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Reducing Food Manufacturing Plant Downtime

Remote alarm notification software is more critical than ever.

WIN-911 software monitors each stage in Night Hawk’s sophisticated refrigeration process. This includes the company’s state-of-the-art refrigeration system’s cooling towers, which remove excess heat and maintain precise temperatures.
WIN-911 software monitors each stage in Night Hawk’s sophisticated refrigeration process. This includes the company’s state-of-the-art refrigeration system’s cooling towers, which remove excess heat and maintain precise temperatures.

Manufacturing plants are facing a convergence of extreme challenges: an aging workforce coupled with the transfer of knowledge, increased demands for higher quality products utilizing fewer resources and the effects of the pandemic. Navigating these issues is critical to maintaining ongoing operations and controlling costs. If something additional happens, such as unplanned equipment downtime, the results can be a logistical nightmare and financial disaster. But it’s certainly not all doom-and-gloom. Recent trends in IIoT, machine connectivity, and monitoring solutions are playing a critical role in mitigating unexpected problems and staffing challenges.

Manufacturing Workforce

U.S. manufacturing is in the thick of an expected shortage of two million workers between 2015–2025, according to a report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. This was only exacerbated by the pandemic. In the latest report by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, as many as 2.1 million manufacturing jobs will be unfilled through 2030. The report warns the worker shortage will hurt revenue, production and could ultimately cost the US economy up to $1 trillion by 2030. The study’s dramatic findings come from online surveys of more than 800 U.S.-based manufacturing leaders, as well as interviews with executives across the industry and economic analyses.

According to the National Association of Manufacturers’ outlook survey, attracting and retaining a quality workforce constitutes one of the top challenges facing the manufacturing industry.* This industry faced a labor shortage exacerbated by the aging of the [manufacturing] workforce and gradual retirement of the baby boomer generation—as of 2017, nearly one-quarter of the sector’s workforce are age 55 or older. Additionally, 97 percent of respondents reported that they feared losing institutional knowledge when [older] workers depart. The study also examined the innovative approaches manufacturers can use to extend older workers’ productivity and help transfer institutional knowledge to the next generation. Manufacturing jobs are becoming more complex, including the maintenance of hi-tech plant equipment. However, the answer to the labor shortage and transfer of knowledge may be rooted in additional technology. Companies are leveraging digital technology to build more agile and customer-focused organizations.

Unplanned Downtime

Millions of dollars are invested each year in capital improvements to facilities and equipment to increase product safety, protect employees and reduce costs. This is especially important in a typical food processing plant since equipment may run 16 to 20 hours a day, every day – or even 24/7.  Equipment failure is the most common cause for downtime. According to analyst firm Aberdeen Research, downtime costs manufacturing facilities an astounding $260,000 per hour. A Deloitte industry report cited recent studies that show unplanned downtime costs industrial manufacturers an estimated $50 billion annually. However, downtime can cost a company more than just money – it can be a logistical nightmare.

As the world continues to grapple with the ramifications of COVID-19 and ongoing supply chain issues, manufacturing plants are under more pressure than ever to maintain ongoing operations. However, given that maintenance worker shortages existed even before the pandemic, what can plants do to mitigate unplanned downtimes? 

Sensors and SCADA

One strategy to help resolve this is for manufacturing plants to invest in technology for areas with worker shortages, such as sensors that monitor whether a machine is working properly instead of having someone possibly crawl under equipment to check out a problem. Sensors pick up on performance aberrations that simply can’t be detected through manual spot checks and personnel monitoring. By detecting the underpinnings of potential issues in real-time, sensors can alert maintenance teams of the need to investigate to prevent a machine failure before it happens.

Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) is a system of hardware and software elements used to control processes both locally and remotely. They are crucial for organizations as they help maintain efficiency, process data for more well-informed decisions, and communicate system issues to help mitigate loss and downtime. SCADA systems perform:

  • Data Acquisition and Communication
  • Information and Data Presentation
  • Monitoring and Control

These functions are performed by sensors, remote terminal units (RTUs), controllers, and a communication network. The sensors collect the information, RTUs send the information to the controller, which displays the status of the system. The operator can then give commands to the components of the system depending on the status

SCADA systems allow communication between the operator and the connected devices. Real-time systems have thousands of components and sensors, each gathers data and helps ensure that every part of a facility is running effectively. The real-time applications can also be controlled remotely. Access to real-time information allows entities to make data-driven decisions about how to improve processes. Without SCADA, it would be difficult to gather sufficient data for consistently well-informed decisions.

Remote Monitoring

Another way to reduce unplanned downtime is with remote alarm notification software, which allows fewer people to monitor many more assets using devices that people already have, such as smartphones and tablets. Uninterrupted remote availability is essential to ensuring systems can be continuously monitored, even without staff onsite or with fewer people working at the facility. 

Remote monitoring of critical plant systems has been extended beyond email, texts and phone calls to include apps that feature time-saving tools like real-time alarm acknowledgements, team chats to troubleshoot and resolve plant problems, and detailed reporting for preventing future incidents. Not only does this mean fewer emergency shutdowns, but also fewer resources spent on overtime and maintenance.

