Data Collection - A-M Systems

Business Development - Consulting / Products / Services - since 1986
A-M Systems
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One of the problems involved ”data entry” (remember the term key punch?), i.e. getting the data from the production area to the computer. By the time the data got to the computer and was put into a report form, its value was diminished because of time and errors. Because of the number of times that the data got handled, many errors were induced. As a result of these conditions, in 1986 the focus of our company was changed to specialize in data collection. Bar Coding had been around for years, but now there were special systems available for manufacturers and distributors to conveniently get production data from the floor to the computer. There still are not a lot of companies that have ‘fixed station’ Data Collection Terminals, so it is important to know which ones have features that allow the most productivity.
Since the Sales Department generally drives a company, many of the early solutions to “…what do we have to sell?” (data collection) involved scanners on the docks or warehouses to report inventory and shipments.  Many of these have been, and some still are, “batch” systems. Nothing wrong with this approach, except it did little for the plant managers and local management to know what was going on in the production area.
Many of the systems that were installed in the plant involved running a network cable throughout the plant to each data collection device. NOTE: This method is still being used by those companies with “on-the-floor” PC solutions and by companies with hardwired solutions to a single computer server. The best solution today for communicating with devices in the plant is through wireless systems. Wireless devices have become extremely reliable and economical. Minimal wiring is required in the plant to strategically locate Access Point (RF receivers) that can communicate with the individual Data Collection Terminals. Not only is the cabling reduced, but some of the new Access Points can receive “power-over-Ethernet”, thus eliminating one of the major expenses of getting power to isolated locations. This has been a significant cost savings when automating the plant floor.
With this level of technology, the time that it takes to get the data from the plant floor to the computer is reduced to virtually zero. And since the data goes directly from the production floor to the computer, the “re-handling”, and associated errors is eliminated. Of more interest to plant and local management is the fact that now the information that they receive is current, accurate and therefore much more valuable.
One of the best applications for this type of system was (and still is) Time & Attendance, i.e. having the employees swipe a badge through a badge reader to record their time - start time, breaks, stop time, etc..  Time & Attendance may have different meanings, but generally it means “time stamping” (logging an exact time) for applications such as payroll, job tracking, etc. In 1988, a major meat processing company contracted with our company to install this type of system.

With the new badge reader Data Collection Terminals, within minutes of a shift start, a report could be run to determine manpower availability and thus they were able to quickly schedule tasks and move personnel to priority production areas. It was thus used as an “attendance” system, although it did also provide data for the payroll system.
Another application associated with personnel is “Access Control”, i.e. limiting an individual to a certain area or location, or perhaps limiting a “time” to a certain area or location. In a Meat Processing business, this could be a turnstile gate entry, storeroom, or a number of other areas where “control” may be desired. What makes this a powerful system is the fact that the tables are stored on the PC, but are downloaded to the individual terminals for operation. That means that the PC can go down or go away and the terminals still operate.
One of the problems that we encountered in Access Control for a large meat plant operation was that of employee turnover. The normal procedure was to build an Employee Table that could be down loaded to the Access Control Data Collection Terminal. As badges were scanned at the gate, the table is interrogated and the internal relays activate a turnstile, if badge is accepted, or to activate a red light if the badge is not accepted. The problem was that the Employee Table could only be updated on a daily basis, but if an employee was terminated it may be necessary to immediately remove that number from the table. The entire system could not be brought down for individual updates. The solution was to have the Access Control system constantly monitoring the network for small “ADD” and “DEL” files coming from the Host system, that would allow the Access Control Data Collection Terminal to update the internal files. Now the system is current and updated in “real time”.
One of the primary functions of a meat business involves scales.  In 1990, we designed and installed a bar code/data collection system for a turkey processor. Their primary application was for weighing birds and cases(boxes). As individual birds were weighed, a record was written to the computer and a bar code label was produced to apply to the bird. They also weighed cases and produced case labels that identified the product, weight, etc.
One of the techniques that we developed on this application is still a very large part of installations that we are involved with to this day. In this operation there were a lot of birds coming down the conveyor line. The procedure was for the operator to place the bird on the scale platform, wait for the scale indicator to settle, press a button, wait for a label to be produced, then take the label and apply it to the bird, move that bird, get the next bird on the platform…well you get the idea. It was a bottleneck that was causing product backup. One alternative was to add another line, but that was an economic hardship, plus there simply was no more physical room for another scale line. Our solution was to use the features of the Data Collection Terminal and the scale indicator. The scale indicator was setup to “transmit on settlement”. This meant that the operator need not have to wait or press any buttons. The Data Collection Terminal program was changed to wait for an “input” from the scale indicator. As soon as that was received, the Data Collection Terminal activated a relay that blinked a light. This was a visual indication to the operator that the bird on the platform could now be moved, even though the label had not yet been printed (since the terminal was still formatting). Now the production flow was optimized and the bottleneck was eliminated.
