Feasibility automation important manufacturers

Feasibility of automation is important for manufacturers

11:04 AM, 5th July 2016
Feasibility of automation is important for manufacturers
Rajendra V Huilgol, consultant, Shree Renuka Sugars Ltd.

In an interview Rajendra V Huilgol, consultant, Shree Renuka Sugars Ltd with Shivani Mody, Editor, Chemical Today magazine, speaks about the challenges faced by the sugar industry and importance of using brown sugar and the latest trend of sulphur-free sugar.

Mention the major challenges faced by the sugar industry.

There are two major problem areas faced by the sugar industry today. First is the cleaning process which is labour intensive, time consuming and not completely effective. The equipment where sugar solution is boiled has depositions of scales which need to be removed mechanically. This mechanical process normally takes 30 to 48 hours and the plant needs to be shut down for the cleaning process. This brings down the productivity of the plant. We also have the on-line chemical cleaning process where instead of mechanically brushing off the scales, equipment is cleaned by circulating chemicals like caustic soda, alkali acid and washing soda while the manufacturing process is on-going.

However, inspite of ensuring 90-95 percent removal of scales, the mechanical cleaning technique obstructs our operations. On the other hand, the chemical cleaning technique does not obstruct operations but it cleans about 65 percent on the run. We need an advanced technology which will ensure better cleaning without disrupting the production process.

The other major problem is that there are many chemical suppliers in the domestic market giving rise to stiff competition. This leads to suppliers offering inferior quality chemicals at lower rates. To prevent harm to manufacturers, this practice needs to be curbed.

Is the Indian sugar industry at par with the international industry?

We are at the par with the international market. However, the industry faces a major problem of supply of chemicals. Most of the chemicals used in sugar manufacturing is imported. It is not possible to trust the chemicals supplied by local dealers as most chemicals are adulterated to be sold at a lower cost.

Briefly mention the latest technology used in the manufacturing of sugar?

We had a plant near Bangalore in Hindupur which we later shifted to Belgaum in Munolipura because the cost of production was high. We also entered into producing refined sugar. There are few companies who manufacture refined sugar in India. And to increase our output we modernised our plant and incorporated automation, which helped us increase stability and maintain quality over the years.

For instance, at one stage in sugar manufacturing, called pan boiling, it needs to be maintained at a certain density. If the density becomes low, the sugar properties will melt and if it goes high, there will be development of fine crystals. The density has to be constant. It is difficult to maintain the density in the manual process. Bringing automation in this process has helped us reduce our errors, maintain a certain density in pan boiling, boil faster, convert less steam and produce good quality sugar. The overall productivity has also gone up by 30 percent with limited man power.

What are your thoughts on adoption of automation in sugar manufacturing?

Sugar industry on the whole has less profit margin. We buy sugarcane at Rs 2,500 per tonne and sell sugar at Rs 25. Also installing automation is costly in itself. Therefore, it is difficult for a small sugar manufacturer who is hardly making any profit margin, to invest in automation.

While travelling to Japan, we saw that they buy raw sugar and then further refine it before selling in the market. We also follow the same procedure. In one of our plants in Gujarat we import raw sugar instead of buying sugarcane. The Japanese buy raw sugar for Rs 2, similar to our buying price. But after refining, they sell the sugar for Rs 150, while we sell it for Rs 25. Their higher profit margin makes it feasible for them to implement and reap benefits of high-level automation in their factories. That is what is making all the difference in the international and domestic markets.

One of the latest trends is the demand for sulphur-free sugar. Give us information about this variety of sugar.

Sulphur is used in the form of sulphur dioxide as a bleaching agent for sugar. In this process, some sulphur is left in the sugar and in the long run it affects various internal organs. At Renuka Sugars, many of our plants are manufacturing sulphur free sugar. For the manufacturing process we utilize lime instead of sulphur. Even the colour used is food grade colours. The age old problem in the sugar industry is that manufacturers make huge investments to start a refining plant. However, the profit margin is very low. The government controls the sale of sugar by fixing the price. In India, sugar is sold at 1/3rd the cost as compared to other countries. Because of these issues, manufacturers are forced to use sulphur, low cost chemicals and bleach for the sugar process.

As per government regulations sulphur dioxide content in sugar is supposed to be below 70 parts per million (ppm). Whereas institutional buyers such a Coca-cola, Pepsi, chocolate and bakery item makers require sugar having sulphur dioxide content below 10 ppm. This production of sugar with sulphur dioxide content below 10 ppm adds to the manufacturing costs for companies.

Furthermore, the impurities are increased with the use of sulphur in the sugar process. While considering exports as well, we need to maintain low sulphur dioxide content and less number of impurities in sugar, in line with international standards.

Moreover, in the long run, consumption of sugar with sulphur dioxide content of 70 ppm is highly injurious to one’s health. It can cause harm to many organs especially the liver.

One needs to note that corporate users such as the soft drinks, chocolate industry, bakery items producers etc are a significant customer base for the sugar manufacturers, apart from local consumers. Surprisingly, 60 to 65 percent of our production caters to the corporate sector whereas 40 percent is consumed by local users. Also the corporate sectors have their specific requirements such as extremely high quality and sulphur free sugar for their end products.

There is a steady market for cane/ brown/demerra sugar. Can you shed some light on this trend?

There are two things here. Firstly, the brown or darker coloured sugar is obtained when we use only lime in the manufacturing process, avoiding use of any other chemicals.

Secondly, we have the production of organic sugar. For this, sugarcanes are grown organically without usage of pesticides, fertilizers or any other chemical. The manufacturing process is also devoid of any chemicals. We usually export the organic sugar as the Government of India has still not formulated any certification or licensing of organic sugar. Moreover, with the lack of awareness and limited customer demand, it is not a cost-effective proposition for manufacturers. But, in foreign counties we see the demand escalating with passing times. In India, white sugar is still the most widely preferred form of sugar for consumption.

What are the types of R&D taking place in the sugar industry?

The main R&D is happening around the ways in which the cost of production can be lowered so that manufacturers can increase their profitability. From agriculture point of view, there are many sugar research institutes across the country in Kanpur, Pune, Tamil Nadu, UP who are all working in the measures to improve the yield of sugar in the country. But in the technical side, more research needs to be conducted.

© Chemical Today Magazine

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