Producing animal feed has become a high-tech business. For years, Versele-Laga has opted for extensive automation to ensure the perfect quality of its food and care products. It does not stand alone in this. At the headquarters in Deinze, ATS has been a familiar presence for 25 years, helping to ensure the reliable operation of the installations. A recent revamp of the hammer mills proved again why this partnership works so well.
It all began in 1932 with progenitor Prudent Versele pursuing his dream of making quality, compound cattle feed. An instant hit. Barely five years later, a first factory followed in Deinze. There, three generations later, the heart of Versele-Laga still beats, even though the company can now call itself an international player. Today, more than 15.5 million animals in more than 86 countries enjoy the food that rolls out of one of the ten factories (seven in Europe, one in China and two in the United States. In Deinze, production is divided between the two banks of the Leie River. "On the right bank the focus is on animal feed, while on the left bank we focus production on pet food. Especially in this field, we see a lot of growth opportunities in the coming years. How? By setting the bar as high as possible in terms of quality. This has always been the common thread in the growth of this family business," says technical manager Ward Casteleyn.
Even under great-grandfather Prudent Versele, the factory was considered one of the most modern and high-performing of its time. A reputation that continues today. With only 300 employees, the two sites in Deinze produce 1 million kg of animal feed per day. "You might not suspect it, but this is a high-tech sector. That is also what attracted me to come and work here eleven months ago. That starts in the R&D department where very careful attention is paid to the composition of the more than 2,000 food and care products we produce worldwide." Market developments are followed closely, resulting in new investments and refined product innovations with only one goal in mind: to do everything possible to keep animals healthy and active at every stage of life.
Quality products by quality machines
A philosophy that is also extended to every level of production. For years, Versele-Laga has been focusing on extensive automation to guarantee quality down to the last detail. This should lead to a milestone next year with the opening of a new state-of-the-art extrusion line. But the existing machinery is no slouch either. "Everything starts here with the hammer mills that grind the various ingredients in the recipe to the right consistency. Just because of their importance in production, reliable and safe operation is a must." They therefore received a complete revamp this year that killed several birds with one stone. "Safety is paramount here in production. Our prevention advisor had noticed a number of points for improvement during the sieve change. An opportunity to also immediately make the necessary improvements mechanically, electrically and software-wise that could lead to better energy efficiency, higher quality and more flexibility."
The biggest mechanical change in the revamp of the hammer mills was the replacement of the motors. "On the one hand of the hammer mills themselves, and on the other of the heavy fans that extract the dust. These are motors with a power of 200 kW. So there is some potential for savings and for avoiding peak consumption if you can couple them with a variable speed drive. However, they were too old for that, forcing a replacement. Moreover, the integration of variable speed drives allows Versele-Laga, on the one hand, to control the speed of grinding more precisely and, on the other hand, to control extraction by operating on the speed of the motor. Previously this was done by adjusting air valves, now it is possible to intervene directly on the speed, which opens the door for further energy savings. In addition, new process and safety sensors were added so that the installation is again fully compliant with current standards," summarizes ATS project leader Pieter Van Damme.
The electrical part of the hammer mills also recently corresponded to the latest technology. They received a completely new control board. "Because it had run out. Faults were becoming more frequent. In June there was another major breakdown. By renewing we could also integrate the safety control into the existing regulation," Casteleyn points out. Software modifications, in other words. A piece of cake for Jo Vandeputte, team lead software at ATS, and his team. "The old engines were already controlled on the basis of the existing signals, but rather limited. This revamp gave us the opportunity to include them in the standard we apply at Versele-Laga. We ensured that the PLC control, which is responsible for the production process, and the separate safety control communicate seamlessly with each other. The SCADA layer above this in turn turns it into an operator-accessible whole. From here, the production data is fed back to the parent MES system, which, thanks to the link with ERP, can then take care of production planning and monitoring. An integrated flow thus, or in technical terms: linear integration according to the ISA-95 standard."
Little time for conversion
The conversion took place during the first weekend of October. "A short time frame, so thorough preparation was a must," says ATS Account Manager Danny Feliers. "The biggest challenge was getting all the necessary materials to us on time. Not an obvious task in these times and something that was also out of our control. For what was missing we provided creative but above all safe intermediate solutions. Most of the work was already prepared, built and extensively tested in our workshop, so that we could fly in on Friday as soon as the last team had turned out the lights. On Sunday we were already able to functionally test with the product, so that on Monday production could restart cleanly. Mission accomplished."
Continuity and safety assured again
Casteleyn agrees. "I no longer have to worry that production in the hammer mills could stop at any moment. Continuity is assured again. And safety for operators is also now guaranteed during a sieve change due to the addition of two-hand operation. A preventive intervention, as we have never had any incidents, because a lot of effort is put into thorough sensitization. What the revamp will bring us in terms of benefits in terms of energy efficiency, throughput time and quality, we cannot yet put any figures on that. It is a matter of learning to play around with the parameters that have been added in order to further refine the recipe and see what that delivers in practice. But in any case, use has become much simpler."
Partners for a quarter of a century
Versele-Laga has been counting on ATS for a quarter of a century to fully automatically control its factory in Deinze. Lieven Vercoutere, who has worked there since 1987, has only seen the collaboration intensify over the years. "In the end, it's a story of people. When I started at Versele-Laga, we were still standardized on ABB. The team from then, which eventually came under the wings of ATS, are still the people who come over here. They helped build the plant, so to speak. Our plants, our controls, our employees ... they know them all inside out. And they also pass on their experience to the young kids who come to join the team." Whereas in the past the role of ATS was rather limited to software, they now also assist Versele-Laga in total projects. "With the growth and scarcity of technical staff, it's good to have a partner to build on. Whatever the problem, we always find a solution because they know where we want to go. In all this time, we've never had a bad startup. That says something about their knowledge of the business and their drive to double fold to meet deadlines. In a year and a half, I will retire and Lander will take over from me. I'm sure I'll leave the plant in good hands with him and ATS."