Run of the mill? Not hardly

by Arvin Donley
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In many ways, Kansas State University (KSU) milling instructor Kendall McFall feels like a child with a new, hightech toy — one that costs $10 million, stands five-stories tall and covers 22,000 square feet.

After teaching students the art and science of flour milling in what had become an antiquated facility, McFall and other milling instructors in KSU’s Department of Grain Science and Industry say they have been rejuvenated by the opportunity to work in the new Hal Ross Flour Mill, a state-of-art facility that was dedicated on Oct. 20, 2006 in Manhattan, Kansas, U.S. "We couldn’t be happier," McFall said. "We’re still learning in terms of all that we’re going to do with it."

The slipform concrete structure, which contains full-scale, highly-automated equipment from 30 milling industry suppliers, allows faculty and students to teach and learn in ways they could only dream about in the old mill, which was housed inside of Shellenberger Hall.

"It’s as complete and complex as any mill in the country in terms of its technology, flow and equipment," McFall said. "It’s not a lights-out mill, although it certainly could be if we wanted it to be. But that’s not the point; the point is to teach."

The mission of any university is to offer educational programs that will equip graduates with the knowledge and practical experience to make a smooth transition into the workforce. McFall said the new mill allows students to work in a mill setting that is much more like what they’ll experience when they enter the milling industry.

Perhaps most significantly, students are now learning to mill soft wheat and durum in addition to hard wheat, which was the type of wheat processed almost exclusively on the Shellenberger mill. Having such diverse training will make

KSU students more marketable to the milling industry, said Jeff Gwirtz, associate professor in KSU’s grain science department.

"All the commercially available classes of wheat can be run on this mill," Gwirtz said. "That’s going to be a real plus for us. I think it makes our students more marketable."

The new mill is also giving students the invaluable experience of working with a high-tech, computer-controlled milling system found in many modern mills.

"It’s expanded their thinking beyond just the flow of material and has them thinking about how it’s controlled, how that impacts the other parts of the process and how it’s all tied together, which I think is more indicative of what they’re going to see when they get out into the industry," McFall said.

The new mill has piqued not only the interest of current KSU milling students, but those high school and junior college students who are considering milling as a potential occupation.

After dipping to nearly 60 students earlier this decade, the milling science program saw its enrollment jump to 76 in 2006. For today’s technology-savvy students, the promise of being able to learn their craft in a highly automated mill is certain to draw some students that may not have considered milling otherwise, he said.

"It really shows our industry is not without technology," McFall said. "Even though it’s an older industry, there are a lot of high-tech aspects to it."

The KSU students and faculty aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits of the Hal Ross Flour Mill, as enrollment in the recent milling short courses conducted by KSU show.

"It’s helped re-energize the idea of continuing education training," Mc-Fall said. "We have probably had more people in the milling short courses this spring and summer than we’ve had in a long, long time."

McFall said the new 24-tonne-per-day (400-cwt) mill has changed the way KSU instructors are teaching the beginning and advanced milling courses. At the Shellenberger mill, which has a milling capacity of 16 tonnes per day (260 cwts), short course participants spent most of their time in a milling laboratory operating tabletop grinding and sifting units.

"We still do a little of that, but we’re doing a lot more large-scale stuff now," McFall said. "We will spend a day in the cleaning section just running wheat through that section because we can re-circulate it. We can take a piece of equipment apart, put it back together, adjust it and play with it."

That type of hands-on instruction was more difficult in the manually operated mill, where faculty members had to spend a significant amount of time moving from floor to floor to keep the mill operating properly.

"In this case, the mill kind of runs itself, so you’re better able to teach them the detailed aspects of something like purification, such as how the purifier works and how to set it properly."

KSU has also conducted a couple of company-specific courses, including a three-day course with a group of grain buyers from Cargill, Inc.

"We talked to them about wheat quality and its effect on milling, and we used the mill to demonstrate how their customers are going to view wheat quality," McFall said. Cargill also sent some employees from its flour milling division to KSU for a milling technology course, he said.

In July, the Kansas Wheat Commission (KWC), as part of its ongoing 50th anniversary celebration, sent seven of its commissioners and staff to the new mill for "a special flour milling experience." Members of the KWC, which is made up of Kansas wheat producers, milled 120 bushels of Kansas winter wheat into fortified white flour under the guidance of McFall and Mark Fowler, technical director of KSU’s International Grains Program.

Also, Buhler North America, which supplied much of the equipment in the mill, is using the mill for various projects.

"We are honored to be part of the Hal Ross mill at KSU," said Brian Williams, marketing manager for Buhler North America. "To date, we have conducted several training sessions at the mill, both open to the public in conjunction with KSU and for specific customers." Williams added that Buhler is now able to offer training courses in the U.S. that are similar to those offered at Buhler’s milling school in Uzwil, Switzerland.

In addition to providing greater learning opportunities for students, the new mill has opened the door for more diverse and in-depth research projects.

A recent project involved doing a milling comparison of soft white Club, regular soft white and soft red winter wheat for the Washington Wheat Commission.

"The idea was to put it in report form so they can use it for international buyers who are making choices between different classes of soft wheat," McFall said.

Gwirtz pointed out that such a study could not have been conducted at the Shellenberger mill, because its spouting angles weren’t steep enough to successfully move soft wheat flour through the system.

"Soft wheat, as a wheat class, isn’t as big as hard wheat, but it is used in a ton of products," Gwirtz said. "We’ll now be able to conduct some studies that will allow us to do a better job of serving the soft wheat milling industry.

He noted that the new mill is also better equipped to study issues relating to starch damage, wheat tempering, wheat blending and process control and monitoring.

"We can use parts and pieces of the system to look at alternative value-added processes and products for grain-based materials," Gwirtz said.