No time for compromise
The importance of maintenance in times of pressure
The current Coronavirus outbreak has led to increased pressure on the food industry. For example, a penchant for lockdown baking means that grocery sales of flour increased in the UK by 92 per cent. This causes smaller mills, such as one in Oxfordshire, to begin running at 24-hour operations for the first time in its 125-year history. When under pressure to upscale production, manufacturers cannot forget the importance of good practice, particularly in highly regulated industries. Here Clive Jones, managing director of thermal fluid specialist Global Heat Transfer, explores the importance of maintenance in these times.
Food, beverage and pharmaceutical manufacturers are under growing pressure to continue delivering high-quality products in reaction to customer behaviour. As well as stockpiling, disruption is causing shortages that will impact critical industries. For example, demand for gas in the US has dropped, leading to manufacturers also reducing the production of ethanol and its by-product — CO2. Without CO2 supply, beverage manufacturers have to pay more for the gas to continue beer and soda production.
In times of changing demand, manufacturers operating with skeleton staff and may postpone less important processes to increase production. However, neglecting any process that can negatively impact quality or safety in industries such as food and beverage and pharmaceuticals can lead to costly and wasteful recalls.
Now’s the time
Manufacturers in these highly regulated industries cannot overlook the importance of maintenance in times of pressure, particularly when working with heat transfer fluids. Once a thermal oil enters a heat transfer system, the manufacturer can no longer see its condition — so might not notice issues until they impact production.
Inefficient heat transfer caused by degradation of thermal oil can lead to poor quality products, from inconsistent cooking of food to improper blending pharmaceutical ingredients for tablets. If manufacturers cannot prove that the product is safe, entire batches of product must be thrown out. Any manufacturer using thermal fluids should consider how to monitor and manage its degradation to adhere to regulations, minimise risk and maintain productivity.
The reason that these problems can occur is that over time, the molecules in a thermal fluid will break down by a process called thermal cracking, which creates volatile light-ends and heavy-ends. The build-up of light end components is a potential fire risk because they decrease the ignition temperature of the heat transfer fluid. The accumulation of heavy-ends results in the formation of sticky carbon deposits or sludge, which reduces the efficiency of the system and can eventually cause the system to break down.
Regular heat transfer fluid sampling is the best way to ensure that thermal oil will not negatively impact production. Engineers should take samples when the thermal fluid is hot and circulating to ensure it is an accurate representation of fluid condition inside the system.
Engineers should then send the sample to a reputable thermal fluid specialist for analysis. The specialist will conduct tests to measure parameters such as flash point temperature, carbon levels and total acid number (TAN). A final report will show findings on the oil’s condition and provide recommendations on how to maintain thermal fluid efficiency. Regular sampling gives engineers the insight needed to anticipate fluid lifespan and mitigate degradation, optimising system productivity and reducing the risk to safety of employees or expensive downtime.
All manufacturers, from the small Oxfordshire mill to large US beverage manufacturers must respond to changes in demand to continue stocking shelves during this time of disruption. However, in times of stress, manufacturers have a responsibility to keep staff and production as safe and efficient as possible to supply high-quality and safe products to the market, so maintenance must remain a priority.