NIR analytical technologies offer great opportunity for improvements in feed processes, but also challenges in implementation. The new insight afforded by NIR may even reveal surprises and create tension between departments. Timely consultant intervention can smooth the integration and ensure the best possible return on investment.
NIR process control, the challenge of continous monitoring and validation
On many occasions when moving from punctual sampling, to in-process measurements, variations in feed quality within or between batches will be detected and this often comes as a surprise to production managers and nutritionists. This is due to variations in raw material quality and the state of mills, weigh cells and transporters. While analyzing these patterns and correcting the root causes presents a great potential for more uniform product quality and savings in formulation in the case of feed mills, it also poses new challenges to the process operators and managers, as they learn about the process. It may even generate a lot of tension between production, nutritionists and managers.
It is common that the instrument gets the initial blame, and that the supplier has to spend a lot of extra time with the customer until they feel confident about the system. Unless the customer gains confidence in the results, they will not be able to implement the process improvements and savings that the NIR makes possible. This requires a common understanding between the supplier and the customer, on how to validate the system and the resources and knowledge needed to do so.
Given the complexity of the task, the NIR supplier has to guide the customer through the buying and implementation process. Initially, you need the production, quality and formulation departments at the table. Once a project is defined, maintenance needs to be involved as they have to be available for installation support, and also for integration with existing systems.
Bringing in the industry experts
Many industries have internal meteorology experts, that validates measuring systems such as weigh bridges, flow meters and similar. If available, they should be involved throughout the project and sign off the validation plan, as their experience and the respect they have gained inside the organization, makes them valuable partners in closing the project. In the end, however, the customer is basically left to their own internal validations and the advice from the supplier, in order to determine if they can trust the values.
An analogy can be made with the European regulation for emission monitoring from stacks. Reducing emissions to legal levels can be very costly and require injection of reagents such as Calcium Carbonate. Plants want to use the minimum quantity that allows them to operate in a legal way. A legal framework exists that includes methods and methodology for comparative measurements. This is critical as a waste incineration plant is not allowed to operate unless the emission monitoring system has been shown to be reliable.
These certifications are generally carried out by an accredited 3rd party consultant, who does the comparative measurements, and also evaluates, whether the whole measurement system has been installed according to legislation and good engineering practices. Although this certification represents a significant added cost, it facilitates a lot, the acceptance of the monitoring system and the results it presents, helping the plant reaping the benefits of continuous monitoring faster.
The case for consultants in NIR and Feed
So, where do you go for that kind of expertize for online feed production monitoring? Although some countries have official control of feed quality, online monitoring is typically done only for process optimization, and regulators does generally not have experience with continuous monitoring systems, so they are not of much help.
If industry consultants familiar with process monitoring are available, they would be able to help, and would be seen as impartial. A consultant would generally first review the project and the performance expected with the stakeholders such as the customer and the provider. Then a site inspection will be performed, validating the sampling site, and that the data handling has been set up correctly (such as filtering out measurements when product is not flowing past the monitoring point).
Further, reference sampling procedures and calibration protocols would be validated. Finally, a comparison of measured data and reference values would be done, preferably according to guidelines such as ISO12099, and if the results match the performance expected, the project can be closed. If not, the consultant will be able to propose improvements in order to correct the situation. So, using an external consultant will speed up the implementation, provide added confidence, and help the customer maximize the benefit from the investment.