Laboratory 4.0 for flour mill

07 March 20227 min reading

Industry 4.0 – digitalization – opened up new opportunities in the mill industry. This also affects the equipment of the mill laboratory. The term "Laboratory 4.0" stands for innovative automation concepts and digitalization in everyday laboratory work. The pressure for innovation and efficiency is making the laboratory equipment industry rethink the way they operate their equipment. 

Food Engineer and Milling Technologist

The flour mill laboratory has many missions. The main purpose of the mill laboratory is to check and evaluate the quality of incoming wheat and to make sure that the produced flour varieties are consistently suitable for their customers' purposes. The laboratory also performs various routine tests like moisture, ash and color of intermediate materials in the mill as required to optimize mill performance by maintaining machine adjustments. 

The mill laboratory provides miller with the data which is important to make many decisions related to wheat blending, wheat conditioning, mill adjustment, and flour blending. But these days routine analyses besides additional tests such as starch damage of intermediate streams that may be affected by mill settings are carried out "on stream" on line equipment.

The mill laboratory should be located in a separate building of the mill, to avoid any possibility of vibration that can affect instrument performance. 

The laboratory space should be divided into sections allocated to the wheat section, wheat conditioning and milling, analysis and dough testing, flour sample storage, and baking. If the mill has a research and development department a separate section should be allocated in the laboratory for quality control of special products produced in the mill.

The environmental conditions (relative humidity and temperature) play a very important role in the results and replication of tests; therefore, the environment of the mill laboratory should be controlled. 

The equipment that must be present in the laboratory of the mill varies according to the aims and objectives of the mill. A quite extensive laboratory could include equipment for measuring a range of samples, such as bulk density, dockage, single kernel analysis, Hagberg Falling Number, hardness, moisture, protein, gluten ash, color, Bran Specks starch damage, particle size, dough rheology, laboratory mill, NIR (near-infrared) and baking. Dough rheology measurements can be achieved by equipment such as Farinograph, Extensograph, amylograph, alveograph, mixolab.

Wheat flour products verities are highly wide and bread production procedure is changed from one customer to another. In other words, the mill supplies a wide range of flour qualities to a large number of customers with varying demands. Baking test in the mill laboratory is very important to control and assuring these requirements by evaluating the requirements of a certain customer’s specific demands. It is necessary to collect information from customers on the different types of end-use formulas in which the flour is used. 

The mill laboratory should choose one of the official procedures and methods to be followed, the American Association of Cereal Chemists (AACC), the Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC) International, or the International Association for Cereal Science and Technology (ICC). The mills that implement International Standards Organization (ISO) 9000 certification program should use the ICC methods which is certified by ISO.

With mills running 24 hours, the mill laboratory may be having one to three-shift laboratory staff. It depends on mill size, type of equipment in the laboratory, kinds of flours produced, frequency of wheat mix changes, and wage rates. Increasingly simple tests in the mill are carried out using NIR equipment by the miller to reduce laboratory working hours. Mills equipped with on-line equipment (NIR) checking some intermediate streams parameters to maintain machine adjustments is greatly reduce the scope and range of laboratory tests.  

The partnership between the laboratory employees and the operating miller by continuous sharing of information is necessary to ensure product quality management decisions. 

Mill laboratory -like other mill sections, it should enforce safety rules and procedures in the laboratory. The location of fire extinguishers, first aid boxes and warning signals should be reviewed regularly according to safety rules and regulations.

Industry 4.0 – digitalization – opened up new opportunities in the mill industry. This also affects the equipment of the mill laboratory. The term "Laboratory 4.0" stands for innovative automation concepts and digitalization in everyday laboratory work. The pressure for innovation and efficiency is making the laboratory equipment industry rethink the way they operate their equipment. 

To apply "Laboratory 4.0" concepts for the laboratory of the future various IoT devices are digitally networked with to the web-based platform which enables easy accessing to multiple equipment simultaneously and to its results which is collected at a central database. This system should help the laboratory staff to automate the daily work which was done manually or by spreadsheets software. Web-based database systems which include all laboratory data can provide statistical analysis in tabulated and graphic forms. Statistical analysis will help in predicting the future trends that can be and often will be if the system is supported by artificial intelligent algorithms. Mill laboratory staff face difficulties at a new crop. Comparison of new crop data with previous years is beneficial in understanding differences between crops.  Another good exercise to show new crop wheat differences is to test the flours of each stream. 

The corporation mills blend various types of wheat to produce flours with distinct and consistent quality and to ensure a smooth transition from old to new crop wheat especially for high throughput facilities because changes are magnified at high-capacity customer processes.

Faults in raw materials and milling picked up in the laboratory can be corrected by blending a substandard flour with over better ones. Laboratory staff decide which products and the blending ratios should be mixed to minimize potential customer complaints. The AI laboratory systems have a superior capability to trace trouble through each step of the milling process and help to meet customers’ requirements. These systems should be supported with deep learning algorithms that solve linear programming and operations research problems to determine the least cost formulation of wheat and flours blending. Statistical information can also be used to control the financial results of increased or decreased quality.

Obviously, web-based systems support the disciplines of Good Manufacturing Practice, Total Quality Management and certification for ISO 9000. According to GMP, TQM or ISO the mill laboratory is tasked with setting hygiene instructions, as well as monitoring and, auditing hygiene throughout the mill.

The accuracy and consistency of testing results is very important. Regardless of the advanced the instruments of any laboratory are, it is not possible to obtain consistently reliable results without periodic maintenance and calibration according to the supplier's recommendation. To get the best performance from the laboratory should be accredited. “ISO 17025 enables laboratories to demonstrate that they operate competently and generate valid results, thereby promoting confidence in their work both nationally and around the world”. In accredited laboratories, validation analyzes are carried out. It can be difficult to obtain ISO 17025 certification for laboratory mill, so to verify laboratory results it should qualify repeatability and reproducibility of laboratory tests every 3 months. In addition to that, it is useful to have one or more independent, outside laboratory, perhaps as the principal laboratory. If the laboratory could not obtain an accurate result, it will face a misunderstanding of customers' complaint.

About the author

Prof. Dr. Farhan Alfin is an Independent Consultant for production and quality control at wheat flour mills. He obtained his Ph.D. from Ege University in Izmir, Turley, from the department of food engineering in 2000. He worked at Avrasya University (Trabzon – Turkey) from 2015 to 2019 and hold the position of head of the food engineering department. He worked at Albaath University in Homs City, Syria at the food engineering department from 2000 to 2015, and he held the position of head of the department from 2006 to 2010. During that period, he offered his consultancy and education services to several flour mills in Syria. On another level, he worked as the executive manager of Alakhras Mill in Homs from 2009 to 2015. He is also the author of “Cereal Milling Technology” book written in Arabic language.

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