Manage multiple instruments in a NIR network with FossAssure


Manage multiple instruments in a NIR network with FossAssure

Near infrared analysis (NIR) has become indispensable to modern food manufacturing, but how can NIR users ensure that their growing fleets of NIR instruments are all working just right, all of the time? Bay State Milling Company found the answer in the form of a system called FossAssure.

Bay State Milling Company currently has 16 NIR flour instruments at different sites in the USA. All are maintained for top performance, and like most modern NIR instruments today, they are highly stable. Nonetheless, they still need a watchful eye to check that everything is running perfectly day-in, day-out in the often dusty and vibration-prone milling environments in which they need to operate.

With this goal in mind, quality controllers from Bay State Milling Company teamed-up with developers at FOSS to help devise the FOSS system that today is called FossAssure. It has provided operational benefits and peace of mind, while also laying the ground for continuous improvement of quality control procedures.

24/7 performance

The instruments in use are FOSS NIRS DS2500 analysers, which are used primarily for measuring key quality control parameters of flour such as moisture, protein and ash.

“We selected the instrument for its accuracy and precision and we have been extremely pleased with that decision”, says Jennifer Robinson, VP of Corporate Quality Assurance. “However, that instrument is only going to perform as well as it’s maintained. I am interested in the health of my instruments – are we running preventative maintenance and do we have any problems with vibration and temperature?”

Temperature fluctuations and dusty mill environments are just some of the more obvious threats to performance of NIR instruments.

Under one virtual roof

With the FossAssure system, the instruments are monitored by FOSS support staff to check that they are performing consistently. Monthly performance reports include alerts on potential issues before they can affect instrument performance and cause expensive downtime. Based on diagnostic checks, the support person can also determine the stability of instruments in compliance with official standards.

With regular insight into the family of instruments, the support person quickly became a trusted contact, familiar with the Bay State Milling Company organisation, the sites and the instruments and fully informed to be able to make the right recommendations. “It’s challenging to stay connected with all 16 instruments,” adds Robinson. “A value for me is that I know an expert at FOSS is reviewing the performance of my instruments and I get a summarised report that tells me if everything is fine or if there are some concerns.”

Practical gains

Without FossAssure Robinson would need to be much more ‘hands-on’, having to do manual checks at different sites as well as having to pull reports and review the information.

While a lamp failure, temperature fluctuations and dusty mill environments are some of the more obvious threats to performance, another factor is how standard operating procedures are being performed. For instance, filters and sample cups need to be cleaned correctly and diagnostics need to be run based on detailed company-wide procedures for how operators should use the instruments.

It is here that the connectivity aspect of the FossAssure program is a huge asset. “Over the 24 years I have been working with quality control, the development of networking software is one of the biggest developments,” says Robinson. “I can sit at my desk and see if a site is running ok, if diagnostics are being performed and so on.”

And, should Bay State Milling Company need to call about a problem, then, it is to someone who is intimately familiar with the instruments because the support staff is not starting from ground level on polices, maintenance and so on.

With relevant data available, it is quick and simple to zoom in on the issue. “A challenge I have often encountered is that when you are working within the plant and the instrument seems to be working ok, then everyone is happy,” says Robinson. “But when you start getting out of spec results you get challenged - is it the process or is it the instrument? With FossAssure, we can point to and demonstrate that the instrument is not the source of the issue. It gives peace of mind, because I know that someone with the right education is keeping an eye on the instruments and how they are running.”

The three pillars of continuous improvement

Keeping not just one, but the whole family of instruments running at top performance is now a practical everyday reality that lays the ground for further improvement of quality control procedures.

For others considering a similar set-up for their analytical operations, Robinson describes three steps.

  • First, select an instrument you can trust to deliver accurate results consistently.
  • Second, maintain it with FossAssure.
  • Third, develop robust policies and procedures for maintaining performance across a group of instruments, taking advantage of the knowledge and expertise that FOSS has to offer.

“In this way, you can put yourself into a positive cycle of continuous improvement,” she concludes.