How to manage variability in raw materials with NIR analyser equipment?

1. Feb, 2019
By Richard Mills
In this article we’ll look at how rapid analysis of feed ingredients with near infrared (NIR) gives any feed producer the ability to handle variability in raw materials. Producers can drive their mills harder and smarter with typical savings in the region of up to USD 7.0 per ton. But does it really pay to invest in an NIR analyser, how does it work and what is the right NIR solution for me?

The ability to handle variability in raw materials has always been essential for profitable feed production. 


Armed with knowledge about the actual nutrient content of raw materials and finished feed, producers can drive their mills harder and smarter. For instance, they can safely swop a high-price raw material with a lower cost alternative, perhaps using less soymeal and more corn. Typical savings are up to USD 7.0 per ton. Other benefits of a more informed approach include the chance to make claims against below-spec raw deliveries and improved product consistency for minimal recalls and better customer relations. 


Despite the clear gains to be made, uptake of NIR analyser technology among smaller independent mills remains limited.  A major barrier is concerns about introducing a new technology to the feed mill and the associated need for on-site technical know-how and support. The advent of latest generation NIR is changing all that as this article explores. We’ll look at: 


  • How some producers are using a near infrared (NIR) analyser to check intake and finished products
  • Latest NIR analyser technology and why you can rely on it
  • The key points to look for in a NIR analyser solution for cost-efficiency and fast return on investment




NIR technology is already widely used by the major players in the feed industry
Many feed producers, especially larger corporations have been making use of NIR analytical technology for decades to test all incoming and outgoing deliveries with one simple analysis taking less than a minute.  


Once an NIR analyser has been set up, there is no direct cost of analysis, allowing users to test as much as they like without worry. The immediate onsite results allow quality controllers to spot poor quality raw-materials at the gate and take action immediately, instead of letting it through and then living with the consequences. Learn more in this video case story from a major feed cooperative in Spain: New NIR for quality feed analysis at Cobadu feed plant in spain


It is clear that that testing with NIR generates a lot of valuable information, but how much do all these tests contribute to the bottom line?  


Let’s take an example based on a feed mill that is doing feed formulation based on the actual protein levels of key ingredients such as soymeal. With reliable information on the protein level of individual deliveries they can identify shipments where the level is higher than that guaranteed by the supplier. With this knowledge they can work closer to their 15% protein content target reducing the soybean meal content from 21% to 18%, saving up to USD 7.0 per ton.


Similar savings can be made through more precise control of moisture, for example, a pet food manufacturer producing 100,000 tons of kibble annually on one of their lines can move the moisture target 0.5% closer to specification. This leads to savings of 0.5% x 100,000 tons equaling 500 tons less raw material per year to produce the same amount of kibble. 


Latest generation near infrared spectroscopy and why you can rely on it
There is nothing revolutionary about the latest NIR technology in that it works on the same principle as the first NIR solutions. That is, infrared light is directed towards a sample, the light is modified by the sample and the spectra (scan) is converted into results related to the sample composition. Conversion is done mathematically using “calibrations”. For a detailed explanation, see our NIR technology description here: NIR technology


What is new, however, is how the technology is delivered. Latest generation NIR instruments boast better and more stable hardware and IP65 certification, indicating that they are robust enough for lasting use in the mill. Specifically, they must be insensitive to damp, dust, vibrations or temperature fluctuations. An ISO standard for use of NIR instruments (ISO 12099) provides guidelines for instruments and their use. 


In the past, NIR users were required to do their own calibration development, but some modern day solutions have the option of readymade calibrations that make the whole start-up process a lot quicker. These globally developed data models can cover the seasonal and geographical variability of raw materials – data that would otherwise take many years to acquire through reference analysis. Read our guide on the subject here: Best practice for calibration of NIR instruments


Another important aspect of modern NIR is that developments in connectivity and remote diagnostics have made it possible to successfully implement NIR without need for technical experts on-site. Globally developed data models can be installed and updated on the instrument online without the involvement of the user.  An external service center can ensure that the analytical equipment is running error-free, which previously required a technician on-site. More about the value of connected solutions here: Digital services


The elements of a modern NIR solution for an independent feed producer
In summary, a number of different factors add-up to a more viable use of NIR analysis for feed producers.
Here’s our checklist of elements to look out for: 


  • A high quality NIR Instrument from a reputable supplier. This should be approved for use in the harsh conditions encountered in a control room at the feed mill.
  • Ready-to-use global calibrations for feed ingredients and final feed. Adjustment to local materials might be required, but the ready-to-use calibrations provide a good start that would otherwise take many months of reference analysis work to achieve.
  • Support for initial setup including validation as described in the ISO 12099 standard for use of NIR instruments
  • Instrument performance validation via remote instrument diagnostics using networking connectivity
  • Ongoing calibration performance validation, once again using connectivity features to allow an off-site expert to check performance and make adjustments or updates remotely and without interruption to daily operations.


For a more detailed overview of key points to consider, see this article: Five ways to secure quality feed with NIR


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