Milling changes evolutionary, not revolutionary

by Arvin Donley
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Celebrating our magazine’s 25th year of serving the grain and grain processing industries has prompted World Grain staff members to reflect on changes that have taken place in the past quarter of a century in the business that we cover and to dream about what the next 25 years may bring.

It’s interesting to note, for instance, some of the technological advances that have taken place in the wheat flour milling industry. This is an industry that, perhaps a bit unfairly, has the reputation of being somewhat slow to adopt new technology. Granted, some regions of the world — Europe, for instance — are quicker than others to embrace these technological changes, but the overall trend is to usher in the new at a relatively deliberate pace.

The lack of quick and dramatic change probably is due to the industry’s small profit margins as much as anything. Without a large amount of capital at their disposal, milling company owners are understandably reticent about taking their limited profit and investing it in a new technology with a limited track record.

Consequently, it might seem that not much has changed over the past two and a half decades. But there have been a number of important technological breakthroughs — albeit gradual ones — that have led to more cost-efficient and effective methods of producing flour.

As Kansas State University (KSU) milling science professor Jeff Gwirtz put it: "Because the change is incremental, we don’t notice it as much. There’s very little that’s been revolutionary; it’s more evolutionary."

By tweaking the process here and there over a number of years, today’s milling industry has evolved quite dramatically from the 1982 version.

Incorporating automation into the milling process would certainly rank number one on the list of most significant technological breakthroughs since that time. Today’s computer-controlled milling facilities feature the cost-effective attributes of producing more flour and flour byproducts with fewer employees.

KSU milling instructor Kendall McFall recalls how he and several of his colleagues smirked with skepticism when they read an advertisement in the 1980s showing a man skiing in the SwissAlps that proclaimed, "This man’s running his mill." But as we now know, "lights out" milling eventually went from being a highly futuristic concept to a common practice in today’s milling industry.

The gradual reduction in the amount of equipment used in flour production is another change that millers have welcomed. "Pillsbury flow sheets used to be like a road map to hell," McFall said. "There were 15 or so purification steps, and now in those mills you might have four or five purifiers, maybe six at the most in a hard wheat mill."

The development of equipment such as the Combicleaner, which combines the functions of several machines into on single operating unit, have shortened the flow in the cleaning section, as has the practice of recycling air back into equipment rather than sending it off to a dust collector.

Having reflected on the past, the next question — one that is more difficult to answer — is what changes are in store in the next 25 years? While it’s difficult to arrive at a consensus on some issues, industry observers seem to agree on one thing: the process of milling wheat into flour will require fewer and fewer steps.

For instance, many believe that mills will feature an even more streamlined wheat cleaning section as optical equipment, such as the color sorter, becomes more advanced.

"I’m just hopeful that in 25 years you can put a mill of about any capacity you want inside a very small (building) space and be able to convert wheat into flour with fewer steps than we have now," Gwirtz said. "I expect we’ll see a continual downward spiral in the number of steps it takes to generate flour."

It may take some time, but it almost surely will happen.