KANSAS CITY — A grain professional’s device pings early on a Wednesday: A VP has a VIP in need of 30,000 cwts of bread flour, ASAP.
Since the mill had cake flour grind scheduled today, the worker mentally tallies the steps to make the switch.
He pours a coffee, commutes to the cozy cockpit of his home office, fires up the machinery and completes an authenticator eye scan.
A few taps at the tablet and he’s put the cake flour grind on hold. A few more taps and the line, in the plant a few miles away, begins to make the necessary adjustments for milling hard red winter wheat into bread flour without ever turning the lights on.
Another couple keystrokes and the soft WIP — work in progress — wheat is set for a few more hours in the temper bin. Next, the automated mill dutifully collects a precise volume of winter wheat, dampens it with the additive solution that will have the bran toughened just right and the endosperm appropriately mellow by the mid-morning coffee break.
During the grind, the mill will continually monitor quality parameters and issue data on each wheat berry. Should a problem arise with the specs or a mechanical part, the mill will divert product to a holding bin while troubleshooting takes place, avoiding a mess on the floor. A self-regulating pneumatic system will convey just enough product to avoid wasting energy and adjust automatically if the flow rate deviates.
A scene from a wheat miller’s dream?
Yes and no.
More precisely, that tableau mixes technologies already used in many flour mills that are expected to become more refined, more efficient, and more commonplace in the coming years, with what some see as “the holy grail of wheat milling.”
On the occasion of its 100th year chronicling the evolution of milling in the United States and reporting on the commodity markets that feed the world, Milling & Baking News spoke with milling experts about the technological leaps, bounds and baby steps that led to the modern flour mill; where flour production technology is most likely headed next; and what improvements will transform the industry when value-added solutions to age-old problems emerge. Some milling equipment manufacturers were reluctant to be interviewed because they didn’t want to give away ideas they were working on or developing.
Millstones and pneumatics
In the beginning there were millstones. By the fifteenth century, millers began to work out the grind-sift-grind process to reduce the kernel, endosperm, and bran into flour. Innovations such as the roller milling system in the 1870s revolutionized the industry to a degree that perhaps hasn’t yet been eclipsed. After all, rollers endure as the foundational technology in the world’s newest, largest, most efficient flour mills.
Incremental advances consistently reduced the mill labor force, eventually eliminating such roles as smutters controlling the clearing house, bolters steering the sifting house, truckers tugging the hand carts. By the 1950s, longer-lasting parts meant equipment broke down less often. When pneumatic conveying superseded bucket elevators, mills became cleaner, safer places with fewer sweepers.
“The genius of the gradual reduction system of milling is that a mill can produce multiple grades of flour contemporaneously, fine cake flour, pretzel flour, cookie flour,” said Richard Siemer, president of Siemer Milling, Teutopolis, Ill. “We can blend it back …….