Processing seaweed to obtain extracts for agricultural uses is far from an everyday manufacturing task. Since no off-the-shelf equipment exists that has been designed specifically for this purpose, maintenance and engineering in a Cornwallis, N.S., plant have been pooling their expertise for years to adapt equipment originally designed for completely different applications to their unique needs.
Turning seaweed, known locally as Rockweed, but more specifically tagged Ascophyllum nodosum, into a black extract to be used in formulated products for agricultural and horticultural uses, begins at a loading dock, where workers on the “exercise shift” pitchfork slippery dump truck loads of greenish Rockweed onto a conveyor belt. At the top the load makes a 90-degree turn into a grinder, the original function of which was to grind meat.
The Rockweed then disappears into stainless steel pipes and tanks for cooking and clarification. A black slurry — which at one time was diverted from a centrifuge as waste — is poured into a hydraulically-operated accordion-shaped device about 4.6 m (15 ft) long, originally used as a cider press. It squeezes the slurry to recover more seaweed extract before it exits the production stream.
Eventually a black liquid extract reaches two minivan-sized double-drum dryers. These machines, which date back to the 1950s, were originally used to make powdered milk. Two heated rollers in each dryer lap up a thin film of the extract, which dries on the rollers. An endless matte black sheet is peeled off and then powdered to become soluble seaweed extract powder.
The 836-sq-m (9,000-sq-ft) extract plant, which produces several million pounds of extract a year, is one of five in Atlantic Canada owned by Acadian Seaplants Ltd., which is headquartered in Dartmouth, N.S. The other plants produce other seaweed-based products, including health, beauty and brewery ingredients and a trademarked product called Hana-Nori, used in Japanese Kaiso salads and Sashimi garnishes.
Two main brains behind the unusual production equipment in the neatly organized Cornwallis plant are maintenance manager Joey Pippy and plant engineer Wade Hazel. Sitting side by side in the office of plant manager Mike Fitzpatrick, this question-and-answer tag team explains how they design and modify equipment.
“Wade comes up with the design. We pick it apart to look for things he might have overlooked. We might suggest that something be done differently,” says Pippy. Hazel picks up the ball: “Often the broad concept will come from me — the general direction we need to go. Joey will come up with the practical things that will make the new equipment work; for example, features that will make it easier to maintain or work better. Often Joey will come up with an idea, but,” and Joey finishes the sentence, “I will need some engineering.”
Hazel usually researches the best material for any from-scratch equipment they want to build, but Pippy might suggest a material he has worked with or has seen before.
The number-one design rule is that the equipment never stops, except for a yearly six- to eight-week shutdown. “Heavy duty is designed into the equipment. The equipment just goes and goes. We can’t afford to take equipment down,” says Fitzpatrick, even for the installation of new machinery.
Pippy is instrumental in deciding the installed location of new equipment, which must be accessible for heavy lifting equipment like forklifts. “We look at sketches. What I look for mainly is to install it in an area so that it is as easy as possible to work with it. It has to go here, so how do we get it out when we need to get it out? And safety is always a factor here,” he explains.
Pippy and Hazel also listen closely to their colleagues — operators, engineers, managers — who contribute good ideas. In one case, one of the steam engineers wanted better access to some steam valves, which led to suggesting platforms for accessing and working on equipment, rather than ladders and forklifts. “That became a safety thing,” says Pippy. “We have to listen to what everyone says.”
Certain aspects of the maintenance planning would be familiar to anyone responsible for a 24/7 operation. Unusual though is the effect on maintenance of the rapidly-increasing demand for extract; the plant has doubled production in the past two to three years alone, and constant production innovations come from the 1,858 sq m (20,000 sq ft) Research & Development Centre on the 6-ha (15-acre) property. And do not forget that new equipment.
“We know that new equipment will not work perfectly at first,” says Pippy. (The press, for example, took years of testing to perfect.) “What is your backup plan? What [repairs] can you do quickly? When equipment breaks, we inevitably end up modifying it to make it better so it won’t break again. We are not only maintaining, but continually improving things.”
The plant also has a tight relationship with a local machine shop, which Pippy and Hazel rely on not only as an extension of the plant machine shop, but for input on equipment design. “I have used them for the last eight years. If something breaks down they know exactly what I am talking about and will drop everything to help us out,” says Pippy.
“They are very innovative and we oftentimes use them as a resource. They have ideas based on other things they have seen,” says Hazel, to which Pippy adds, “It is better sometimes to have an outside party come in and pick things apart.”
Pippy or one of his men will do a daily walk-around of the equipment, and write down any problems in a notebook. Pippy sets dates for when repair issues have to be done, issues work orders and prioritizes the important repairs. More detailed inspections and other necessary repairs are done during the annual shutdown.
Fitzpatrick would like maintenance to have access to a computerized maintenance management program (CMMS), but the current pace of equipment modifications, and the rewrites piled upon rewrites it would require, keep implementation of that fond thought just over the horizon.
Plant capacity is already at around 90%, and production will likely double again in the next couple of years. The pressure will remain to build equipment and install it on the fly, says Fitzpatrick. “The challenge for Wade and Joey is to install that …” and Joey chimes in: “… while we work.” Fitzpatrick finishes his thought, “To date Wade and Joey have done that successfully.”
Carroll McCormick is the senior contributing editor for Machinery & Equipment MRO. He is based in Montreal.
The Dynamic Duo
Maintenance manager Joey Pippy and plant engineer Wade Hazel have been working shoulder-to-shoulder at Acadian Seaplants’ Rockweed extract plant in Cornwallis, N.S., since 2000. Their wide variety of training and industry experience have enabled them to build and maintain the mostly custom equipment that has sustained production through several years of rapid growth.
Pippy learned a lot about the welding, machining, millwright and mechanical trades in various weld shops in Yarmouth, N.S., building parts for everything from radar stands for fishing boats to process equipment for fish plants. In Alberta he worked in an aircraft repair shop and in the oil patch before obtaining his Interprovincial Class ‘A’ ticket while working as a maintenance mechanic in Acadian Seaplants’ Yarmouth facility.
He became maintenance supervisor at the Cornwallis plant in 1998 and, since he helped install most of the equipment, knows it inside out. “I love the challenge of working for a company that thrives on staying on that leading edge and is always looking for new ideas,” says Pippy.
Hazel, a metallurgical engineer, joined Acadian Seaplants in 2000 after a five-year stint as the mill metallurgist in the Tantalum Mining Corporation’s lithium plant in Bernic Lake, Man.
“What I like about working for ASL,” says Hazel, “is that there are new challenges every day, from overcoming curre
nt process problems to developing new equipment, processes and systems. There is great diversity in my job, spanning several engineering disciplines as well as pure grass roots innovation and invention.”
The next big challenge
Rapidly-increasing production will soon outpace the ability of hard men to pitchfork seaweed onto a conveyor belt. Plant manager Mike Fitzpatrick believes he has two years to figure out how to automate the feeding of seaweed into the production process.
The stuff grows in long strands, but can clump up into balls, and rocks and seashells can get caught in it.
There simply is no equipment out there that was ever designed for such a purpose, and it is also hard to explain seaweed’s properties and associated challenges to outsiders.
“We will be working with suppliers to try and come up with a solution, trying to describe the requirement,” says plant engineer Wade Hazel, “but we will still have to modify the equipment.”