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Ithaca Beer Co. upgrades to a semi-automated brewing process

Founded in 1998, Ithaca Beer Co. started out in a small 10-barrel brewhouse that sold full growlers to go as well as homebrew supplies. Today, the company brews about 25,000 barrels of beer per year and distributes them to 15 states. To ensure continued quality, consistency and profitability of its craft brews as the company scales up, Ithaca Beer Co. automated part of its brewing process by installing a standardized yet customizable control platform to gain visibility into its operations and drive efficiency while still having the flexibility to fully automate its production in the future.

In 2012, Ithaca Beer Co. built a new brewhouse in the Finger Lakes region just outside Ithaca, New York. It included production, packaging and an on-site restaurant to keep up with growing demand for its craft beers, including its acclaimed Flower Power IPA and innovative limited-release batches. After construction of the building and installation of the equipment, the company decided to network and connect the various pieces of machinery itself. However, configuring the plant automation proved to be more challenging than staff expected. Tanks were wired incorrectly and documentation for the brewhouse was inaccurate.

“Our initial project was incomplete from an installation and commissioning standpoint. A lot was left unfinished,” says Andrew Hausman, head of brewing operations at Ithaca Beer Co. “The flowmeter wasn’t connected to our main HMI (human machine interface), the cellar HMIs were never installed, and we didn’t have integrated data collection or recipe management software.

“The full system was unstable and unreliable,” Hausman adds. “And system downtime was catastrophic, causing lost production and costs.”

Pushing productivity

Ithaca Beer Co. turned to OBG, a system integrator in the Rockwell Automation Partner Network program, to upgrade the brewery to a semi-automated brewing process based on the FactoryTalk Craft Brew solution from Rockwell Automation. The pre-configured system offers cost-effective, flexible control to easily customize and automate a craft brewhouse. The platform is pre-engineered, -programmed, -tested and -validated, significantly reducing commissioning and startup time.

“It was important for us to look for a solution that was easy to customize,” Hausman explains. “We do not have a fully automated brewing process, so modifications were necessary. Plus, the solution is scalable for future growth and production changes, which was also an important part of our selection process.”

With the FactoryTalk Craft Brew system, Ithaca Beer Co. is able to leverage most of its current assets and installed base, including existing I/O, variable speed drives and controllers — another key reason the company decided to standardize on the Rockwell Automation platform.

Integrated and automated batch reporting offers electronic batch information directly through the HMI. In the past, the brewers had to manually write a batch report for every brew, which included entering important recipe information like gravities and pH levels manually. The new solution offers visualization and the capability to store and trend key batch data. It also simplifies troubleshooting efforts and allows brewers to better compare a “golden batch” to a batch with quality problems, saving hours of recipe adjustment time.

Using the pre-developed graphics within the FactoryTalk Craft Brew platform, the HMIs have a modern and more structured look and feel with accurate and consistent naming and tags. “It used to take us weeks to train a new brewer due to the additional difficulty of learning an operating system that had incomplete information,” Hausman says. “Today, managers can train a new brewer in days. Everything is well-documented in the system and has an updated, more modern look.”

Lastly, the new solution adds a layer of functionality to the brew tanks that Ithaca Beer Co. didn’t have in the past. As part of the batch system, the brewery now has a fermentation scheduler with easy-to-add functionalities. This allows brewers to create a fermentation schedule within the system and choose which schedule to align to each individual vessel.

Brewing a foundation for the future

Moving to the semi-automated solution produced instant results for Ithaca Beer Co.

Brew operations are now stable and reliable. “We have peace of mind in our operations, and our operators gained confidence in the process they didn’t have before,” Hausman says.

The modern HMIs use consistent and accurate naming, making it easier for the team to train new brewers and add a layer of visibility into operations for easier and faster troubleshooting.

The new solution also provides a smoother and more structured process for recipe management. Recipe change and recipe implementation are simplified through the HMI, allowing brewers more time to concentrate on value-added tasks, including sanitation and quality checks.

With a direct line of sight into equipment diagnostics and key batch data, downtime has been reduced significantly. Brewers can troubleshoot system and recipe issues that arise more quickly. Since installing the new solution, the brewery has not experienced any significant downtime event.

“One day of downtime in this business can equate to a loss of approximately $75,000 in revenue, and we experienced days of downtime a couple times a year with our old system,” Hausman says.