In 1991, a major pork kill and processing plant installed this system in the plant to weigh cases, print serialized case labels, as well as serialized pallet labels.  We developed a coding procedure to incorporate into the Lot # that would identify day, production period, line #, and plant number The accuracy of the data coming from the production floor was significantly increased and the ability to track lot numbers proved to be extremely useful. Also the inventory was much more accurate since each case could be identified and the shipping process streamlined.
In 1993, a co-packer ham processing plant needed a system not only to do catch weights, but also net weight products. They needed to be able to do all of the data collection and bar code labeling for a variety of their 50+ customers. After they installed their bar coding and data collection system, they were able to increase their production with little additional overhead. Their ability to conform to individual customer requests proved to be a major customer relation’s benefit.
Floor scales are also very common for many products that wind up in a Combo. The Combo may be for re-work or re-sale, but it still needs to be weighed, labeled and tracked. The same is true for Combos or Pallets that are being Received. While many plants do little with the Receiving of Raw Materials, it is becoming a critical concern when planning an accurate Lot Tracking System or preparing for HACCP.
When an order comes into the warehouse, the Order # is entered into the Portable Data Collection Terminal while it is in its network docking cradle. The Portable Data Collection Terminal requests from the PC Host to locate and download the order. The Product # and the number of cases to pull is downloaded into the Portable Data Collection Terminal. After the download procedure, the Portable Data Collection Terminal is removed from the cradle and is taken to the warehouse. The original Pallet # is scanned followed by the scanning of each case as it is removed from the original pallet. Each case is verified to be on the order as well as tracking the weight so as not to load to much, or at least know about it if is done. At the completion of this operation, a New Pallet label is printed from a small portable printer that is attached to the Portable Data Collection Terminal. A Load Sheet can be printed at the dock when the order is complete. NOTE: this describes only one of many variations that are possible. A Fixed Station Data Collection Terminal can also work if the pallets are coming to the loadout area. Also, the new model wireless terminals are very common for this application. It is important to note that there are numerous devices and methods for this application.
In 1998, a small pork kill plant in North Carolina with limited resources needed some way to keep up with production information without having to add additional office staff - they physically had no room for more clerical staff. A system was designed and installed that allowed them to greatly increase their production information without adding people. This system provided a real savings and with a short term payback.
Their first application was a catch weight application for hanging carcasses. The operator first does a setup and enters the Lot # being processed.  This Lot # is entered only one time and is included in each record that is eventually written to the computer. During the normal operation, the scale operator presses a “grade” button prior to rolling the carcass on to the rail scale. After rolling the carcass on to the scale, the operator watchs for the indicator light to blink. This is the visual indication that the carcass weight has been received in the terminal and can be rolled off of the scale. This data is fed back to the computer and management can see “real time” information pertaining to which lot is being processed, the unit count and the average weight for each grade. Totals for each grade, as well as the grand totals are also displayed.
After the carcass is weighed, it goes to the break line. But unlike their larger counter-parts, this small operation has to send a variety of different break parts down the same conveyor line, i.e. multiple products moving on the same conveyor. Once a product case is filled, the scale operator visually determines which product it is and the scans that product number from a product menu that is taped to the scale.  The Data Collection Terminal does a product look-up from a stored table file to get the appropriate information, such as: description, whether catch weight or net weight item, sell-by-days, tare weight, and more. Then the case is placed on the scale platform to produce a case label, as well as sending the record back to the computer. After the label is applied, the case is placed on a pallet.
Note: in some plant operations, the pallets are labeled at the scale station…some go to a pallet station to be labeled…some cases move down a conveyor to a palleting area.
Once loaded, the pallet moves to the cooler. At the cooler door, each case is scanned and a serialized pallet label is produced. A record is also sent to the computer. This record is also used for production inventory. In this application, it was noisy.  While this system was designed so as not to allow duplicate scans to be scanned, it was still a slow process if the operator had to scan a case the second time because he wasn’t sure if the case got recorded. We installed a small horn/buzzer on the terminal that was activated on a good scan. This gave the operator an audio response and greatly improved the procedure for scanning cases on a pallet. We had already added an extension cable to the scanner to give the operator some mobility and to be able to move around the pallet. I might add that there are wireless models now available to eliminate some the problems where extension cables are not practical.
When a shipping order is processed, the sales order and the truck/trailer are identified. As pallets are loaded, the serialized pallet number is scanned. A record is written to the computer showing the Order #, Product #, Truck/Trailer #, etc. At the end of the load, a Load-out report and a manifest can be immediately created. There is no delay in holding the truck.
