Automation solutions, Part II

Today’s bulk-storage solutions are relying more and more on fully automated systems. Here are some common automated systems now engineered into domes:

  • Systems monitoring conveyors are especially important as poor belt-idler maintenance is one of the greatest causes of fire within storage facilities. If idlers fail to spin properly and the belt continues moving anyway, the system can take fire and the conveyor can carry the flames right into the dome. Sensors are also installed to analyze bearing alignment. In both instances, the systems shut down when a problem is detected, and site operators are notified.
  • Plug-chute sensors detect when a chute gets plugged, preventing large spills. Damage belt detectors detect damage that may turn into the conveyor failing while the belt is loaded with product.
  • Temperature and humidity control loops are essential; a cable array hung from the roof monitors both. Using this information, a controller or processor starts and stops fans or dehumidifying units to keep the levels within specified amounts.
  • Multiple-gas detection systems monitor off gasses. In the case of wood pellets, for example, this system tells customers how aged pellets are by identifying where they are in the process of decomposing, and watching those levels provides clues that fire could soon be possible. For instance, a Firefly gas-detection system detects off-gases as well as those produced by smoldering.
  • Point-level monitors identify the height of the product in the dome, and more specialized 3D monitors chart the surface of the pile and its shape—information crucial for inventory management and knowing how much product is being stored (and is aging, if applicable).
  • Moisture meters can be installed on the inbound feed to detect if the product is off spec, failing to meet requirements for heat or moisture. Customers are alerted if bringing in something too hot, too dry, or too wet and can reject the product.
  • Conveyor components can be mechanized, allowing a facility manager to easily control product-direction flow. For instance, if product ought to be stored in a specific dome, all diverter valves move so product goes where intended with the push of a button. Similarly, systems can control whether product moves from dome to dome or out to ship, train, or truck. Operators do not have to check if the diverter gate is in the correct position because the PLC receives feedback from the gate showing its position.
  • Convenient safety devices make it easier to halt operation as needed. Most mechanical systems are engineered with emergency stop buttons in key places throughout the facility. Along the conveyors, a pull-cord system allows workers monitoring the material handling to stop operations even when a stop button is out of reach.

The two most important features of operational safety—housekeeping and maintenance—can’t be engineered into the system and must become part of routine operations. But when automated systems and routine maintenance work in tandem, a site runs more efficiently and safely day in and day out.