Natural Fruit Corp. embraces lightweight control solution

Food producer improves its refrigeration system for fruits bars by introducing a lightweight automation solution to provide remote monitoring and control to operators.

Many consumer product good (CPG) companies in the natural foods segment run lean, but continuous improvement and operational improvements are essential. A good example is the craft beer industry and its focus on more efficient plant production systems and distribution channels in order to compete with major manufacturers.

Simon and Jorge Bravo Sr. also wanted to compete when they created the Natural Fruit Corporation more than thirty years ago. More importantly, they wanted to deliver their childhood favorite treat to the masses: Paletas de Frutas. The product is frozen fruit on a stick, but not the sugary-type bars found in most grocery stores.

With their food science and manufacturing backgrounds, the Bravo brothers recently identified opportunities to improve their plant operations and stay on a steady growth curve.

This frozen dessert product relies on cold rooms and refrigeration systems at Natural Fruit Corp. to run 24/7. The company uses an automated MYCOM refrigeration system and wanted to remove manual monitoring of the system by operators on weekends or at nights.

“We wanted to find a better way to remotely monitor and control our refrigeration system,” says Jonathon Bravo, project manager at Natural Fruit Corporation. “Our goal was to find a solution that could provide monitoring and notification capabilities without a lot of engineering investment.”

The key challenge with this refrigeration system is keeping cold rooms full of product within desired temperature setpoints and components that use Modbus serial protocol for external communications.

The end game for Natural Fruit was for operators to monitor and control process data, and its approximately 150 input/outputs via mobile devices on the plant floor or from home.

“We talked to OEM machine builders to see if they could offer a solution, but found their technologies to be cumbersome and difficult to integrate with different systems,” says Bravo.

The frozen fruit company decided on the combination of Opto 22’s SNAP-PAC-R2 industrial controller (PAC) and groov Box Appliance that allows process control data to be configured to web browser screens without any programming.

In this application, the PAC controller polls data from the refrigeration system components via the modbus serial protocol. Components from the system include drives, compressors, heat exchangers and freon sensors. The PAC natively speaks to the Modbus protocol and converts the serial protocol to the groov box appliance so it can feed Natural Fruit’s monitoring devices or plant floor screens.

The groov server uses the Modbus TCP protocol and doesn’t require any additional drivers to read this data and disseminate it to monitoring devices. To create these operational screens, the monitoring appliance uses a drag and drop interface from a web browser and allows plant personnel to choose from a variety of gauge designs. No programming is needed.

“The drag-and-drop interface on the appliance was extremely easy to use,” says Bravo. The box appliance boots with DHCP enabled can immediately be accessed via its hostname, according to Opto 22. 

Besides controlling the process, the control system also logs compressor run-time data to the controller, and uses a FTP to transfer files to a central data storage location,” says Matt Newton, director of technical marketing at Opto 22.

With more than 20 trucks full of the fruit bars running each week, any setpoint error can be a production nightmare for Natural Fruit. Along with the data logging, the monitoring appliance can automatically alert operators if any of the set points are outside of operation parameters via SMS text and email messaging.

This lightweight control and monitoring solution allows Natural Fruit to modernize its operations and deliver on its natural foods mission.

 

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