Don’t ignore the human factor in the transition to automation
The automation of dairy plant processing and packaging equipment controlled remotely with devices ranging from programmable logic controllers to sophisticated computer programs is becoming increasingly common. Older control systems were primarily for monitoring with some limited control functions. The risk of causing unintended food safety problems was limited.
Today, the average dairy plant control room usually has many PCs or laptop computers connected to a server to control most of the plant’s processing operations in real time. These new automation systems can be very vulnerable to malfunctions, which could lead to food safety challenges.
The food safety challenge of newer automation systems is primarily from their ability to directly control most processing operations. Increasing plant automation system vulnerability is the use of hand-held tablets or smart phones that provide production supervisors real-time information, alarm and control functions for 24/7 monitoring of plant operations. While the benefits of automation are understood, the food safety risks usually are not.
Today’s hardware, software and instrument systems, all with programmed overrides and corrective action “fail-safes,” are making dairy plant operations easier. Conversely, automation can create new stresses and challenges for the plant’s food safety team.
Dairy plant staff may not be equipped to understand the food safety risks associated with plant automation systems. The skill-set required to trouble-shoot is different than the traditional skill-set of production and food safety staff.
A required read for all dairy production and food safety staff working with automation systems is a section of the 2013 Grade A Pasteurized Milk Ordinance titled “Criteria For The Evaluation Of Electronic Data Collection, Storage And Reporting.” A few of the more important production automation challenges and recommendations are presented in the table above.
The automation of dairy plant production is increasing. This can create a “push-button” culture where staff does not understand the processing operations. Your current, modified or new dairy plant automation systems need to be evaluated, understood and managed to minimize food safety risk.