Since 2017 QSI has participated in multiple upgrade and automation projects for Wicked Weed Brewing, completing significant enhancements and expansions to their can fill lines in their craft brewery. The following case study paints a clear picture of QSI’s skill and expertise at uncovering and implementing unique solutions to new challenges.
Wicked Weed Brewing is a craft brewery located in Asheville, North Carolina. Since 2011, they’ve been developing signature flavors and stylish names like Bedeviled Golden, El Paraiso, and Lieutenant Dank. In 2017, they entered into a partnership with the Anheuser-Busch (A-B) family of craft brewers, giving them access to marketing, distribution, and capital support while maintaining freedom and control over their own operations.
Wicked Weed had plenty of beer knowledge, style, and skill. What they needed, though, was a greater presence across the country, in order to capitalize on their new partnership with A-B.
Wicked Weed therefore began an expansion of their production operations. However, this proved to be challenging almost immediately. With the current single-can production process, they were maxed out and could not meet their targets.
Wicked Weed would need not only to expand their beer-making facilities, but also their packaging process. Their current setup included systems that worked okay yet were inadequate for ramping up to meet the wider production demands.
Thus, it became obvious quickly that the production operations would need to be automated. Which often presents an additional challenge.
David McWain, project manager for A-B, said that it’s quite difficult to implement an automation that works quickly. “Most integration companies and automation companies don’t pass the first performance test the first time.” Usually that test is a requirement of line efficiency, or what percentage of its full capacity the line is running at.
For example, if a line has a capacity of 250 cans per minute, and because of problems that cause stoppage of the line the overall production is only 200 cans per minute, that’s an 80% efficiency. For the record, Wicked Weed did not have a good handle on their line efficiency, because the line itself was not automated. This led to an additional opportunity for enhancement. Automating the line would allow Wicked Weed to know exactly how efficient they were, be able to diagnose future problems faster, and develop solutions more efficiently.
But, as McWain pointed out, that’s not always a given.
A-B partnered with a contractor to design, build, and program the new automated production lines. The goals included increasing capacity and swift resolution of alarms, all of which would lead to more efficient use of the line.
As in any automation project, multiple steps were involved. QSI got engaged right from the start, consulting on electrical design. Engineers from QSI were able to provide guidance on all aspects, including the HMI (human/machine interface) layouts, alarms, and trigger systems.
An interesting twist to the standard automation process also arose early in the project. Because of Wicked Weed’s production layout, one of the steps involves a right-angle pusher. Cans filled and packaged into either 4-packs, 6-packs, or cases wait at the end of a conveyor. When the appropriate quota has been met, they are then pushed off at a right angle for the next step. An additional challenge is that this quota varies by the brew and the packaging requirements, so flexibility in design and action are a must.
This became a problem, because slight irregularities in the alignment of the varying packs or cases mean that sometimes those bundles getting pushed to the side would bump against a fixed barrier and alarm the line to stop. Stopping the line means cans and packs weren’t moving through the process fast enough, that the line was experiencing down time, and that overall the facility was not running as efficiently as it could.
In order to overcome this bottleneck, QSI consulted on a solution that involved a variable mechanical stopper to align the various cases or packs before pushing. QSI brought engineering experience and combined it with a real-world solution to the problem. The stopper could be adjusted for the number of packs necessary in each push, it could appear or disappear as necessary (depending on the packaging requirements), and it would help to ensure proper alignment at each push, meaning that there would be less blockage and less down time.
Once the mechanical designs were in place, electrical design and programming were necessary. QSI engineers worked to customize not only the software underneath, but the external interface as well. They designed and programmed the HMI system, developed a series of alarms and triggers, and programmed everything to interact seamlessly.
David McWain, the project manager from A-B overseeing the Wicked Weed can line expansion, said that QSI passed all their benchmarks with spectacular margins. “98% line efficiency, they passed on the first try,” he said. This is unusual, he said. Remember, most automation projects don’t pass with the first implementation. For QSI to hit that benchmark meant faster completion of the project, at a lower cost, with higher satisfaction.
What was most special, though, about working with QSI was the people. McWain said that QSI’s ability to create real-time solutions to open questions was unparalleled in the industry. Often, responses from other engineers could take up to a week, delaying projects and adding significant barriers. But from QSI, solutions usually came back quickly, sometimes even the same day. “Really, very timely solutions to open items,” he said.
And overall, the expansion and automation project has gone well. A-B has continued the relationship with QSI, too, including them in multiple projects since the first. These investments have helped Wicked Weed increase production from 30,000 barrels a year to 150,000 now, with a target for more. And McWain has decided to work with QSI directly, rather than going through other contractors. Why? “It’s their ability for real-time solutions. Which is pretty big in the automation world. … And all their solutions were cost-efficient.”
What a great combination.