Key observations of a miller

by Arvin Donley
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To say John Hultman loves his job is a major understatement.

Hultman, who was honored as the 2015 Milling Operative of the Year award winner at last year’s International Association of Operative Millers (IAOM) Conference and Expo in Palm Springs, California, U.S., describes his more than 40 years as a flour miller as “the perfect life.”

“Do you ever step back and think about what we’re doing and how few people in the world are able to that?” Hultman said during his presentation, entitled “Daily Key Observations of a Miller,” at the 2016 IAOM Conference & Expo in Columbus, Ohio, U.S. “That’s why 40 years into my career I’m still having the time of my life. I’m proud to be an operative miller and am proud to be a part of a small fraternity of men and women who do this for a living.

“We have one common interest – to be the best that we can be to feed people all over the world. We are so critical in what we do. What a blessing it is to be called a flour miller.”

A senior head miller for Ardent Mills, the largest flour milling company in North America, Hultman said head millers must wear many hats each day. “You’re the expert miller, safety manager, quality manager, sanitation manger, maintenance manager, teacher, customer relations specialist and the owner of the mill,” he said.

“First and foremost, you must always strive to be the expert of the mill, the go-to person of the entire operation. You must have a vested interest as an operative miller in what’s taking place in the elevator in how the wheat is prepared to make sure it is exactly as it should be as it comes to you in the cleaning house. At the same time, you must have a vested interest in the flours that are produced; not only to the point that it reaches the flour bin but to the point that it reaches the customer, whether it be by bag, bulk truck or rail car. It’s yours until the customer is using it.”

Hultman said every action he takes at work is done with two things in mind – safety and quality. “Without providing a safe workplace and safe environment and making quality products for flour and feed, production yields simply don’t matter,” he said. “Safety and quality are the two pillars that hold up a flour mill. If either of those wobble or fail completely, the entire structure fails. Without those two supports, how much flour you make simply doesn’t make a bit of difference.”

Using your senses

During his speech, Hultman highlighted what takes place during his typical day at Ardent Mills. He starts each day with one basic rule: he never turns on his computer until he’s walked through the mill, although he might check his e-mail at home before he gets to work.

“I’m lucky to work at a flour mill that is fully automated so the reality is I know what has taken place at the mill before I get to work,” he said.

When Hultman arrives at the facility, first on the agenda is checking to see how the mill is performing numerically, looking mainly at yields, extraction rates and patent percentages.

“My first stop as I go through the mill is in the lab,” he said. “This always gives me the chance to review the performance of the mill. I look at flour moisture, ashes, proteins, granulations, byproduct ashes, etc. By visiting the lab first, I have a preconceived notion of what I should be looking for when I do my mill walkthrough.”

Hultman also checks with the miller or technician from the previous shift to discuss any thoughts, observations questions or concerns regarding how the mill has been operating.

During a mill walkthrough, Hultman said flour millers must use four of their five senses – sight, sound, touch and smell. He said during the initial walkthrough a miller must use all of those senses simultaneously.

“You’re using your eyes to see how everything looks,” he said. “Is everything where it belongs? Is there any product or stock on the floor? Have there been any adaptions made that might have deviated from our safety standards? Are there any oil spots on the floor indicating possible upcoming failure?”

He also said it’s important to look at the screenings in the cleaning house. For instance, you should look at the clean wheat to see if there’s anything there that doesn’t belong, while also looking at the screenings to assure you are not taking any good wheat.

He said mill equipment will often make unusual sounds if it is starting to malfunction.

“You also should be listening for different sounds in the mill,” Hultman said. “It’s amazing with time how you can orient yourself to recognize different changes in mill noise which internally leads you to recognize a potential failure that could lead to a downtime event.”

Touch is of the utmost importance in assessing whether a mill is functioning properly, Hultman said.

“I go through the mill and touch the different motors, fans and bearings to feel if there are changes in heat and vibration,” he said. “As with sound, through repetition you learn to recognize a change in how things feel – and change, in this case, is usually not good. There are more technical ways to assess heat and vibration in your mill, but these are a few old-school ways to give you a primary assessment of your mills as you start your day.”

Finally, a miller’s nose can help detect when something is going awry in the mill.

“There are so many smells and odors in a flour mill, so we have to develop an internal standard of what is normal,” he said. “Do you smell the odor of grease or an electrical odor? Do you smell fire or the smell of stale or stagnant dust? All of these smells are pointing toward taking a preventive or corrective action.”

Three key areas

As part of their daily observations, millers must pay particular attention to how three key segments of the milling process are functioning.

“When you think about it in its simplest terms, milling is really a simple process: there is grinding, sifting and purifying,” he said. “It doesn’t sound very complicated, but the three are intertwined. If there is a problem in any of those three aspects, you begin to complicate a very simple process.”

It all starts with the roller mills, said Hultman, noting that rolls that are too dull or rolls where stock is not ground evenly will lead to a substandard product.

“I look at the last reduction passage to assess what’s leaving the mill and whether it’s grinding as well as it should be or if there is an inadequacy somewhere in the process,” Hultman said. “If you don’t have the head of the mill right, if it’s not grinding correctly on the breaks, then your mill will be out of balance.”

After examining the grinding process, Hultman audits the purifiers. “If the grinding and sifting are being done correctly, this should only take minutes,” he said.

Hultman checks the throughs on the purifier for purity and balance and the tails for purity and distribution. “I believe personally that all flour streams should be slicked at least once a week, and the rest of the distribution streams a little less frequently than that,” he said.

Taking ownership

Hultman urged all millers to adopt the mindset of “taking ownership” of their facilities. He noted that on the Ardent Mills plant he manages he has posted a small sign that says “John’s Mill,” to remind him that he is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the mill.

“I take it personally, and my actions are dictated by the view of personal ownership,” he said. “If I have high expectations for myself, then my mills will almost always exceed the expectations of the leaders of Ardent Mills.”

Taking personal ownership means being a “hands-on” leader who thoroughly understands how to perform each job in the mill.

“I’m a big believer that it’s difficult to teach someone to do something if you’ve never done it yourself,” he said. “It’s also difficult to assess the performance of a person or crew if you haven’t actually done that work yourself so you can truly recognize some of the nuances that don’t show up when you’re on the outside looking in. The more hands-on you are, the more enabled you are to recognize a better way to do things and also identify poor practices.”