Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Beer buddies: Automation provider helps Toronto brewery “do one thing really, really well”

May 31, 2011
By Mary Del

“Tastiest Canadian beer.” “Ontario’s best micro brewery.” “Best locally produced beer.”

These are just some of the accolades that Steam Whistle Brewing has earned since the first beer came off of its production line 11 years ago. With such praise, it’s no wonder that the brewery’s communications platform is to “do one thing really, really well” – a slogan describing the company’s singular focus of making one beer of exceptional quality that Canadians can be proud of.

In fact, every year, thousands of tourists and locals flock to Steam Whistle Brewing, housed in Toronto’s historic Canadian Pacific Railway John Street Roundhouse, to see how the company produces its award-winning pilsner. In 2010, 103,000 visitors dropped in for an event at the brewery, to shop in the brewery’s store, or for a tour. Here, visitors witness the co-ordination required to manufacture and package beer – how just four natural ingredients turn into a finished product, packaged and ready to ship to beer stores, liquor stores, as well as licensed bars and restaurants in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

This accomplishment would not be possible without state-of-the-art equipment on the plant floor, and strong relationships with partners who design, install and integrate such equipment.

Festo Inc., a global supplier of automation technology with an office in Mississauga, Ont., is one of these partners. The company’s products can be found in nearly every application on the factory floor – from cleaning to filling to packaging on the canning, bottling and kegging lines.

The story
Steam Whistle Brewing began as a dream of three friends back in 1998, and today is one of the top 10 selling premium beers in Ontario beer stores.

In January 1999, the group purchased equipment – brewhouse, fermentation vessels and packaging equipment – from a family run brewery in Montreal that was closing its doors. The company began upgrading some of its equipment in July 2001, installing a state-of-the-art bottle washer from Italy that washes up to 12,500 bottles per hour. Since then, they have gradually been upgrading the equipment as demand for the beer increases – and it is increasing.

Steam Whistle has experienced steady double-digit growth since its inception, selling about $25 million worth of beer last year and producing 5.3 million litres of beer in 2010. In 2011, the company expects this number to grow to six million litres.

“With our tremendous growth, we have been forced to replace every piece of equipment since startup, mostly because of insufficient capacity. But our own emphasis on quality and our success has allowed us to invest in very substantial improvements in equipment, investing in state-of-the-art technology,” explains Sybil Taylor, communications director with Steam Whistle Brewing.

Taylor says that Steam Whistle’s plant engineer, Sergei Mikhniouk, has been key in sourcing and altering many parts of the brewery’s production line. This includes upgrading equipment on the bottling line, being “instrumental” in putting together the canning line back in 2008, and designing a new tilting device for the kegging line in 2010.

Bottled up
Steam Whistle produces a maximum of 88,000 bottles of beer a shift, depending on the season – demand is higher in the summer months. Bottles account for roughly 55 percent of the brewery’s output. Some of that beer, however, was going to waste, thanks to inefficient packaging machinery that would sometimes cause the bottles to crack, costing the company time and money.

The drop packer caused a 30 to 35 percent rejection rate because it was not evenly dropping the bottles, causing micro cracks under crowns. With modifications and improvements, the team was able to reduce the rejection rate, and went from packaging 60,000 bottles a shift to 80,000 bottles, explains Mikhniouk. But, he adds, just a few months following the upgrade, the machine was already experiencing fatigue, and it was time to make a choice – invest in a 25-year-old machine or buy a new one.

“We made [the] right decision,” says Mikhniouk, referring to the robotic pick-and-place unit – manufactured by Toronto’s Nuspark Engineering Inc. – the company installed in 2008 to replace the drop packer.

Many Festo components are integrated into the pick-and-place unit, including an air preparation unit with safety shutoff valve, an air dryer, pneumatic solenoid valves, air butterfly valves, exhaust silencers, sensors, flow control valves, fittings and tubing to deliver air.

With the pick-and-place unit, which gently picks up 24 bottles and gently and precisely places them in the carton, they are now able to package 88,000 bottles a shift.

A can-do attitude
In July 2008, Steam Whistle moved beyond bottles and draughts by launching the availability of Steam Whistle pilsner in 500 ml cans. To prepare for this, the company had to expand its production line, adding another line for the cans.

The brewery was limited in how it could expand and build the canning line because of the Roundhouse’s status as a heritage building. The canning line looks more like a maze, with conveyors going up and down over two levels. But it works for them, allowing them to produce 70,000 cans of beer per shift – about 12 percent of the company’s output.

