Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Cold storage engineering, RFID tags

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I was going to go straight into talking about a great cold storage engineer we had at Whitney-Fidalgo in Petersburg once, but the subject gets real deep when remodeling or building from scratch. A cold storage is basically just one component of the supply chain that stretches from producer to consumer. Planning for components has to take into account everything along the way, even to consumer's taste buds.

Before a community and their fishermen can pull together to make a successful secondary production facility, there has to be consensus on how it is going to happen. The planning phase is no place to skimp. A look at the above web site will show all that is involved and a possible solution. I know folks in Petersburg were concerned that there wasn't anyone on the horizon to do this kind of planning, and they should be.

Actually the old "cold storage" is rapidly getting to be a thing of the past. They were designed to do the very minimum amount of processing and then ship the frozen carcasses out for someone else to worry about. The norm has been that the Seattle sales people didn't have a good "connect" with the production people or the consumer, so the frozen fish carcasses were sold off "as is." The traditional "connect" has been to join a traditional cold storage with a cannery.

I'm speaking of salmon mostly here, of course, and high volumes at that. There have been small plants that could service specialized fishermen, like longliners and trollers, or a small local fleet of seiners or gillnetters. The industry has been steadily consolidating into central processing by very large companies with tender fleets and boats with RSW systems. Fishermen just can't afford to specialize much anymore, to support a small plant that does just a couple of things.

The "cold storage" of the future will look more like a Hormel plant, with different things going in all different directions and the squeal going up the stack. Why not put in a waste liquifier right outside while you're at it.

You gotta research what all products you can get out of the fish before putting pen to paper, much less pouring concrete. Provide for future possibilities too. The competition is. Otherwise the fish might as well go to a company that is already at your level of imagination.

Getting back to the engineering of the plant facility, I'd sure like to know who decided to put quick-disconnect ammonia couplings on the plate freezers in Yakutat back when. So, you can't get too fancy either. Sometimes when I would put in a line I'd make to-scale paper cut-outs of the machinery and move them around on the floor plan to see how they would look. Lots of materials handling fundamentals, time and motion things, egronomics things, dimensions of everything thought of and unthought of.

But I wanted to tell the story of Byron Pollak, no relation to the fish, although we often wondered. Byron grew up in Hyder, a town in Alaska with a population of maybe a couple dozen people. He had a third grade education, but was a mechanical genius. It was a gift. He was a machinery maestro, social skills notwithstanding. He always did things by himself using that inate craftiness, and some schooling in heavy equipment.

One time he single-handedly pulled a piling back under the end of the cannery that was full of canned salmon. We had loaded some of the canned pack into a barge and when the tugboat operator pulled the barge away with one line still fast, we almost lost the whole back of the cannerey in the bay. The piling was hanging on the beam by a hair, but Byron pulled it back with a complex assortment of pulleys and levers.

You could get him to do the work of ten men if you bet him a fifth of scotch he couldn't finish a project in a ridiculously short amount of time. He threaded a 20 ton North Star ice machine into the top of the cold storage under such an arrangement one time. Got it up and in place and all plumbed in in ten days. It reminds me of a TV show I watched last night on how Henry Kaiser got building Liberty Ships down to ten days.

The key in these situations is proper incentive. Sometimes it's just showing off, other times it's reputation, (Keiser pitted one of his shipyards against the other.) but most of the time it is just the exact right incentive or combination of incentives for that particular person. It's going to be hard finding the right help, but I remember how well Rick Carr worked for me as an engineer and he had no formal training in refrigeration. Just lots of experience, starting by welding up aluminum herring skiffs early in his teen years. He was good with people, and liked sales too.

And to top it all off, a cold storage engineer will have to be really computer literate. If you can't think why, just read some of my previous posts, ie, one mentioning RFID tags. These may be a ways off, but inventory control is crucial since there are so many codes to put on boxes and bills of lading as it is. You're never going to get him to cut fish, he'll be doing enough already. These guys have always made about as much as the general manager.

The whole subject of engineering, from before the blueprints are made to getting good pressures in the refrigeration system, is heady stuff. It's not in a book and hopefully proponents of freezing operations (and that includes other processes as well) will do due dilligence, and I repeat, DUE DILLIGENCE, at the start rather than at the tail end.


OK, here's the scoop on Radio Frequency Identification as per a conversation with my tech support. PASSIVE RFID is often said to only work from six feet away, when in fact more numerous, and reliable, sources say it works at a distance of 30 feet. Of course you can get real expensive RFID tags that are ACTIVE and work from 100 miles away. (That might be a good thing to use on a whole Igloo. They have a habit of growing legs and not being where they are supposed to be.) (I still want to look into whether you can track it via satellite, which I suspect you can.)

The RFID discussion about China and Walmart involves using this technology on every cheap thing that comes from there to here. A frozen, headed and gutted, fifty pound troll caught king salmon is not in this category. However, "reading" that fish is hard to impossible when it's covered in frost and in with more frozen kings in a unit. Or even reading a taged wet-loc on a pallet load. But you could certainly tag the pallet if it's going to stay intact for any length of time.

John Borseth would say amen to that, if he is still around. I ran the warehouse at the cannery on Ship Creek in Anchorage for him when we put up 68,000 cases of reds. I was just a kid, still in college, I really miscounted the pack. Fortunately they tallyed it again in Anacortes, WA. Maybe RFID would have helped, but not when they opened one rail car in Anacortes and they had a flood of loose cans come out the door.


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