Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010 – The Year We Make Contact With a PID, an SSR, a 60A Panel, and a Shop Vac

(Cue Slim Pickens: “Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff!”)

I'm not a real fan of reviewing the past when it's all chronicaled in that “Blog Archive” area to your left. Dig around under the ads, you'll find it. (Click a few ads while you're looking because I need some more grain.) I'll spend my time here looking forward into next year. In a way, what I'm hoping to do in 2010 will address some of the stuff I would have been reviewing, but don't let that stop you from clicking some ads...I mean, reviewing previous posts.

I'd like 2010 to be a year where I improve (a) product quality and (b) consumer popularity.

“Quality is conformance to requirements” and other lies they told you in ISO-9001 school

Let's think about the quality thing first. I know a lot of homebrewers take what they are doing very seriously and are into the whole contest and judging scene. Even among those who don't compete, there's a lot of effort put into creating beer that matches the BJCP guidelines, resulting in a perception of quality as an evaluation of how well a particular beer conforms to the specific elements of those guidelines.

I'm not that picky. What I will define as quality is more akin to consistency from batch to batch than conformance to style. For example, I brewed multiple batches of Geordie-Boy Ale in 2009 and I don't think any two of them were alike. None of them were particularly bad, but I'd like to get down to one consistent result so I can make planned improvements rather than accidental ones. It doesn't concern me one whit if the result matches the BJCP requirements for 11C Northern English Brown Ale as long as I like it, since I'm the one who drinks the vast majority of F&H's produce.

How can I improve consistency from batch to batch? This is a topic that I ought to know a little about, given my day job. In a commercial environment, my answer would be to decompose the process into its components and see where the variations are introduced, looking at things like (in no particular order):
  • Formulation consistency (e.g. bill of materials control)
  • Process repeatability (e.g. proper step execution and sequencing)
  • Raw material variability (e.g. material performance and characteristics consistency from lot to lot)
  • Equipment performance control (e.g. accurate measurement and control of process variables)
If you do click some ads...I mean, review the 2009 archives, you'll see that I didn't manage to achieve very highly in any one of those areas. You have to start somewhere on improvements, so I'm going to address these in particular:
  • Equipment performance control
    • Strike and sparge water temperature control
    • Fermentation temperature monitoring
    • Fermentation temperature control
    • Mash temperature monitoring
    • Mash temperature control
  • Process repeatability
    • Work instructions for production operations
    • Work instructions for cleaning operations
    • Racking process standardization
  • Raw material variability
    • Storage environmental control
    • Local crushing of grain at point of use
    • Large volume stocking of key ingredients
  • Formulation consistency
    • Inventory accuracy
    • Work instructions for weigh/dispense
    • Measurement accuracy for weigh/dispense
If I can see improvement in half of those things it will have been a good 2010. Of course, being a good consultant, if I knock them out before May I'm sure I can find more things to correct.

Actually, I'm already underway with all of the Work Instruction items, as I have been working on building ISA-95 production models in Proficy Workflow for Shaun of the Dead, and once I validate them I will extend them to the other recipes I have and will produce in the future. My approach here is to adapt the process steps that BeerSmith generates on its brew sheets into a set of Workflow forms and workflows. I'm also planning to create a modular weigh/dispense activity that I can reuse in every recipe, with a form that can be attached to a scale via serial connection or OPC, showing live weighment feedback. (A big challenge will be getting an appropriate scale, though. Anybody have an old Sartorius or Mettler-Toledo they'd be willing to part with for some homebrew?)

As far as the equipment performance items are concerned, I intend to address the water temperature control issues with an all-electric hot liquor tank (HLT). I'm going to pull a 60A subpanel out into the garage so I can run a 5500W heating element in the HLT, controlled by a PID temperature controller like this. The PID will switch a solid-state relay (SSR) attached to a heating element. This should allow me to set a precise temperature for strike and sparge water and hit and hold it every time.

Fermentation temperature control will depend on incremental improvements to my current system for now, maybe including the addition of a radiant heater for winter brewing. First, though, I need to start logging temperatures on a continuous basis. I need to finish the Webcontrol project, get my probes built, and get them positioned in the right places: mash tun, HLT, and carboys. (Need some carboy caps for that.)

Finally, with respect to raw materials, I think at some point this year I will buy a grain mill and start getting my grain whole instead of crushed. That will hopefully reduce crush variability from batch to batch, reducing the swings in efficiency. I also think it will help with freshness, as the crushed grain doesn't keep as long as whole kernels. I expect that to allow me to stock more grain so I have more flexibility in my production plans, reducing the length of the supply chain.

I'll address the consumer issues in the next post.

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