stairs to check on transfer paths opening and closing valves many times during the day.”

Now, brewmasters use Rockwell Automation’s PanelView Plus HMI to perform these and provide more consistent batches. Moreover, Malisko worked with the Oskar Blues team to develop a list of process interlocks and safety permissives to enhance the overall reliability and robustness of the system. The operators were now able to check equipment and valve path status in real time from the HMI screen. 

Gone were the days of having to double- and triple-check if a drain valve was left open before a transfer or if another shared valve path was already in use. 

With the new automation platform, the company was able to increase its daily output by another 1.5 batches per day.

The system’s EtherNet/IP communication backbone provides for future scalability. The base system uses several dozen input/output points for the brew house process area, but can scale to meet additional capacity by adding remote EtherNet/IP enabled I/O, variable frequency drives (VFDs) and other smart devices. 

After the initial automation phase, Oskar Blues expanded its control system to include its hot liquor makeup gaining tighter control on brewing water delivery to various points in the process. Automation of a new grist hydrator came next.

The process area now also includes data collection that’s built into the HMI.

“Now, they can log data with the PanelView Plus on a time basis and present that data in a trend format,” says Malyszko. “This type of process analysis is the first step in gaining better visibility into how the process is performing.”

From a historical view of Oskar Blues’ growth, the gradual automation path was a great fit for the burgeoning craft brewer. “We want to encourage breweries to automate their current manual operation to gain efficiency before even thinking about going up in size on brew house vessels,” says Malyszko.