Fit for the digital laboratory with a ‘Smart Workflow’: Optimisation of laboratory workflows with the latest network concept from Brabender
by Brabender, Germany
The precise measurement of ingredients and rheological parameters is a key prerequisite for quality management in day-to-day laboratory work for the milling, baked goods, and starch industries as well as the grain sector and other sectors in the food industry.
With its digital 'Smart Workflow' concept for the laboratory of the future, Brabender is focusing on more transparency and higher efficiency via the automated transmission of measured values, clear data management, web-based data transfer, time savings, and the associated cost savings.
We spoke with application technician Stefan Jansen (SJ) and software developer Viktor Schäfer (VS) at Brabender in Duisburg about the latest options for keeping laboratories up to date.
What do you at Brabender mean by "Smart Workflow"?
SJ: Networking is the solution for making operational workflows more efficient. This applies to communication between the laboratory and other departments of a company, and even more so, when working with clients or suppliers. In these cases, it is important to establish reliable networks which link humans and machines as well as their tasks and functions in a future-oriented manner.
In our concept of the 'Smart Workflow', various Brabender devices are digitally networked with each other. This enables rapid and simultaneous access to multiple devices, providing results without any delay and collecting the information in a central database.
VS: This requires a software solution which accomplishes all this. The key element of our 'Smart Workflow' is the Brabender MetaBridge, which is a network concept that we have developed for our laboratory devices which makes the workflow quick and secure both for multitasking in the laboratory and linking to all levels where product-related decisions are to be made.
What makes the MetaBridge software from Brabender 'smart?'
VS: Not only does our MetaBridge link the Brabender devices with their measurement results, but it also links their users: within a company, across different geographical locations, or optionally even with suppliers and clients.
What is really intelligent about the MetaBridge software is its web-based and therefore platform- and location-independent user architecture. This means you have access to your data via PC, Mac, tablet, or smartphone — no matter where you are.
SJ: This makes the workflow twice as smart in real-world laboratories: On the one hand, a laboratory employee can control multiple devices from his computer workstation simultaneously, control their workflows, and keep an eye on their measurement results.
On the other hand, multiple users can also log in simultaneously, for example in order to track a running farinogram across various end devices, such as tablets or smartphones. One more important aspect for research and development is that the model simulation of parameters makes it possible to test alternative processing procedures, for example the effect of recipe specifications on dough development during kneading, which you can observe in real time on the screen.
What are the advantages of such a feature?
VS: This "multi-access" creates direct added value for the client, because he saves time thanks to the continuous sharing of information between the involved laboratory employees or when making quality management decisions.
Human resources are not only cost-intensive, but also currently limited at a time when specialists are hard to find. That is why it makes sense to free up existing, trusted laboratory personnel to do other tasks: The time-intensive evaluation, recording, and saving of test workflows, results, and comparisons can all be handled by the software!
SJ: Our devices automatically recognise each other in the network. Not only does this simplify laboratory operations, but the direct observation of measurement workflows is a significant step towards the online monitoring of processes; this is a dream come true for quality assurance personnel.
In order to make measurements not only quick but also error-free, MetaBridge offers an intrasystem quality assurance feature for preventing errors. And data transfer between the devices, which is also automatic, creates short workflows and greater security.
Here is a practical example: The MT-CA reports the moisture content of a sample to your Farinograph, which then automatically calculates and outputs a sample with the right weight — with no risk of any conversion, transfer, or operational errors.
Documenting results is becoming increasingly important — how does this get done in the 'Smart Workflow'?
SJ: This is where we need to talk about the "sacred cow," in other words, the laboratory journal: Naturally, it too will become digital. Within the laboratory, you now benefit from the fact that all results from rheological test workflows from all devices can be accessed and documented simultaneously.
Pre-selected measurement ranges for standard configurations improve reproducibility. To stay with the example of the Farinogram, step sizes, time limits and limit values are already integrated — but of course, you can also adjust them in a product-specific manner.
For Brabender applications, it more or less goes without saying that a wide range of international comparison standards and a correspondingly designed visualisation can be displayed. I find MetaBridge to be impressively simple and user-friendly. It is controlled via a touch display in a tile design, has freely customizable user interfaces, and individually configurable notification and/or alarm functions.
