Where and When Automation Makes Sense

Finding ways to save on employee time and effort, which can in turn can help increase productivity and output, and finding ways to automate work can be a great return on investment for breweries.
Kentucky’s Braxton Brewing has seen gains this way. Over the past five years, it has made numerous equipment, automation and efficiency upgrades.
Two of the most prominent — and those that had the most tangible impact, said co-founder and CPO Evan Rouse — included adding centrifugation and upgrading the canning line.
“Centrifugation decreased labor time from a 10-12 hour filter day to a four-hour separation day,” he explained. “Yields also increased by 15 percent or more.”
In adding centrifugation and decreasing the time that the process used to take, Braxton has been able to free up a significant amount of time for employees to focus on other areas of work, such as managing the Covington, Kentucky’s barrel-aging program.
As for the canning line, Rouse said it went from a linear four-head filler running 30-36 cans per minute to a rotary counter-pressure filler running at 100 cans per minute.
“Running three to four times faster throughout led to significant labor savings and increased team morale, as well as product quality,” he said.
Seventh Son Brewing automated its grain handling system. The Columbus, Ohio brewery installed a bulk base malt silo as well as a spent grain silo as it produced 5,620 barrels in 2019.
“We also automated hot and cold liquor mixing for mash-ins, as well as knock out temperature modulation,” pointed out Head Brewer Colin Vent. “The temperature automation was put in place to free up the brewers’ attention towards more helpful tasks. They can concentrate on pitching yeast and tidying up rather than standing in front of hot and cold water valves trying to dial in the correct strike or knock-out temperature.”
The grain handling equipment was pretty much required as Seventh Son expanded to a larger brewhouse and more fermentors.
“From a time and safety standpoint you can’t have people milling and shoveling upwards of 6,000 pounds of malt a day,” Vent said.
Seismic Brewing Brewmaster, Andy Hooper, noted that the Sebastopol, California brewery is fairly automated for its size as the brewhouse, cellar controls, centrifuge, packaging, chiller, wastewater treatment, and boiler systems are all automated. All of this was intentional from the start, he added.
“It improves quality, consistency, efficiency, and reduces labor,” he said. “When designing the facility, automation was 100% necessary to achieve an efficient and sustainable operation. It was a major component of the design of the facility.”
Hooper pointed out that the only alternative to automation is additional labor which would reduce efficiency.
“That was never an option for us,” he said.
There were a couple catalysts for changes for Braxton. One came from the cellar side of the process and another on the packaging side.
Increased production levels with a consistently growing business and a lean staff were the primary drivers to upgrading equipment, Rouse said.
“However, the product quality and team morale increased with each upgrade, as well, as an added benefit,” he added. “In a high-growth business such as ours, it’s important to us that we’re meeting sales demand and that the culture we built from day one is still present at Year Five.”
For a while, Braxton was leaning heavily on fully automating the entire brewhouse to increase throughout on the hot side of the process. After several full-process audits and efficiency studies, Rouse said they learned the true bottleneck was the filter that they were using at the time and inefficiencies in the canning line.
“Fully automating would have meant increasing our brewing capacity, but we would have run out of cellar and packaging tanks when the canning line couldn’t keep up,” he recalled.
Automation isn’t always the answer though. To increase the production and efficiency of its Hard Seltzer brand, VIVE, Braxton opted to move away from automation.
“Initially, we thought it would offer huge cost and time savings, but instead, we decided to rework our water filtration processes,” Rouse said. “In doing so, we were still able to save a significant amount of time and without additional investment.”
Vent pointed out that although Seventh Son doesn’t have exact dollar figures for ROI on the upgrades, for as simple as the brewery’s automation is, it’s certainly allowed the brewery to make more beer, more accurately with the same tight crew of brewers.
Rouse said that figuring ROI is involved in all capital equipment purchases for Braxton. That process usually includes a labor study as well.
“[It’s] to make sure there won’t be any surprises when the new equipment or automation is commissioned,” he said. “It’s important to consider the value proposition of scenarios like adding a canning line that runs three to four times as fast as the existing line but takes three times the people to run it.”
Washington DC’s Atlas Brew Works is a very manual brewery compared to others that are around the same size in production, admits Head Brewer Daniel Vilarrubi. The brewery produced 5,650 barrels in 2019.
“Generally, we’ve found that more automation tends to mean that we have to understand more technology in order to keep things running,” he said. “We don’t have a maintenance crew, which means when equipment goes down, we’re either getting creative to find solutions or we’re waiting for a contractor to show up. Being that we’re brewing nearly at capacity for most of the year, we can’t afford to stop production for days at a time, so over the years, we’ve actually made our brewery a bit more manual in order to manage time better.”
One of the bigger changes in the brewhouse since the brewery opened has been removing almost all of the pneumatic valves.
“Every time we had an issue with our air compressor or a pneumatic valve, our production staff would huddle up and work out whether it would be easier to occasionally deal with valve issues or simply install a manual valve,” Vilarrubi said. “As of right now, we’ve only got one pneumatic valve in the brewhouse and our challenges with pneumatics have been reduced.”
Atlas has also removed its touch screen control panel and had a more analog control panel installed with switches and knobs.
“There wasn’t a huge loss in functionality when we did this, but we basically replaced a single interface with many,” he said. “The touch screen would occasionally go out in the hotter months, making it so we couldn’t use any of our equipment — pumps, pneumatic valves, anything with a VFD.
“Removing it also made it easier to diagnose equipment issues by removing the extra layer. Sometimes the touch screen would be unresponsive and we’d think the equipment wasn’t starting for other reasons.”
Vilarrubi did admit that at a certain size, it makes sense for a brewery to be more automated.

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