Agrarian, Engineering and Material Sciences

Software to optimize production

CONICET scientist developed software to optimize decision making in fruit processing plants

Alberto Bandoni. Photo: CONICET Photography.

Fruit juice making process begins in the so called fruit production “chacras”, where trees are planted and fruits harvested, and continues in industrial plants that produce concentrated juice. This process involves stages such as receiving, washing, grinding, extracting, clarifying, concentrating, packaging; and finally it includes storage and delivery of fruit to customers. For all these stages, the production manager of a juice processing plant needs to consider several operating variables.

In order to promote efficient decision making and enhance production, CONICET scientists study the development of software based on mathematical optimization models ranging from planning that cover the entire industry value chain to the operative optimization and planning models in one pome –apple and pear- fruit juice concentrate plant in Alto Valle, Río Negro.

“I have studied these topics since the 80s and I think it is useful to collaborate with the companies in the development of software to provide support in decision making at an operational and planning level. For many years we got in touch with almost all the juice companies in the provinces of Río Negro and Neuquén to let them know about our work, but it was difficult for us to communicate the idea that CONICET scientists could provide software for that purpose. So we developed a “demo”, which is like a short version of the programme, for the companies to show our work. Some months later, I visited one of those firms which was interested in the project and committed to the collaboration of a research centre to improve the companies’ business” Alberto Bandoni, explains. He is a CONICET principal researcher at the Chemical Engineering Pilot Plant (PLAPIQUI, CONICET-UNS in Spanish) and director of the initiative.

Since 2013, Bandoni and his team have had an agreement with the company Jugos S.A., as part of a Technological and Social Development Project (PDTS). These projects are aimed at meeting the needs of the market; and in this case, the objective is to optimize economic and production goals of the company.

The companies that produce juices depend on the business cycle of the fresh fruit to decide how to deal with the orders: the quantity to produce, the sales, and other aspects. The fruits are seasonal and although the production lasts three or four months, the plant works the whole year.

“The Argentine food industry has not advanced in the use of process simulation and optimization software like in other branches, such as petrochemistry, which has used this system daily for over fifty years. At the PLAPIQUI, scientists have the knowledge to work on that field. The aim of this type of project is to increase operational efficiency to use fewer supplies and maximize benefits”, the researcher affirms.

The researchers developed a computer programme which contains the simulation of all the structure of juice production process. The software includes some information but the user has to enter variable data such as the level production chosen to work, the quantity of fruit, etc. The project consists of two stages: in the first one, the operation of the plant is optimized by administering all the information in terms of timetables –the hourly flow of goods in kilos such as incomes and costs in Argentine pesos per hour-. In the second stage, the decisions in terms of time, months, are planned. This tool has interfaces for data entry, results visualization and operation of models developed in spreadsheet to ensure that it is simple and all users can easily handle it.

“The criteria is to maximize the net benefits of the operation of the company, which includes how much they sell multiplied by the price minus all costs. After running the programme, the plant manager presents a report of what needs to be implemented to maximize profits. If the type or volume of fruits that enter change every day, the model changes with the new data, thus providing support in decision making about the plant. So, after operating this way for months, we expect to achieve significant labour saving”, Bandoni states.

As regards that, the researcher affirms that in the food industry, there are not global statistics that show how much a company earns if these programmes are used sistematically. However, in other industries such as the petrochemical one, it is possible to obtain additional economic benefits in the order of 4 to 5 per cent of revenues, with the implementation of this software. For this reason, it is important to let people know the developments that could be used in other plants or companies that could succeed as well.

“Each plant is very particular in terms of configuration but we have time and we want to develop projects. Argentina is the main exporter of lemon in the world, the whole industry is concentrated in Tucumán and it does not have this type of tools. It is necessary to get close to companies and explain why and what is the use of this type of software and introduce a cultural change in the way of working. Despite the fact that companies have made important investments in production technology, they have not made it in computer technology for decision making so there is a very important market niche to work in this area. As it happens in all industries, the fruit juice production consumes lots of energy, either natural gas or fuel oil. So if companies use tools to reduce the consumption of those services, there will be double benefit, not only for the company but also for the country in terms of positive impact on energy situation”, the researcher concludes.

By Cecilia Leone