Optimizing the end of your line

by Philip Schramm, senior packaging engineer, POWER Engineers
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POWER Engineers

The quality control (QC)/quality assurance (QA) lab function is, by law, a separate entity from production in food plants. Functionally it has a large impact on the unit cost of your products. Inefficiencies in the lab can cause delayed delivery to customers, product loss due to slow response to an out-of-tolerance condition, and higher-than-necessary staffing.

A project to upgrade or replace a lab needs to be done with the same care as replacing a wrapper or vertical form/fill/seal operation. The project steps are the same as other projects, but there are many details that may be unfamiliar to an engineer that has not been exposed to lab challenges.

Look at the overall quality function:

  • Does the lab do in-process, inbound material, or lot-release testing? Does it have a research function that periodically adds significant work? Understand how the pieces fit together.
  • Frequently the quality department grows in steps, which results in satellite labs. Typically, these are an inefficient compromise. A lab project is a good time to optimize the operations. Consolidating functions can mean a more responsive lab and reduced costs since one technician can often have more than one test going at a time. Travel time is reduced and supervision is improved.
  • In the conceptual planning phase, the engineer works to understand the flow of the variety of tests done in the lab. Planning should focus on flow and adjacencies, such as determining which function should be closest to other functions. Conversely, are there tests that should be in their own sub-lab because of sensitivity, environmental conditions, or interactions?
  • Lab placement relative to your process is also an issue. Some legacy lab locations made sense years ago when the plant was built but don’t make sense with the current and future systems. Examine your options.
  • Tabulate the number of test setups and the space requirements for each instrument. The designer will need to know that you have four gas chromatographs that need 38 in. for the instrument and 16 in. for the analyst’s notebook at each station. This data is rolled up to identify the overall length of benches required.

Health, safety and environmental resources should be involved early in the design. Typical considerations are:

  • Safety showers and eyewash stations are required. Key details such as travel distance requirements, water supply and drainage need to be considered.
  • Certain gases that are approved for use and stored in individual tanks in the lab require special venting and locations when they are stored together and fed from a single room.
  • The number of hoods required should be established early because they often exhaust large amounts of air and are important for the HVAC design. Identify requirements for relative humidity, temperature and cleanliness of the air at this time.
  • Research the requirements for waste handling. Most jurisdictions have restrictions on lab waste that include collecting, storing, and disposing of liquid waste. If required, this capability must be included in the original design.

Look to the future:

  • Analytical methods are evolving constantly. Talk to the quality leadership about potential future equipment replacements and research technology that is applicable but too expensive now.
  • Examine of future needs and flexibility. As equipment stack-ups get taller or columns are needed for analysis, the ability to change some of the bench configurations can keep a new lab from becoming obsolete.
  • Consider the Americans with Disabilities Act in conceptual design. Building labs with no provisions for lab technicians who have mobility impairments exposes the company to legal consequences. Plus, the able-bodied employees working now may have illnesses or accidents in the future that will limit their mobility. Adding flexibility to the design could allow your company to retain those people as productive employees if an adaptation needs to be made.
  • Some fixtures that can be reconfigured by your technicians and others that are fully and rapidly adjustable are available from lab fixture vendors. In a portion of the lab, inclusion of the reconfigurable fixtures will address both the need for flexibility for equipment and personnel in the future at minimal incremental cost.

Specialized utilities and services are required by labs:

  • For gas sources, decide if individual tanks standing next to equipment, a room with tanks piped to a common manifold, or an outside tank for gases used in large volumes is the best choice. It may be beyond the scope of your specific project but the present is always a good time to plan for it. There are other services too, but the logic is the same.
  • Labs are high users of electricity for their size. There is a high density of computerized data collection as well as desktop computers for the technicians. Much of the equipment have heaters and pumps that are not immediately visible and require extra circuits.
  • Some tests must run overnight or for days, which make uninterruptable power supplies (UPS) essential. A centralized UPS with power run in parallel to utility circuits may be required in many labs.
  • Lighting fixtures should be evaluated. For example, one lab experienced a shift in results that was eventually traced to fluorescent bulbs with light spectra output different from the original older lighting. The lighting was affecting one reagent that was photo-reactive at a specific wavelength.

Once you understand these items and all other considerations, you can complete the user requirements and conceptual design of the lab. This becomes the foundation of a successful project. Remember the goal is to have a cost-effective facility to support the business unit in producing a product that meets consumer and quality requirements. By going through a disciplined process, you will gain a lab that minimizes capital and contributes to profitability by efficiently providing testing.

This story is sponsored by POWER Engineers, which has one of the most comprehensive teams of engineers and specialists serving the baking and snack industry. As an extension of its clients' engineering teams, the company provides program management, integrated solutions and full facility design for the baking and snack industry. Learn more at www.powereng.com/food.

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