Mill E3 in action

How granular data is revolutionizing milling

Years in the planning, the first Mill E3 is now a reality providing vast quantities of digital data on the milling process that is set to transform milling practices globally. 

  

The idea of building one of the most advanced flour mill’s conceivable has been a shared ambition for both Bühler and the UK’s largest flour miller Whitworth Bros. Ltd. Today, that ambition is a reality. The gleaming profile of the Mill E3 sits just off one of the main arteries of the UK’s motorway network on which Whitworth’s distinctive yellow bulk tankers fan out daily delivering flour to its customers.

Sitting on a six-acre site at Whitley Bridge in Yorkshire, the flour mill is the culmination of years of planning. But it was the moment the first consignment of wheat arrived for milling in early 2021 that the Mill E3 truly evolved from vision to reality. This futuristic plant was designed to become a test bed for the milling industry. What is being learned and developed here has the potential to transform milling practices globally. “The Mill E3 is a step change from the traditional way of operating a flour mill. It allows us to challenge the boundaries and continue moving forward with the SmartMill technology to really expand the opportunities within milling,” explains Mike Peters, Managing Director of Whitworth Bros. 

Whitworth Bros' yellow bulk tanker. Whitworth Bros' yellow bulk tanker.

At the heart of this voyage of discovery lies digital data and at the heart of digitalization lie sensors, and the automation system that provides the data. Fifteen thousand data points monitor every aspect of the production from raw material delivery to the sealing of flour-laden trucks ready for delivery to clients. Every five seconds sensors feed data to Mercury MES to facilitate control of every aspect of the mill’s internal workings and to Bühler Insights where algorithms compare past and present production parameters to ensure the mill is always operating at optimal efficiency. 

 

Roman Sonderegger, Head of Wheat and Rye at Bühler Roman Sonderegger, Head of Wheat and Rye at Bühler.

“This is an incredibly exciting project for us. We launched it at our Networking Days @IpackIma in Milan in 2018 and now, here at Whitworth, it is a reality,” says Roman Sonderegger, Bühler Head of Wheat and Rye. “This mill allows us to gather and analyze amounts of data that we have never had the opportunity to collect before. It means we will be finding out things about the milling process that we have never even thought of, enabling us to come up with ideas and new services that we can turn into a reality for all our customers.”

Built on trust

Whitworth Bros. Ltd. is a traditional family company that has put technological innovation at the heart of its business model. It is a philosophy that has transformed the company through a process of organic growth and acquisition into the UK’s largest miller. The Whitworths Holdings Limited, Milling Group has 17 flour mills across 10 sites. Central to the development of the Mill E3 has been the relationship forged over 20 years between the people working at Bühler and Whitworth Bros. It has engendered a trust which has enabled both companies to first collaborate on the building of this innovative mill and now to work together to develop the sort of digital innovations that will revolutionize milling practices.  

 

“Bühler is excellent at building flour mills and we are pretty good at running them,” says Peters, who has nearly 40 years of experience in the milling industry. “We can feedback observations in real time conditions in which we are dealing with client expectations and production pressures. Running and maintaining a mill is quite different from building one.”

Bühler is excellent at building flour mills and we are pretty good at running them.

Mike Peters, Managing Director of Whitworth Bros

Mike Peters, Managing Director at Whitworth Bros. Ltd. Mike Peters, Managing Director at Whitworth Bros. Ltd.

For Peters, one of the most powerful aspects of the Mill E3 is the volume and speed of the data flow. “What is most exciting about the technology is that it provides the operator with data in real time which enables the miller to take key and well-informed decisions about the plant,” he explains. “We feel at Whitworth that we are pioneering and what we need to understand through the 15,000 data points is the optimum machine parameters needed to make very consistent end products. Once that is defined accurately you can then be more exacting in the way you set up your mill process and further push your process capabilities.”

 

 

A revolutionary design

  

Arrius integrated grinding system
Airlock Module
Vitaris Combicleaner cleaning system Vitaris Combicleaner cleaning system

But it is not just the way the Mill E3 operates that is radical, it is also revolutionary in its design. On each level, groves of pneumatic stainless-steel tubing run from ceiling to floor with intermittent glimpses of the transformation from wheat to flour that is taking place. The layout means every process is easily observed with simple access to all the modules for maintenance and to check for seamless process flows. The Whitley Bridge plant requires just one operator for the whole mill. 

“Bühler has come up with so many solutions over the years, and now what we have done together in this one setting has given us the most advanced mill in the world,” says Andrew Thomson, Technical Miller for Whitworth Bros.

This is also a very significant moment in working towards our corporate target of cutting energy, water, and food waste by 50 percent in our customer value chains by 2025.

Roman Sonderegger, Head of Wheat and Rye at Bühler

The Mill E3 has gained its name due to its three efficiencies around space, time of installation, and energy savings. All three were developed with cost saving and sustainability in mind. To be able to reduce the footprint and volume of a mill means less building materials, less building time and less land usage. Both the equipment in the mill and the mill itself have been designed to maximize energy savings, while the time it takes to install the mill has been cut significantly using modular plug and play milling solutions such as the Bühler Blower Module and the Bühler Airlock Module, the Vitaris Combicleaner cleaning system, and the Arrius fully integrated grinding system. 

“This is also a very significant moment in working towards our corporate target of cutting energy, water, and food waste by 50 percent in our customer value chains by 2025,” Sonderegger explains.

Some of the digital services used in the Mill E3 include the Temperature and Vibration Management Service (TVM), Yield Management System (YMS), Error and Downtime Analysis (EDA), Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) and Replay. Together these provide continual data feeds on machine performance, potential maintenance issues, trends in machine performance and how they relate to quality and efficiency. 