A mobile alarm notification app is software that seamlessly integrates with the SCADA or HMI software of an industrial operation, allowing an employee to monitor, receive and acknowledge plant and machine alarms on their smartphones or tablet, freeing them up to work throughout the facility or a remote location. Hardware and software are available that can constantly monitor equipment and, by applying machine learning to historical data, warn when a breakdown or other problem is imminent. Bolstered by wireless technology and IIoT, these customizable systems have the potential to bring predictive maintenance to a new level.

The benefits of utilizing a remote monitoring and notification software system via a mobile app include:

  • Streamlines decision making. Push notifications let users quickly see what is wrong, send an acknowledgment, and monitor alarm condition changes in real-time, right from smartphones.
  • Promotes team problem solving. Chat helps the entire team converse, brainstorm, and share solutions on-the-fly, from anywhere — whether in the plant, at home, or on the road.
  • Work more efficiently. Team Visibility shows who has seen an alarm as well as who has acknowledged it, reducing guesswork and redundant responses.
  • Multiple communication channel support.  Ensuring resiliency through voice notification and SMS messaging in the event of internet connectivity issues.

Through the installation of remote alarm notification software, manufacturers can move from reactive to a more controlled, prescriptive maintenance approach.

Remote Alarm Notification Software In Action

Greater Austin, TX-based Night Hawk Frozen Foods (Night Hawk) began in 1932 as Night Hawk Steak House, a late-night diner chain. In 1964, however, it shifted its business and became a frozen food manufacturer selling to retail grocery stores throughout Texas. People who enjoyed the diner’s famous charbroiled steaks were able to purchase them frozen and ready to cook at home.

Like all food manufacturers, Night Hawk experienced a tremendous increase in demand during the pandemic. When COVID forced people to eat every meal at home and worry if the grocery store would close, the frozen food market thrived. According to “Power of Frozen in Retail,” a February 2021 report from the American Frozen Food Institute, the dollar value of frozen food sales jumped 21 percent last year and unit sales climbed 13.3 percent. The report also showed that in late 2020, 57 percent of consumers were still purchasing more frozen foods, 58 percent were purchasing different kinds of frozen foods, 57 percent were purchasing different brands than they did pre-pandemic. 

Growing to Meet Demand

During the pandemic, Texas families grew their frozen food consumption and freezer capacity. Night Hawk knew they needed to address this situation and quickly adapted to meet demand. The company implemented a full-scale manufacturing expansion, which included a new engine room with added compressors to support the increase in production.

Frozen food manufacturing operations is a risky business with temperatures potentially shifting anywhere between 25C and -30C degrees. To stay on top of these temperature fluctuations, Night Hawk has a state-of-the art refrigeration system with a large cooler room that keeps products such as their signature steak sauce and fresh, ready-to-cook ingredients at precise temperatures. The freezer room is equally large with tall ceilings and the capacity to keep finished goods at optimal [frozen] temperatures until they are ready to be shipped.

Ensuring Efficiencies and Reducing Downtime

Ensuring safe and efficient operations is critical to Night Hawk’s business. To help reduce maintenance expenses and ensure minimal unplanned equipment downtime, the refrigeration maintenance crew uses Wonderware InTouch software to oversee and manage their control systems hardware. Integrated with this SCADA system is WIN-911 remote alarm notification software to continuously monitor the alarms and provide important security updates on the entire refrigeration system.

This configuration allows a maintenance technician or engineer to easily see the refrigeration equipment inflows and outflows status via remote view from the main office computers to closely watch temperatures, ammonium levels, and other critical metrics. 

When a monitored change occurs, an alarm notification immediately comes through and notifies the crew through email and SMS. Having this information available at a moment’s notice is key for Night Hawk’s operations. Subtle changes can have serious impacts on their inventory or crew safety if left unattended. The company’s refrigeration and maintenance crew are akin to first responders – reacting quickly and effectively to help keep the supply chain secure.

Having access to remote alarm notifications enables the company’s refrigeration crew to respond faster to maintenance requirements and keep the supply line set at optimal levels. 

The longer it takes plant personnel to respond and repair equipment, the more damaging the interruption.

Remote Monitoring Assists Growth

Most recently, Night Hawk successfully increased overall production by 50 percent using their current control systems and advanced supply chain practices. WIN-911 software played an important role in empowering Night Hawk to effectively scale with consumer and operational demands and reduce any unplanned downtime.

The company has been expanding to meet the rise in demand for frozen products. WIN-911 has enhanced their operations and control systems to make the transition easier. 

* The study was conducted prior to the pandemic at which time the country was experiencing an extended economic expansion and record-low unemployment. 


Cody P. Bann is director of engineer at Austin, TX-based WIN-911 and may be reached at [email protected]. The company helps protect over 19,000 facilities in 85 countries by delivering critical machine alarms via smartphone or tablet app, voice (VoIP and analog), text, email, and in-plant announcer, reducing operator response times, system downtime, and maintenance costs.

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