VS: The classic laboratory journal will then become a thing of the past. For the digital laboratory, we offer the "Labfolder," a low-cost tool in the form of a subscription. The Office-based functions allow for the direct, that is to say simultaneous, communication of results from the digital laboratory journal.
Authorised persons with the password can, for example, send product logs which will be useful internally within the company or externally for clients when comparing specifications. And if it should be necessary, the history from the Labfolder also helps with complaints and claims.
What IT prerequisites need to be met for the 'Smart Workflow'?
VS: No specific operating system is required. Because MetaBridge is web-based, it can easily be used with all popular browsers. For many of our current models, it is already integrated as standard software. This currently includes the Farinograph-TS, the Moisture Tester MT-CA, ViscoQuick and Twin Lab-F 20/40.
The GlutoPeak and other Brabender devices with a USB connection can be upgraded, because we are aware of the longevity of Brabender devices. The MetaBridge Controller, which we simply call MBC in-house, is a simple, cost-effective option for integrating existing equipment. Of course, it is not compatible with the really old "analog darlings."
But with this upgrade tool, up to four MetaBridge-enabled devices can be connected simultaneously via their USB ports. The following are compatible and ready for operation without any prior installation: Farinograph-AT and Micro Visco-Amylo-Graph, as well as practically all E-versions of the Brabender device family, i.e. Farino-, Amylo-, Visco- and Extensograph.
SJ: Therefore, it is not always necessary to purchase the latest laboratory devices in order to capitalise on the many advantages of the Smart Workflow. The transformation into a digital laboratory can also take place step by step.
The compactly designed MBC is approximately as large as a DIN A4 sheet of paper and fits on top of most Brabender devices when laid flat. With a standing width of 7.5cm when upright, it can be installed even in the tightest of laboratory workstations.
To get started, a MetaBridge network is not absolutely necessary, although I would definitely recommend it. However, every device controlled via MetaBridge also functions autonomously or, alternatively, in an independently installed laboratory network.
Speaking of networks, are laboratory information and management systems compatible?
VS: Certainly, the sharing of information with existing programs is possible. Transfer in standard formats with Excel or .csv is not a problem. The LIMS administrator can configure an open interface with a Web API for this purpose. Naturally, we also offer this as a service for our clients where necessary.
SJ: Two additional major service-related arguments occur to me in favor of MetaBridge: the program runs reliably. But, if it should run into any snags, our software engineers can provide rapid support without an on-site appointment via remote assistance. And in the case of incomprehensible measurement results, you have the option of receiving direct plausibility feedback from us.
How can we imagine the application of the 'Smart Workflow' in the real world?
SJ: Let me explain this with an example involving baking. The optimised addition of water leads to cost reductions in the production process and has a positive effect on the quality of the baked goods, so the question is: What is the best quantity of water for making the dough and a high-quality end product?
This is how it works with Brabender's 'Smart Workflow': for determining the water absorption of a flour, the most important parameter to determine is the moisture content of the flour which is usually 14 percent in laboratory tests.
In reality, however, every batch of flour has a different moisture content. In the 'Smart Workflow', the Brabender Moisture Tester MT-CA determines the actual moisture content and supplies it automatically to the Brabender Farinograph-TS, which uses it to weigh out the necessary quantity of flour.
When an expected water absorption value is unknown, the GlutoPeak additionally provides an initial, precise estimate. The Aqua-Inject dosing system connected to the Farinograph then automatically titrates the required quantity of water into the mixer. The 'Smart Workflow', consisting of the MT-CA, GlutoPeak, and Farinograph-TS, optimises the test workflows and saves the data centrally in the "Labfolder,' from which it can e.g. be exported into LIMS systems.
VS: The many functions of the software and the combination of devices in networked interactions increase your experience and expertise in terms of rheology. This facilitates the specialist dialog regarding quality requirements between the partners in the value creation chain, including the use of documented data for certifications or audits.
We cordially invite you to visit the application laboratory in our customer and technology center in Duisburg to find out more: Here, you can experience the 'Smart Workflow' live – and for digital natives, there is a video on YouTube with a quick run-through of the most important facts: https://youtu.be/tH0pClOKmc