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Applying advanced automation to combat malnutrition

Child eating Plumpy Nut

Working with Rockwell Automation, Rhode-Island based Edesia has increased production of its nutritional project to improve the lives of more than ten million malnourished children around the globe

In a world where we enjoy a healthy diet, it is staggering to think that around the globe there are still 200 million children’s lives that are currently at risk due to malnutrition. When children get the right food at the right time their brains and bodies develop the way they should. When this does not happen, malnutrition occurs. It robs children of their futures and threatens their lives.

Since 1990, the percentage of undernourished children worldwide has almost halved. But there is still a lot of work to do. For children who survive it, malnutrition has lifelong consequences, affecting their performance in school and the prospects. This has an impact on entire populations, contributing to a cycle of poverty.

High-energy peanut paste

A lorry full of Plumpy Nut boxes
Each box can bring a child back to full health in six weeks

One of the main agencies fighting malnutrition is UNICEF. When it comes to aid, they use high-energy peanut paste that can be eaten straight from the packet to treat severely malnourished children. It is cheap, easy to supply, and a course can bring a severely malnourished child back to health in just four to six weeks.

One of the major suppliers for this paste is Rhode-Island based non-profit, Edesia. When it comes to a non-profit manufacturing food paste, the thought of high-value manufacturing and automation do not naturally spring to mind, but over the past four years that is the road that Edesia has taken.

“Our whole reason for being is to help treat and prevent malnutrition in the world’s most vulnerable populations,” Maria Kasparian, executive director of Edesia said. “We are doing that in four main ways. One is through production; we manufacture these foods. We engage in research and development, both for distribution and for the products themselves. We support local producers of these types of foods and their factories in countries where they are used. And finally, we engage in educational efforts.

“There is a lot of evidence that improved nutrition is one of the best returns on investment of anything we can do. For every $1 invested by donors on basic nutrition needs, the return is about $16 in the local economy. And fortunately, there are solutions.” The solution that Edesia developed and manufacture is called Plumpy Nut, a ready to use therapeutic food made from peanuts, milk, whey, soy, vegetable oils, sugar, and vitamins and minerals. It is what Kasparian calls a nutrient dense energy dense food. “It has the ability to take a child from the brink of starvation, back to healthy growth and development. At Edesia every box coming off the line, containing 150 meals, is enough to bring a child from the brink back to healthy growth and development. So, one box, one child.”

From manual to automated

Edesia factory
By installing automation production has increased from 9,000 to 25,000 tonnes

Edesia began ten years ago at a 15,000 square foot facility in Providence, Rhode Island, with a very manual operation. Four years ago, they built a new 85,000 square foot facility and increased their automation, increasing their production from 9,000 tonnes to 25,000 tonnes. “Our team identified the new production equipment we wanted, and we worked with system integrator Hallam ICF to design it into our factory,” Kasparian explained. “Using the Rockwell Automation PlantPAx modern DCS for batch process control, Hallam then integrated all the production processes into our new facility.

“It was a huge increase, and more important than just the capacity was the efficiency increases that we were able to realise. We went from a very manual process to a state-of-the-art automated one. To make the blends, workers used to lift and dump 50-pound bags – cut the bag open and dump the bag in the mixer – that was with all of the ingredients. Now, we use cranes and forklifts to transport one tonne bags onto load cells that add the ingredients into sophisticated dosing hoppers. That is a huge shift in the way that we operate and that is just one example.”

Upskilling the workforce

The move to automated production was also a game changer for Edesia’s 150 strong workforce. The workers come from 25 different countries with more than a fifth of them former refugees. “Changing from manual labour to an automated smart factory resulted in workers learning new skills and being able to embrace new technologies,” Kasparian added. “This was not without effort. We had to go through a very concentrated six-month period of training in order to transition all of our staff. It means today we have higher skilled jobs, better paying jobs and more satisfying jobs.”

But the benefits did not end there. Over the past 12 months Edesia has been able to take it one step further to optimise the use of the new systems, and the data that they can provide. “We started using a DCS metrics display populated from live data points throughout the operations,” Kasparian said. “Rockwell donated six licences to us, so that we are now able to display this real-time data and all of the critical areas throughout the factory.

“We also started using our real-time data pushes to directly report things like cases per hour, and the value stream metrics. So now all staff who need to know this information can easily access it. They can look at the DCS metrics displays and immediately recognise how we are doing at any given point in the day, and where we might need to intervene or take action. Being able to access this real-time data in a usable format that is easily interpreted is something that has allowed our employees to make better decisions. And I can say that it has been a major contributor into about a 20% increase in our capacity just this year alone.”

Helping one child at a time

So, what does this mean in the fight to feed the world’s children? Edesia measure everything in terms of how many children they can reach along with the breath of nutrition challenges that they can address. “This year, we have crossed the 10 million children mark that we have been able to help spread across over 50 countries,” Kasparian said. “But there is more need. Just like the story about the man helping the starfish one at a time and that every one matters. We very much believe that, and we will continue reaching one at a time, because everyone matters. These innovations also have helped us lower the cost of these humanitarian products, which for us and for our partners at the UN means reaching more children.”

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