In July 2010, Steam Whistle launched a new, smaller can format – a 355 ml can – and now sells both sizes.

The canning line is controlled by an Allen-Bradley PLC, which controls Festo’s valve terminals. The valves control the direction, flow and level of liquids in processes; air during the internal drying of the pipe system; beer supply in the filling application; and the level of beer in the buffer tank; as well as the amount of CO2 purged during the filling and seaming processes.

The canning process begins when a pallet of empty cans, manufactured by Crown Metal Packaging, enters the depalletizer on the ground level, and a chain hoist with sweeping table and sweeping frame picks up a layer of empty cans. The sweeping frame moves the top layer of the cans onto the sweeping table, where they are raised to the second story conveyors and pushed onto the conveyor by chains with transfer bars. On the top level, the cans move along the conveyor. Beside it, cartons are being formed and moved along another conveyor in parallel.

The cans then go through a chute where they are rotated upside down and rinsed out to clear away any dust particles that may have gotten into the cans between the time they were made and the time they are filled. Once they are rinsed and dried, they are rotated back to right side up where the cans are fed, in single file, into the Krones filler – a machine that has the capacity to fill 12,000 cans per hour. The filler has Festo components integrated into it, including an air preparation unit with safety shutoff valve, pneumatic solenoid valves, air cylinders, exhaust silencers, sensors, flow control valves, fittings and tubing to deliver air.

Each can is filled and moved along the conveyor into a seamer that rolls the lid onto the can and seals it. The cans are then pushed along the conveyor where they are pre-rinsed and then rinsed again.

To ensure that each can has the correct volume and is sealed, the cans are conveyed past an OmniVision/Industrial Dynamics inspection system. If the can doesn’t have the desired volume, it is pushed off the line. The cans that pass inspection circle back to meet the cartons, which were formed on the case erector on the platform above and pushed down the chute. At this point, a robotic packer – the same kind used in the bottling application – picks up 24 cans at a time and quickly and gently places them into the formed carton.

It’s the same process for both the 355 ml cans and the 500 ml cans. A 15-minute line changeover on machines between can sizes makes production run smoothly with minimal downtime, explains Mikhniouk.

Keg tilting
To palletize the kegs, in the past, production line workers would have to handle the 65-kg full kegs, risking musculoskeletal disorders from the strain of handling such a heavy payload. To avoid injury, Mikhniouk came up with an idea for a keg tilting device and, with the help of Festo engineer Michael de Kok, his vision became a reality in November 2010.

The task was to tip a cradle with a 25-kg/20-L, 38.5-kg/30-L or 65-kg/50-L keg filled with beer on it by 90 degrees for palletizing purposes. The process begins when an operator places empty kegs upside down on an infeed conveyor. Kegs enter an external keg washer, while a walking beam moves them from station to station with the help of Festo valves and stainless steel cylinders. The kegs move through the external washer where they are cleaned. From there, they are moved by another walking beam to the last station, where they are filled with beer. The kegs then enter a discharge conveyor and are tilted to a horizontal position where an operator moves the kegs by hoist to a pallet.

Currently, this tilting feature is initiated by an operator flipping a switch. In the near future, Mikhniouk plans to automate this process.

Moving forward
It is no coincidence that Festo products have such a large presence on Steam Whistle’s plant floor. The truth is that Mikhniouk is a big fan of Festo equipment. He worked in the automation industry for 5.5 years before joining Steam Whistle three years ago. In that time, he became very familiar with Festo equipment, and now specifies the company’s components any time he purchases new equipment.

“I used to work many years in [the] automation area for different industries – automotive, pharmaceutical, food processing and high-speed packaging as a machine builder, service technician and project leader,” says Mikhniouk. “I prefer Festo equipment because I [have] dealt with this equipment for a very long time, and it’s very reliable equipment, and good quality…and long-lasting.”

That is great news for Festo, as Steam Whistle makes plans to continue to upgrade its equipment to increase capacity. What’s next? In 2012, the company plans to purchase and install a new bottle washer and filler. Mikhniouk says that Festo automation equipment will definitely be integrated into these upcoming upgrades.

“Because we’ve chosen to only make one product, we’re able to channel both human and capital resources into really excellent equipment,” says Taylor. “We’re able to invest and give [Sergei] the opportunity to buy the best equipment. In the long run, that will serve us well.”

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