Sugar Creek Brewing Co. co-founders Joe Vogelbacher and Eric Flanigan. Credit: IBM

Published: June 28th, 2019

The recent explosion of craft breweries in North America has brought a lot of the creativity back to the art of brewing beer. But as the Sugar Creek Brewing Company found out recently, this process can often be more science than art.

Incorrect fill levels and foam levels can drastically reduce the shelf life of the product, and in some cases, can even cause the beer to be thrown out completely. Surprisingly, as little 50 parts per billion of differentiation in dissolved oxygen levels in a beer can dramatically alter the shelf life of a beer.

This is exactly the problem that Sugar Creek set out to tackle after realizing they were losing over $30,000 USD every month in wasted beer.

“As you grow your brewery and you expand distribution, it becomes so much more critical to make sure that the beer has shelf stability. And one of the challenges that we have was that we would have an inconsistent fill level in the bottle,” said Joe Vogelbacher, co-founder of Sugar Creek Brewing Co., in an interview with ITbusiness.ca. “Not only does it affect quality…it causes efficiency problems. The goal is… the first time somebody tries Sugar Creek product, we want to make sure it’s our best foot forward.”

This began a journey with IBM and Bosch, which involved the installation of Bosch IoT sensors and IBM’s Visual Insights to monitor the bottles as they came down the line, which then fed data through an IoT gateway to IBM’s Watson. After some time to analyze the data, Watson was able to pinpoint inefficiencies in the process which were leading to the problems they were having.

Not only were they able to solve the fill level and foaming problems after uncovering the causes, but Vogelbacher said he was shocked to see how much additional money and beer was being wasted from previously unseen inefficiencies.

“It was embarrassing to realize specifically how much money we were losing going from one phase of the operations to another one through process losses. And that was the big thing was that there was a lot of room for improvement on our efficiency side as well,” said Vogelbacher.

This journey even led them to aptly name their newest beer IPAi.

Joe Vogelbacher, co-founder of Sugar Creek Brewery, says he was shocked to find the inefficiencies in their process after installing IoT and AI solutions. Credit: IBM

Based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, Sugar Creek opened its doors in 2014. As brewers who aim to follow the “break the rules” style of the Belgian Trappist Monks, they decided to take an untraditional approach to solve this problem.

“As the bottles come off of the line, there’s so many different things that affect that the fill level or the quality of the beer, and it’s too much for any individual one person to just stand there and monitor it,” said Vogelbacher.

After meeting Rob Parolin, the director of technical sales for IBM Watson and IoT at IBM Corp., during an event at the brewery, Vogelbacher said that they sat down to discuss how IoT and AI solutions could help them crack the puzzle. While Vogelbacher said that they initially believed these solutions to be too high level for a brewery, they were quickly convinced.

One of the major reasons he said he had the perception that these solutions would be out of reach for them, was the fact that their manufacturing equipment is quite old and he believed it would not be possible to outfit it with these modern technologies.

“I would say it is the oldest equipment in Charlotte. Some of it is of historical origin coming from the first brewery in Charlotte. And it’s a very manual operation,” said Vogelbacher. “Through this collaboration, we are basically taking our brewery now and modernizing the whole thing. It’s been fun.”

A use case like this is exactly why IBM was so interested in being involved, said Will Streit, the director of offering management at IBM.

He said that he sees a perception that any IoT projects need to be created from scratch, such as a cutting-edge factory using IoT for its manufacturing process or completely overhauling the equipment in an older facility.

And while he acknowledged the fact that applying IoT solutions to older equipment is definitely a challenge, it is far from impossible.

“That’s a powerful part of the story that you can take existing business processes and existing equipment, and instrument them and digitize them in order to help grow the business,” said Streit.

Streit points out in a case like this there are three main challenges.

“One is obviously implementing things that may not have been designed for instrumentation. In this case, we partnered with Bosch, who developed the instrumentation. The second part is the operations. If you have a brewery, you have a process that you’re used to using. It changes your operations. There’s a third one tied to operations. And that is finding the analytics that help improve what you’re seeking to improve,” explained Streit.

 

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