How to staff a modern flour mill

by Teresa Acklin
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Grain industry consultant David Sugden discusses the issues surrounding minimum staffing requirements.

   Permanent production staffing of a modern flour mill — that is, all positions that are critical to the core of the business in manufacturing, packaging and outloading products — can really be defined more accurately as minimum staffing.

   The reason for minimum staffing is to reduce manpower overhead without in any way compromising quality, service, safety, hygiene, the environment or performance. The discussion of permanent staffing should revolve around what people can actually handle — the art of the possible.

   The principles outlined here apply to recently retrofitted or greenfield mills. The simple concepts have come from a number of different plants across the developed world and are already in practice.

   The benefits of minimum manpower go much further than just the bottom line. But one thing should be stressed: For minimum staffing to be effective, all mill departments must have reliable equipment. Unreliability increases the number of personnel required.

   Reliable equipment does not have to be new, but it must be well maintained and in good working order. Instrumentation, in particular, falls under this caution. Wrong signals from a rollermill hopper, a bin level indicator or an elevator belt speed device will cause loss of production, increase the need for more staff or worse.


   One of the hidden advantages of minimum staffing is the fact that a machine once started and settled down runs far better without human interference. Many mills around the world run at night, on weekends and on public holidays, producing flour without any personnel.

   If something goes wrong, the mill is engineered to stop and automatically telephone the relevant stand-by operative. He will diagnose the area of stoppage, ask for more help if necessary and restart with the minimum of delay.

   Another benefit of minimum staffing is the reduced vulnerability of a plant to labor disputes. Further, personnel, being so few in number, quickly realize their dependence on each other and enjoy a feeling of belonging to a small, select crew. This creates “ownership” of problems and a greater will to resolve them more quickly.

   Minimum staffing does have a few drawbacks. With so few people, an influenza or other disease outbreak could quickly reduce the number available to work. Another, although it is not exactly a problem if properly managed, is the stress on people working alone caused by the continued responsibility of operating a major industrial plant. Finally, plant security during unmanned hours must be considered; typically it can be handled by a suitable security company.

   Selection of personnel with the right attitude is critical. Personnel should be reliable, enthusiastic team players who are thoughtful and energetic. They should be willing to assist others across department lines in times of difficulty. Technical or other applicable training also is important, but when staff members have the first set of characteristics, training and expertise-gathering become simpler and easier.


   Let's consider the manager or superintendent of such a plant. If he is going to have his people become even more productive, he has to secure the backing of his boss — or forget it. He also must know what is possible to achieve and then develop a strategy.

   The strategy's steps would certainly include careful deliberation of minimum staffing as it relates to the specific plant. It also would include a reconnaissance of other plants to sharpen focus and gain ideas, advice, knowledge and confirmation of teamwork. Specific plans then can be drawn and reviewed.

   After validation, a whole series of implementation events takes place. This includes personnel briefings and, especially, individual one-on-one counseling, including coaching.

   Having covered these points, albeit too briefly, a word is necessary on instrumentation and control equipment, assuming that the basic quality and reliability of all necessary machinery is in place.

   Over-instrumentation, or overkill, is just as much a problem, probably more so, as under-instrumentation. Examples include a set-up so complicated that the plant or section is continually failing because of oversensitivity or because of conflicting signals.

   Keep matters simple, yet reliable. Programmable logic controllers and other computer systems capable of handling vast amounts of data accurately are superbly reliable and flexible.

   A number of sites in a mill require reliable instrumentation. Some of the most important instruments include bin and hopper level indicators, production and packaging weigh counters, elevator belt and conveyor under-speed detectors and proximity devices. Proximity instruments placed above and below rollermills and plansifters protect the mill from major hazards such as fire, as well as chokes or plugs. Reliable instrumentation also includes infrared devices, which can detect problems under sifters. Flow detection devices or capacitance probes in wheat cleaning runs are also effective. Other forms of failsafe instrumentation include bag weighing systems and pressure blowline devices.


   The table on page 29 lists the permanent production staff level for a 500 tonne-per-24-hour complete wheat flour mill taking in wheat by road or by ship. These staffing levels are in practice today in one department or another in some mills, and in some cases, mirror actual levels through entire plants.

   Because permanent production staffing means those job functions that are critical to the business in manufacturing, packaging and outloading products, this example points out the minimum of positions that are necessary to meet that goal. Several categories of staff are not vital, and the work can be contracted out. These include transport drivers and maintenance workers, cleaners, painters, electric lighting maintenance workers, building/civil engineering maintenance workers and so on. These categories, as well as administrative staff, are excluded in this example.

   Some additional comments or points should be noted. The two intake personnel can handle slightly more wheat than this plant receives before an extra person is required. Certainly, the mill size can go up considerably, covered by the four personnel indicated.

   Packing in bags of 25 kilograms to 50 kg is generally calculated at 500 bags per person per hour with good equipment. Automatic bag placers can help but are not yet reliable enough.

   A fork-lift driver can handle 37 to 38 pallets per hour from a store to a truck up to 45 meters. One person can load a truck with single bags using a telescopic conveyor at up to 1,000 bags per hour, but the bags must come to waist height and can only be placed downward, not lifted.

   Of course, the needs of each mill situation are different, and no catch-all or simple answer exists. However, this article has pointed to some benchmarks that the reader may find useful in the knowledge that several mills practice such staffing in production.

   So far as the laboratory and the mill superintendent's office are concerned, the staffing levels listed are comprehensive for these significant functions. The mill maintenance crew of six specialists, who need to be well trained and fluent, is perhaps the most important, again for ensuring equipment reliability. This team clearly has to deal with much problem anticipation and organization, safe in the fact that the crew has a handle on the necessary specialist knowledge and skills.

   The remainder is self explanatory. Importantly, however, the theme running through all staff is a necessary willingness to cover others across and between departments in times of difficulty, without which this organizational system will not work.

Permanent production staff for a 500-tonne per day wheat flour mill

(seven days, 52 weeks running time)
1. Ship0Stevedores/dockers from outside
2. Intake 2Shut road intake when ship alongside (ship
unloader, road intake, elevator)
3. Dirty wheat0
Conditioning bins
4. Processing4Day schedules: plant setting, checking,
Wheat cleaningmonitoring, adjustment; rotate for night call,
Millholidays and sickness
Flour storage, bulk blending
5. Packing420,000 bags/man/five-day week with carousel
packer, total 60,000 25- or 50-kg bags; one
spare man for holidays, sickness, etc.
6. Flour/millfeed outload0All bulk
7. Warehouse337 1-tonne pallets/man/hour from packing
Fork lift personnelmachine to storage, from storage to truck;
one spare man for holidays, sickness
8. Laboratory5Comprehensive; could be fewer
9. Mill superintendent3Superintendent, assistant, secretary
10. Mill maintenance6Three specialist mechanics, three specialist
electricians; contract out routine tasks
11. Weighbridge0Operated by office and remote tamper-proof
controls for night operation
12. Garage repair0Contract out