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Phytosterols (sterols) are found in fruits, vegetables, nuts and trees. More than 100 clinical studies have shown that consuming food with added plant sterols can lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
Because of their cholesterol-reducing, heart-healthy benefits, sterols are internationally used in spreads, bread, milk, yogurt, juices and other products. More recently, changes in the pharmaceutical market have resulted in an increased demand for wood based sterols.
One company that is well-positioned to grow along with the increasing demand for sterols is Arboris® LLC, the world’s leading producer of pine sterols. With manufacturing plants in Savannah, Georgia and Newark, Ohio, the company boasts a cost-stable, long-term raw material supply of pine tree byproducts. Beginning commercial operations in 2004, Arboris’ state-of-the-art automation and control technologies, manufacturing scale and customer alliances also bode well for continued success.
The company’s flagship product is Sterols AS-2®, a 99% pure mixture of naturally occurring sterols derived from pine trees that are free of genetic modifications.
Sterols AS-2®is manufactured under some of the most stringent quality standards, including ISO 9001 (Savannah plant) and Codex Alimentarius Commission Recommended International Code of Practice on the General Principles of Food Hygiene (Newark plant). Additionally, Sterols AS-2 is approved for use in specific foods by Novel Food Board of the European Commission, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada.
The raw material used to make Sterols AS-2 is Tall Oil Pitch (TOP); a byproduct of the Kraft process that converts wood into wood pulp refined into cellulose fibers. The Savanah plant receives the dark black liquid TOP from many pine chemical refiners, at temperatures close to 200° F, via truck, railcar and pipeline.
Since beginning, the Savannah facility has relied on the Emerson DeltaV Automation System to control nearly all of its highly proprietary production processes.
The first step saponifies the TOP to obtain a mixture of free sterols and organic salts. The sterol concentrated stream is then separated from residual organic salts by evaporation stages. Before being transported to the Newark plant, the sterols are further concentrated by distillation to obtain a high sterol concentration fraction.
After reaching the Newark plant, the sterols are further refined through crystallization, filtration, drying and pilling until they reach near perfect purity. The white, waxy particles are shipped to pharmaceutical, food and cosmetic manufacturers in 500 kilogram super sacks, 100 kilogram fiber drums or 25 kilogram fiber drums.
It was no secret to Arboris management that in order to keep its leadership position, a continuous improvement work environment was needed in order to maintain that position. Each step of the production process needed attention and time was of the essence.
In February 2012, Arboris chose Kiel Hagberg to lead the Savannah plant as superintendent / plant manager. Formerly a production and engineering manager at the Newark plant, Hagberg was well aware of the existing automation system and production processes -- as well as the challenges before him.
“The demand for non-genetically modified organism (GMO) products has been a big driver for our sterols,” Hagberg says. “Also, the pharmaceutical industry makes use of our sterols as a precursor to make cortisone, progesterone and hormone replacements, creating a perfect storm for new demands for sterols.”
With the increased demand comes an increase in production goals and an increased focus on plant optimization and reliability.
An automation and controls expert, Hagberg had two key performance indicators – improve throughput and upgrade the infrastructure to handle added capacity as needed and on demand.
“I talked with Control Southern, our Emerson Local Business Partner (LBP) out of Atlanta and shared our two-fold vision for the plant,” Hagberg says. “During one of the trips Control Southern’s Engineering Manager Harley Jeffery pointed out a number of things we could do right away to optimize the process. So, I said ‘Okay, let's give it a shot."
Beginning in April 2013, Hagberg says Jeffery began talking with the operators and spent a great deal of time in the control room. “The operators are notoriously leery of people coming in and messing with the system,” Hagberg says. “But when Harley visited the operators said ‘Oh, good. I've got some other stuff to ask him.’ The guys like talking to him and he gets results, so that makes him even more popular.”
Jeffery worked transparently behind the scenes without interrupting production.
“We found the operators controlling the process spent a lot of time watching things and manually making adjustments themselves rather than the control system doing it automatically,” Jeffery says. “So I examined the previous programming and improved on that. We also did control loop tuning and introduced some DeltaV advanced control options that were not yet enabled including cascade and non-linear gain.”
Jeffery optimized nearly every control process within the plant, including evaporation, distillation, vacuum, mechanical separation, centrifuges and utilities.
“Control Southern has done an awesome job, especially on the distillation system,” Hagberg says. “Harley took a system that was very, very manual and optimized it, allowing the loops to run in cascade and in control as they were originally intended. The distillation towers run smoothly now, which results in a lot less stress on the operations group.”
Since completing the optimization work in June 2014, Hagberg says production has remained stable and the instability and reliability issues have not resurfaced. Financially, the optimization has saved Arboris well over six figures, according to Hagberg. “There's no swinging and the operators are able to focus on other plant operations rather than manually controlling key facility parameters.
In August 2014, Hagberg turned his attention to the second part of his vision for the plant – expansion. He says a logical starting point was to focus the plant’s network communications infrastructure.
Since the plant opened, a number of network communications technologies had been utilized, including PROFIBUS, AS-i Bus and Foundation Fieldbus. Hagberg says the expansion includes introducing new Rosemount wireless gateway enabling communication between the DeltaV system and 802.15 wireless process measurement devices in the field, Ethernet and, in particular, Emerson’s characterization module (CHARM) I/O technologies.
He says CHARM I/O enables any field wiring signal type to be terminated anywhere in the Savannah plant. A CHARM module is a single-channel component with an A/D converter and signal characterizer inserted onto the terminal block where field wires are landed.
After the CHARM is in place, the channel is electronically marshaled to any controller in the DeltaV system. Hagberg says this means no cabinet marshalling or cross-wiring, fewer wires, much less work and fewer contact points for potential failures. Also, electronic marshalling requires no redesign or rewiring to expand as needed without extra costs or impacting the start-up schedule.
“All we do is snap in a CHARM and it can be whatever we need it to be,” Hagberg says.
As the Arboris Savannah plant team began to introduce the new I/O, they worked again with Control Southern to determine the infrastructure to support it. A three member Control Southern team performed an engineering study in August 2014. Led by Project Engineer David Poindexter, the team was charged with creating a roadmap to make Hagberg’s expansion vision a reality.
“With the network infrastructure well underway, a process control expansion study helped them characterize current states and identify a future state that needs to support the growth,” Poindexter says. “We also identified best practices for the site and standards to follow. These included I/O enclosures, IT, process control network design, fault-tolerant network design, proper I/O grounding and power grounding to prevent any field instrumentation issues.”
Hagberg says over the next five years the suggestions from the engineering study will be executed in phases without disrupting the production process.
“Control Southern gave us a plan and that's what we needed,” Hagberg says. “Moving forward we know how much cabinet space is needed as well as the right licensing requirements and how much I/O is needed. That makes it much easier and less expensive to bid the construction because we will avoid change orders. Contractors will know in advance where everything needs to land. So it makes the construction bid process much quicker and accurate while speeding up the installation.”
Now that the Savannah plant is optimized, the network infrastructure has been selected and the engineering study is completed, Arboris is in a much better position to maintain its position as the premiere supplier of wood based sterols.
Hagberg says as a small company with 70 employees, Arboris has the flexibility to work with partners like Control Southern to identify and implement changes quickly. And that is important when one considers its customers are among the largest food, chemical and pharmaceutical companies in the world. But he says it all starts with a plan.
“The pre-work isn't really that exciting or fun,” Hagberg says. “But if you don't do it you shoot yourself in the foot. Now, we're going to start to see the results from all the upfront work because we already have a cutting edge plan. Now we just have to execute it.”
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