Forging a new future for rice processing

Ticino, the southernmost canton of Switzerland, is recognized for its uniquely Mediterranean climate, its world heritage sites, and its cuisine. The region has also made a name for itself in cultivating rice. Delica AG is one of the first producers of rice in the country to have a highly advanced rice mill where digital innovation is driving improvements in yield, quality, and operating efficiency. It has many years of experience processing rice from the region and around the world, and has partnered with Bühler to create new production solutions that will benefit the industry.

One of the unexpected consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a shift in the buying habits of rice consumers. Time at home offered the opportunity to experiment and develop cooking skills. This led to a move away from the quick-cook products designed to facilitate busy lives to using longer-cooking whole rice to achieve more complex culinary results.

Stefania Dolci is the Quality Assurance Manager for the Rice Division at Delica AG, a major supplier of own-brand goods to Migros, Switzerland’s largest supermarket chain. A keen observer of the dynamic rice market, Dolci is responsible for the quality of the rice produced in one of the country’s biggest rice mills, situated in Taverne, near the City of Lugano, in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino. The canton is a rice growing region, where the sandy loamy wetlands on the northern shores of Lake Maggiore are used for the cultivation of risotto, an integral part of northern Italian culture.


delica_2 delica_2 In this image you can you see unpolished rice in the left hand, and polished rice in the right. Polishing makes the kernels smoother and shinier.
Delica_3 Delica_3 This is Sortex S, which is connected to Bühler Insights. Optical sorting is the final processing step before packaging.

“There are so many trends at the moment,” explains Dolci. “The lockdown during the pandemic changed things a lot with many people taking a liking to cooking. There are still those who want pre-cooked dehydrated quick-to-cook products, though. Another trend is sushi rice – it has become a popular thing with young people. Sustainability is also very important for customers, which is why it is so important we have the most modern rice mill. We can do many different things in the plant compared to the way we operated in the past.”

Sustainability is very important for customers, which is why it is so important we have the most modern rice mill.  we can do many different things in the plant compared to the way we operated in the past.

Stefania Dolci, Quality Assurance Manager, Rice Division at Delica AG

A dynamic market means rice mills need to be flexible in what they produce. The Taverne rice mill, previously known as La Riseria, has belonged to the Migros organization since 1957 and merged into the Delica family of businesses in 2021. Bühler has had a long-standing relationship with La Riseria and in 2019 designed and built a new rice mill on the site of the old Taverne mill. It has since become a Bühler test bed for the most advanced digital technology in rice milling. The plant produces a wide range of different rice, from risotto to jasmine, basmati, and colored rice such as black Thai and red jasmine. “It is very important to us that the quality is always maintained over time. This is possible thanks to the recipes that have been set up in the Bühler production and refining line. This enables us to work with the same parameters every time for different recipes,” says Dolci.


Close collaboration for better outcomes

Cutting food waste is also a key goal at the Taverne mill. Any broken rice produced from refining is ground to make rice flour that is used in the food industry. Any discolored or broken grains rejected by Sortex, the Bühler optical rice sorter, are turned into a half grain mix that is used for animal feed.

“The Migros supermarket chain has been committed to sustainability for many years, which is why we use all waste by-products and reuse them to add value,” explains Dolci. “There is almost no waste that is thrown away and almost no food waste. This is also very important for us. We are proud to be ISO 14001 certified. Of course, our other priority is quality – our products must always be healthy, safe, and taste good.”


Ensuring that all the different rice types produced at the Taverne mill are of the highest quality is where Bühler digital solutions excel. There are plenty of variables when milling rice. Unpredictable weather, regional characteristics, different rice types, and dynamic consumer trends all feed into a complex production matrix. The challenge is to fine-tune the milling process to guarantee the highest quality product every time.

Over the years, a close relationship has developed between the Bühler and Taverne teams to help achieve this level of quality. Michael Härteis is the Product Manager for Automation & Digitalization at Bühler. His role is to coordinate and communicate all the research and development work being carried out by Bühler in the field of rice milling so that it can be taken to the production phase at the Taverne mill. “This requires very close collaboration with the customer, and I think we have found the right partner in Delica to better create and transfer our business ideas into final solutions for the rice market,” says Härteis.

delica delica Michael Härteis, Product Manager for Automation & Digitalization at Bühler
“This is the most modern rice mill in the rice milling industry to date, with service systems in place to achieve three main goals:  to increase yield, improve quality, and improve efficiency.

Michael Härteis, Product Manager for Automation & Digitalization at Bühler

Sensors and data are at the heart of the Bühler digital processing service, designed to achieve these three goals. At the Taverne mill, the digital factory automation system, the Bühler Mercury MES (Manufacturing Execution System) uses sensor technology to control all the different production aspects of the plant from raw material storage to processing and final product storage.

The plant automation system enables the rice mill operators to run different product lines for up to five different rice types in any one week. Each rice type requires a different processing recipe and machine reset to provide optimum quality. The plant can be operated from multiple control panels where each production stage is graphically illustrated.