Much more is involved than is narrated here, but what is important to note is that this processor can maintain a history file of the records from each production operation thus giving them the ability to trace an individual case back to the “on-hoof” source. Recall concerns can be greatly reduced. This structure also provides a huge portion of the information that is required for HACCP.
A major turkey company has contracted with our company to update their production facilities at their plants. The initial project will be to print (catch weight) tail tags for the whole bird and breast/roast lines. These are the poly tags that are attached to the product at the netting and scale stations. The entire area has been analyzed for a state-of-the-art wireless network. As each bird (or breast/roast) is weighed, a tag is printed with the weight, a lot #, pricing(if appropriate by customer)and various other data, as required by individual customers. The information on the tag will be an integration of bar code technology and human readable data. This information is gathered at a server that will not only be accessible by corporate, but will also be used to create various local production reports for supervisors and foremen.
After each unit is weighed and tagged, it is quick frozen and boxed. The boxes are the weighed and a case(box) label is printed and applied. Again, this information from the boxing stations is transmitted over the wireless network and is also used by many layers of management for accounting and production reporting.
The next phase of this in-plant project will be to include the other plant floor applications. In total, these applications will form the Work-In-Process (WIP) for the plant. These applications will include rail scales at the hanging lines to record bird weight at the load-line station and then to have another rail scale in the “hot weight” hanging area. Among other features, this will capture such data as, date/time, the source, truck, actual count, actual weight, averages, initial product yield, and a lot more.
Included in this phase, will be the integration of all the other scales, including floor scales. All Tanks/Tubs/Totes/Combos will be weighed and the data gathered. The entire production operation will then be able to immediate show the relationships between all operations. The information will be timely and accurate - a significant increase in the value of the data coming from the production floor.
After being palletized, each case will be scanned and a pallet manifest and a serialized pallet label will be created. This will be the source of the finish goods that both plant management and corporate needs on a timely basis. Likewise, all of the Combos will be identified as needing “further processing” or that they will leave the premises as a “finish goods” item. Regardless, management will have an immediate feedback/reporting ability on all finished product.
The data from all of the applications that are involved in WIP and Finish Goods will be integrated into a “product tracking system” that will greatly enhance the ability to locate the source of a product or an ingredient.
Additional features of the system that is being installed, will be to incorporate indicator lights at the scale. These lights will give the operator an immediate visual indication that the scale has settled and that it is now possible the move the item (whether bird or box), even though the label may not yet have been printed. This is extremely helpful in “optimizing” the throughput at each scale station. Also incorporated into the terminal/print/scale station will be “counter” display. This will be a bright display, with large characters that are not only visible to the operator, but can also be seen easily by a supervisor or lead person. Among other usages, the counter will show an average throughput for this line. This is valuable to management to determine the capabilities of the operator. It can also be extremely useful in determining problems with the scale indicator, and whether or not it needs re-programmed, re-calibrated or to be replaced.
Combos (fresh) and Pallets/Cases (frozen) product is received from various producers of beef, pork, turkey and chicken. As the product is received, it will be identified, weighed and re-labeled. It will then move to the cooler. If necessary, the product received can be immediately checked against a Purchase Order for product verification. There will likely be an increase of suppliers in the future as the number of products produced increases. All material received is weighed on a floor scale and then moved to the cooler.
Now with a plant floor, interactive system, not only can the Recipe # be verified, but also the inventory tracking of ingredients for a specific final product is possible. Perhaps more importantly than tracking the inventory of the ingredient is the fact that now the specific ingredient and the exact weight/measurement can be verified. This will be a significant aid in eliminating re-work and incorrect formulation.
Injection & Tumble Room
The start of the processing cycle moves the raw material from the cooler to the Injection & Tumble Room. It is weighed on a floor scale prior to the start of any operation and the raw material, as well as the finished product will be identified. The material then moves either to the injection machines or the tumbling machines. Again, as to tubs move, the operation is identified and the data is collected. After it is tumbled, the product is once again weighed and then moves either to the stuffing cooler or to the stuffing machine area.
Stuffing Room
Several different products are created with the stuffing machines. At each operation, the operational process is tracked and data is collected.
The product is weighed as it moves from the stuffing room to the ovens to be cooked and then weighed again and data collected.
From the ovens the product is moved to the blast cooler and then to the storage cooler. As the tubs move, the tubs are identified and data collected.
Packing Room
When the product comes to the packaging room, it is boxed and weighed and a serialized bar code label is attached to the box. The cases are placed on a pallet. After the pallet is complete, each box is scanned and a serialized pallet label is printed and applied. Some products are pre-priced and labeled on a scale prior to being boxed.