Transparent process

But at the core of any milling process lie the rollers that do the actual grinding. The Whitley Bridge mill is the first time that Bühler has installed the latest Arrius fully integrated grinding system in a completely new plant and at scale. It is here that energy conservation is being best achieved with sensors monitoring variables in temperature and vibration along with the consistency of the wheat to control the distribution of the feed and to allow the rollers to adapt to the wheat’s characteristics and the targeted finished product quality. 

 

“The wheat coming into the mill is first checked by online sensors to establish its key parameters,” explains Thomson. “Then the sensors in the Arrius rechecks and controls the distribution of the feed, which allows the grinding system to adapt again to the changing characteristics of the wheat at the point of milling. It is this unique usage of sensor technology that ensures optimal grinding parameters are achieved at all times.”   

Andrew Thomson has been at Whitworth Bros. for 17 years and has been fully involved with the new mill at Whitley Bridge. He probably has the greatest insight into the daily operation of the Mill E3, and for him, the key benefit is transparency. 

“We can see at all times the quality of flour we are making and if there is any fluctuation in quality, we can immediately isolate the flour by changing silos rather than waiting for a laboratory test, as well as being able to automate the quality control process,” says Thomson. “The dashboard is also fantastic because the moment you open your control system you can see immediately what the mill is yielding and trace that back to see how it has performed through the night, I can see the trends where traditionally I would be relying on a manual calculation.

Andrew Thomson is checking the grinding performance. Andrew Thomson is checking the grinding performance.

For Thomson, the real thrill of the Mill E3 lies in its future potential, and he believes the ability to analyze, monitor, and control machine performance will yield some of the greatest future benefits. 

“We are at the very early stages of using this information and we are putting together teams in collaboration with Bühler to see how we can best use all the data,” Thomson explains. “The way I see it, we will be able to predict machine maintenance and performance from noise and vibration sensors giving us direct data flows and trends, rather than relying on an operator walking past a machine and recognizing there might be a problem. I like the fact that we get all of the data points collected for us and that we see all those points on the Mercury MES. We can use the data to help us target a more streamlined approach to increasing profitability and efficiency in the mill.” 

Towards the SmartMill

It is this new insight into machine performance that will provide the next step in the evolution of milling towards the ultimate goal of the fully automated SmartMill. Milling is on a journey and over recent years milling technology has been developing from machine automation to the data-assisted mill provided by services such as Bühler Insights. “The SmartMill services are like having a lot of Lego bricks available and the miller can pick whatever pieces are needed to deliver on those needs and targets,” Sonderegger explains. “What is most exciting about this journey is that we are only at the beginning and all the data we are gathering will allow us to develop new ideas and new services to help our customers around the world.”

The SmartMill services are like having a lot of Lego bricks available and the miller can pick whatever pieces are needed to deliver on those needs and targets.

Roman Sonderegger, Head of Wheat and Rye at Bühler

The volume of data being generated at Whitley Bridge will now enable the next evolutionary stage in the form of the self-adjusting mill, capable of using the plant’s own production parameters in a closed loop to optimize production. Key to this will be a granular understanding of the mechanics of milling so that in the new iteration of the mill processing can be automatically adjusted rather than requiring the intervention of the plant operator. 

 

William Butler, Project Manager, Andrew Thomson and Mike Peters of Whitworth Bros. Ltd. review the processing data on the Arrius integrated grinding system. William Butler, Project Manager, Andrew Thomson and Mike Peters of Whitworth Bros. Ltd. review the processing data on the Arrius integrated grinding system.

“The journey is the SmartMill and we are on the way to the fully automated mill. We still need the miller, who is the expert that will set up the autopilot according to the mill’s specific needs,” explains Sonderegger. “To reach that stage we need short innovation cycles rather than trying to develop everything to perfection in one go, and it is our relationship with Whitworth that allows us to have a hypothesis and then try and adapt rather than building the perfect world in one go.”

Another key feature of the Mill E3 that is still in its infancy is blockchain. It is a technology that is generating a lot of interest among Whitworth’s major clients as it has the potential to provide the secure transfer of data to clients, providing transparency around the exact production parameters being used to mill their product. 

“Eventually you won’t have to continually sample for additional laboratory testing with the SmartMill being able to provide certain parameters into the blockchain as part of the delivery notice to the client,” explains Peters. “It means having a quality record for that bulk consignment that could form part of a blockchain trail that goes from that customer down the value chain providing entire integrity.”

Creative flow

The key advantage of blockchain is secure data collection and storage allowing for highest data security and transparency. It will enable a consistent, retraceable, and food safe product. Future applications of blockchain technology could include using sensors in vehicles both delivering wheat for processing and flour to clients, to monitor time taken, ambient temperature and other safety processes, it could be used to monitor machine performance as a form of smart insurance or to improve traceability. The vision is that blockchain will reduce the need for frequent sampling and laboratory testing as the miller will have real-time access production parameters as part of the product certification process. 

One of the most exciting aspects for everyone working on the Mill E3 is the level of creativity it allows when coming up with new ideas. Peters cites weather forecasting as an example of one of the ways he sees the SmartMill potentially developing. Weather conditions change the condition of the grain being milled. In hot weather, for example, it is necessary to add additional water to the grain to bring it up to optimum milling condition. He envisages being able to feed local weather conditions into the mill’s process control to create real time automation of wheat conditioning targets. “We feel at Whitworth that we are on a voyage of discovery that will open up endless opportunities and because of our open and close relationship with Bühler we have the opportunity to play a significant role in shaping the future of milling.”

 

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