While Mercury MES controls the mill, Bühler Insights, a central platform that connects products and services, acts as the nerve center of the digital process, collecting and analyzing production data gathered by the sensors located throughout the production process. As data is collected, complex algorithms go to work calculating the best production parameters that should be applied depending on rice varieties.


Watch the video about Delica AG and its innovative rice production.


Setting a new quality standard

When it comes to increasing yield, sensors fitted next to the Bühler Sortex S UltraVision optical rice sorter act as a final quality check for impurities and color deficiencies. Data picked up from these sensors is then analyzed and used to adjust, in real-time, processing parameters earlier in the production process to ensure yield targets are optimized. The Rice Quality Monitoring Service and its sensors are key to improving quality. It continuously measures the whiteness, shine, and smoothness of each grain of rice. Härteis believes it is one of the most exciting developments in the new Bühler rice milling digital portfolio. Grain whiteness has long been used as a quality parameter in rice milling. This service is also able, for the first time, to provide tangible and therefore measurable criteria for smoothness and shine, creating potential new industry quality standards.


Bühler is the partner we have chosen to join us on this journey in rice refining and processing. By working together and collaborating, we are improving the product and the systems we use to produce it every day.

Stefania Dolci, Quality Assurance Manager, Rice Division at Delica AG


Innovation drives efficiency

“Smoothness has always been assessed on the basis of how it feels in the hand, and shine has been based on how it appears to the eye. With the Rice Quality Monitoring Service we are able to make these qualities measurable and so we are creating a new industry benchmark giving our customers the opportunity to have two new certifiable quality standards,” Härteis explains.

Sensors allied to real-time data analytics means the old sampling process, involving rice being taken from the production line to a laboratory for analysis, can now be complemented with real-time quality controls. While laboratory analysis is still required to meet food auditing requirements, real-time controls mean avoiding costly time delays in discovering a quality breach. “We also have another digital solution, which is Bühler Replay,” explains Dolci. “This is where we can go back in time and see what happened at a certain moment in the plant, which is useful both in case there was an alarm in some machine or even when there was a production error where some rice was wrongly mixed. We can go and see what was activated and at what time, and we can learn from this error and train our operators so that this problem doesn't happen again.” Replay is also used to enable the Bühler and Delica teams to work together and analyze past production parameters to see where improvements can be made.


delica_7 delica_7 Two years ago, the whole Delica mill underwent a retrofit of its control system from WinCos to Mercury MES. Mercury MES is the backbone of the mill as it enables digitalization and integrates all processes to increase efficiency and traceability.

The new digital services are designed to improve quality and yield, along with the third goal of the digital journey – to improve efficiency. As production data is continually generated it also provides insights into the production process that act as a sounding board for Bühler and Delica to partner in creating new production solutions that may have not yet been thought of. “It’s not just about gathering data, it is about being able to put that data into context. By adding it to the existing data from the plant automation system we are able to create new solutions,” explains Härteis. “It is through collaboration and our partnership that we are able to discuss our internal findings and our analytics to really see if we can improve daily operations for Delica. Without this close collaboration it would not be possible to test ideas, get customer feedback, and then further scale solutions to introduce new ideas to the market for the benefit of the global rice milling industry.”

One example of this process is the Bühler Sortex Monitoring Service, which started out as a prototype in the Taverne mill and is now a scalable solution being made available to the rice milling industry.


Smart machinery for optimum performance

Another component of improved efficiency is the use of sensors to monitor machine performance, to predict maintenance, and to understand how machine settings relate to product quality. One example is the use of grinding wheels to whiten rice grains.

Rice grain, especially long rice, is fragile with breakages linked to temperatures while milling. During the whitening process, the outer bran layer of rice is scratched against abrasive grinding wheels. Maintaining a lower temperature inside the milling chamber is vital to minimize these rice breakages. “As part of our smart milling concept, we use sensors to monitor heat generation inside the milling chamber and, based on this data, other machine parameters such as aspiration are adjusted to ensure optimum performance and minimize breakage,” Härteis explains. Sensors are also used to monitor machine performance to predict and avoid unplanned downtimes.


Like many food industries, rice milling suffers a high staff turnover, which often risks companies losing technical knowledge and experience. By digitalizing the production process companies become less vulnerable to losing an experienced rice miller who in the past would have been critical to running a productive mill.

The relationship forged between Bühler and Delica through the creation of the pioneering digital rice mill at Taverne is set to improve yield, quality, and operating efficiency across the rice milling industry. Digital solutions being tested and scaled up at the mill are enabling Bühler to prioritize which solutions have the greatest impact and are of the most benefit to the wider industry. “Bühler is the partner we have chosen to join us on this journey in rice refining and processing. By working together and collaborating we are improving the product and the systems we use to produce it every day,” says Dolci. “At the moment I could not imagine a more modern plant with more digital solutions than the one we have.”

delica_8 delica_8 These devices in the control cabinet of the mill collect signals from sensors and devices in the plant and feed them into the automation system.
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