Last March I wrote a post on working in New England on a consulting project. Much of the post was about the travels during my days off from the project, describing what the area was like in the Winter. I travel quite a bit for work and usually get to spend some time exploring the area.
That project was the last consulting and integration job I did, since then all of my work has been teaching. In a previous post I mentioned that I have changed my focus over the past year or so from long term integration and project-based work to shorter training and consulting jobs. Like the job I did in New England last winter, this project gives me the opportunity to spend a week or two here and there to help a company with their automation needs rather than having to spend six or more months away from home on a job.
The company I am working with is a beverage processing and packaging company located in the Miami, Florida area. The company was formed in Argentina but moved to this country about ten years ago, along with all of the equipment. The picture at the top of this post shows what part of the process area of the plant is like.
I have worked in the food industry several times in my career, including a couple of bakery plants and a Kraft Life-Savers factory in Canada. I have also done a bit of process control work with fluid and bulk-handling equipment. The beverage industry is like a combination of the two with quite a bit of packaging thrown in.
This company makes juices and sodas as well as bottling water. As you can see in the picture, most of the equipment is stainless steel for easy washdown. This creates special requirements for wiring and sensors and involves FDA and USDA requirements in addition to normal manufacturing standards. There are even inspections from a Jewish representative to ensure that product and manufacturing techniques meet kosher requirements!
Part of my time has been spent learning and documenting the PLC and HMI programs in the plant. Much of the documentation is in Spanish or doesn’t exist at all. It can be difficult to step into an industry you don’t know a lot about and have an immediate impact, but I feel like I’m getting a pretty good handle on the equipment and software. I am also getting an opportunity to improve on my limited Spanish skills since that is the main language in the plant.
Most of the software is Allen-Bradley SLC and Siemens S7. There is a fairly extensive DeviceNet network as well as a lot of hardware handshaking. Many of the changes that have been made since the equipment was originally installed were not documented, so it can be difficult to figure out where some of the signals are coming from. This involves many of the startup and debug techniques I have described here before.
Also, since it is Miami in August, the environment is very hot and humid. While there are a lot of fans around the plant, there is also a lot of heat generated by the equipment. In particular, the pasteurization area can be very unpleasant with a lot of steam and hot piping. For those who haven’t worked in the plant environment, this is pretty common, especially in the Summer. Ideally I would have rather done this project in the Winter and the one in New Hampshire in August!
Still, this is a pretty good opportunity. They will be adding several new tanks by December as well as upgrading the line and an old palletizer. There is even discussion underway about finding some more palletization equipment and rebuilding it on-site. While this provides me with a lot of work, I have to balance it against my teaching obligations for Automation Training and my product development work.
When I closed down the original Automation Consulting Services in 2006 I decided that if I were ever to work for myself again I would prefer not to have any employees. I suddenly find myself in a quandary about how to best serve my customers now though. I know of an engineer in Florida that would be a great fit for this project, plus he is fluent in English, Spanish and Japanese. I think the natural tendency is that the longer you are in business, the more the impetus to grow the company. It appears I will have some serious decisions to make over the next couple of months.
As for Miami itself, I had only been there in the past when I was on my way to somewhere else. I have spent time in the Keys (Islamorada) diving, and left the port on a cruise from there once. It was also the jumping off point for my Central America adventure. The area that my hotel and the plant is in is not the glamorous part you see on TV. The main language is Spanish and parts of it look like Central or South America with vendors selling items car to car in the streets. It is also hot. Really hot. Overall it is a pretty cool experience though.
Oh, and I get all the cold water I can drink!