Recently we have designed a system for a custom kill plant. Not only is this processor getting multiple critters from a customer, but they are also getting a “variety” of critters, including beef, pork, lamb, turkey and maybe even a deer or two. Their customers may have one critter for their own family needs or the customer may be a meat company that is producing an “all natural” product for resale in a retail environment. What is important for this company is not only to track the correct amount of meat for their customer, but to also make sure that it is the correct “type” of meat. In this setting, a serial number is generated that stays with the critter all the way from the time it is killed until the packaged product is in the hands of the customer.
RFID Solutions
With the recent interest by the government and major retailers, Radio frequency identification (RFID) is becoming increasingly popular as a complement to bar coding or as a stand-alone solution. Learn more about what we can do for you in analyzing application areas. We are working with many of the world’s leading manufacturers of RFID transponders, encoders and readers, as well as such products as thermal on-demand bar code printers and smart label compliance solutions.
RFID is also becoming increasingly capable of intgrating with, and as a complement to bar coding. And of course it still is very practical as a stand-alone solution. RFID's flexibility, batch read capabilities, rewrite functionality and durability provide added value to users who are facing tough automatic identification and data collection (AIDC) challenges. It can offer a new consideration for products and items that heretofore would not be practical for bar coding, such as irregular shaped products (such as whole turkeys and bone-in hams), products and packaging that make it impractical to be scanned by a bar code reader, and a host of other new possibilities.
In one of the very early projects, it became apparent that there was not a source for economical environmental enclosures for the printers and Data Collection Terminals that we were installing on the production floor. With similar systems, the solution had been to have the local stainless steel welder fabricate an enclosure.  The enclosures cost more than the devices that they were protecting, but that was the price that the company had to pay for electronic devices in a wet, damp environment. Our search uncovered plastic materials that were food grade acceptable. The final price for enclosures fabricated from space age, food grade plastics was generally much less than a stainless steel model.
With the state-of-the-art moving swiftly to wireless facilities, we have experienced an increase in need for Environmental Enclosures for  Access Points that need to be installed in a wide range of environmental conditions, including warehouses and coolers.
From those early models came additional innovations, such as the fan/filter option. This add-on fan option brings air into the enclosure, passing it through a filter that can be cleaned or replaced. The combination of the plastics and the fan/filter eliminated one of the major problems that is inherent in stainless steel - sweating. While stainless steel protected the printer or Data Collection Terminals from moisture from the outside, the sweating on the inside still caused the devices to rust or experience problems that are caused by moisture.
Another extremely beneficial option that was added to the enclosure was a small heater. We sere soon faced with another problem that exists when the devices are inside freezers or on the dock, or any of a number of similar locations that can exist in a meat processing plant. The prior solution was a light bulb or something similar, but that was not “food grade” acceptable. Our chief engineer designed a heater made from a rubber material coating internal heating elements. The heater could additional have a small inline thermostat that could be set between two ranges. This means that the heater does not have to operate continuously and therefore was very effective and economical, while keeping the inside dry and free from harmful moisture.
Another option for the Combo Enclosure (houses both a Data Collection Terminal and a Bar Code Printer) that is being tested is a small counter display. This is attached to the switch option on the terminals and can be programmed to display product being produced, order number, units/throughput, balance of order remaining, average(units/time period), or other data as appropriate. In some Enclosures, small indicator lights may be installed that can be attached to the Data Collection Terminal and the Scale Indicator. One of the primary uses of these small industrial lights is to blink (turn it on, then off) when the scale indicator settles. Now the operator can move the product and stage the next unit to be weighed. In time sensitive weighing applications, this has allowed operators to increase the throughput significantly. Another use of the indicator lights may be “weight out of range”.
We have installed other products to improve the productive of a meat processing plant such as large character time displays that can be networked to show exactly the same time on each display. This network of time displays is attached to a single PC that downloads the same time to each display.
We also have installed message displays in the plant to communicate to the production floor from the office. We have tested and reviewed translator software so that the message may be delivered in a variety of languages, including Spanish. As an example, the two line model makes it easy to display English on the top line and Spanish on the bottom line.
Mad-Cow disease has created new concerns. One of our beef-kill customers had a problem of locating the head that had been removed from the carcass if inspection rejected the carcass. We designed a simple system that would transmit the Carcass ID data down the line to the head line. Here that Carcass ID would be displayed, as well as printed, and the operator at this station can remove the head from the normal production process. Thus saving considerable time and reducing serious errors.
I have always been amazed at how little time and money is spent on these areas, particularly Equipment Monitoring. This task is generally the responsibility of Maintenance Department using clipboards and pencils.

Quality Control personnel get to wear white, but otherwise generally use the same recording techniques that are used by Maintenance. I relate the story of the major food processor that lost three days of production when it was determined that the meat that they were using in their product was undercooked and had been for an extended period of time. They literally lost millions of dollars because of lack of attention to the critical area of operation.
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A-M Systems
204 S Broadway St - Box 459
Red Oak IA, 51566-0459
712-623-5555 office
402-305-2575 cell
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