Tradition Times Three

by Teresa Acklin
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Italian family with centuries old milling tradition transforms Rome plant into state-of-the-art facility grinding three wheat types.

By Melissa Cordonier, Editor

   For nearly 350 years, the Agostinelli family has milled wheat into flour in Italy. For the past 46 years, the family has operated a mill in the north part of Rome on the Via Flaminia, one of the city's ancient streets.

   For all the milling tradition represented by the family, the Agostinellis also are looking ahead to the 21st century. That's why they upgraded their Via Flaminia facility into a state-of-the-art industrial milling complex.

   “Milling has moved from an artisan occupation to an industry,” says Andrea Agostinelli, grandson of one of the Rome mill's two founders. “It must be operated as a professional business. You have to develop that mindset, to plan your organization that way.”

   Andrea and his father Piero are part of the management of Societa Romana Macinazione, S.p.A. The Agostinelli family company that operates the mill in Rome is involved in related milling and grain businesses through subsidiary companies, and their milling philosophy features a heavy emphasis on quality. That factor always has been important, they say, but as baking technology has advanced, flour quality has become even more critical to a mill's success.

   “The baker is starting to grow up, a process that began about 10 years ago,” Andrea Agostinelli says. “We have to guarantee the quality.” The company's close attention to customer demand also explains a unique aspect of Romana Macinazione; it grinds three types of wheat — durum, soft and hard — at one facility. The ability to offer three distinctly different kinds of flour makes the mill flexible enough to satisfy customer needs.

   “The market has dictated it,” Andrea Agostinelli says of this unusual milling arrangement. “The market tells every miller what to produce.”

Preparing for the Future

   Although the Via Flaminia mill had been modernized and expanded gradually over the years, the company in the late 1980s decided on a major project that included replacing the hard, soft and durum mills with state-of-the-art systems and equipment. The project was designed to assure that the mill would be positioned to meet bakers' increasingly sophisticated demands in the future.

   A new durum mill with a 24-hour capacity of 400 tonnes was installed in 1990, followed in 1992 by a 200-tonne-per-day specialty mill for hard wheat. A 400-tonne soft wheat mill installed in 1993 rounded out the new milling installation. Buhler Ltd. was selected for the project, Piero Agostinelli says, because the family has worked with Buhler for 100 years.

   The mill modernization also incorporated new construction, including a clean-lined structure that houses operations for the three mills. A sleek, glass-walled triangular building containing company offices and the extensive laboratory also was erected. The flour silo with the packaging plant was built in the mid 1980s.

   The Agostinellis were actively involved in the functional and architectural design of the new complex. One unique feature is the placement of the mill's wheat and flour receiving/shipping operations in the triangular office building.

   Virtually all of the wheat and flour delivered to and from the mill is transported by truck, and truck scales flank two of the glass-walled building's three sides. Incoming vehicles enter the main complex gate and are weighed on one side; after loading or unloading, the trucks can be weighed on the other side before proceeding out the gate.

   This configuration results in a circular traffic pattern that reduces congestion, allowing the company to handle more truck activity with fewer delays. It also facilitates delivery of samples to the laboratory in the same building.

   The wheat discharge area is located behind the mill building and includes four truck dumps. The area is covered by a roof, from which hang large flexible plastic flaps; the enclosure was designed to keep pigeons and other birds away from the wheat during unloading.

   The mill has 100,000 tonnes of wheat storage capacity, consisting of concrete and steel silos. This large capacity enables storage of a wide variety of wheats, which are blended to assure consistency.

   The area behind the mill building also is the site of the company's millfeed pelleting operations. Mill-feed is stored in fiberglass silos, a design that reduces the risk of condensation in the stored product.

   Up to 60% of wheat ground annually is imported, mostly from France, Spain and Greece. Imports are purchased and handled by the family's subsidiary grain trading and handling company, which operates the former Feruzzi grain facility at the nearby port of Civitavecchia.

   The port facility has 40,000 tonnes of storage capacity and handles oilseeds and feed as well as wheat. About 22% of annual wheat throughput is sold to other users, with the remainder going to the Via Flaminia mill and the Agostinelli's second flour mill in Rome.

Clean, Efficient Operations

   After wheat arrives at the Via Flaminia mill, it passes through a two-line precleaning system before storage. This precleaning process removes coarse impurities and some of the fines.

   Wheat is distributed from the storage silos to the raw wheat/blending bins and then to either the durum, soft or hard milling units. Wheat blending for all three milling units is accomplished by means of Buhler Transflowtron flow rate controllers. Gravimetric control and electronic registration allow for consistency of blends as well as inventory control.

   Ever mindful of efficiency, the Agostinellis installed automatic air valves to regulate airflow in the pneumatic mill stock conveyors. Electricity in Italy is extremely expensive, and the automatic air valves help reduce these costs by using only the energy needed to convey product.

   Another way Romana Macinazione reduces energy costs is through an interrupt-use agreement with the local electricity provider. During times of peak capacity, the mill cuts back on drying and/or millfeed pelleting at the request of the provider in exchange for reduced energy rates.

   Manufacturing schedules permitting, the mill also can stop production during peak use times for electricity. On one day in November 1996, the soft wheat mill was shut down for a few hours for this reason.

   But the typical schedule for the entire facility is 24 hours, seven days a week, using three shifts. Because of the high degree of automation, the complete plant operates with only 32 workers.

Durum, Soft and “Manitoba"

   In the durum mill, wheat passes through another series of cleaning steps. These include a separator, a Buhler Combinator that removes stones and classifies wheat into heavy and light fractions, an air recycling aspirator and an impact machine. The entire process is characterized by its scouring action.

   This cleaning stage is one of three that takes place in the durum mill. Wheat is cleaned again between tempering stages and finally, just ahead of the first break rolls. The goal is to remove as much dirt and loose hull particles as possible to reduce ash and bacteria. A pre-break system, not commonly found in Europe, also is used to remove dirt and dust from the wheat crease.

   Automatic moisture regulation is a feature of the mill's wheat tempering system. The raw wheat's moisture content is determined automatically, and the system meters the required quantity of water for the first dampening stage. In the second stage, water addition is controlled by a personal computer and regulated by an automatic water metering unit.

   Durum semolina properties in Italy are quite specific, dictated by law as well as by pasta manufacturers. Critical specifications include particle size distribution, moisture, ash content, specks and the amount of gluten and its quality.

   Because semolina must meet rigid specifications, the milling system was required to provide consistent grinding and flexibility in its particle size distribution. Buhler Airtronic rollermills achieve grinding consistency. The key to attaining semolina with low ash content and low specks count is through the use of purifiers.

   Buhler's Puromat MQRF purifiers feature a unique purification effect because of the combined action of grading and air classification. In addition, five square plansifters providing distinct separation among the particle size distributions and qualities also were installed.

   The soft wheat mill unit processes soft and semi-hard European wheats for the Italian flour market, including bread and pizza flour. The main flour grade, type “00,” requires an ash content based on dry matter of less than 0.5%, and a high yield of this flour is necessary to assure competitiveness in the Italian market.

   The soft wheat mill has its own cleaning and tempering system. Like the durum mill, the soft wheat mill is equipped with Airtronic rollermills, but in the soft wheat mill some of the rollermills use electronic feed roll speed controllers. These assure a constant feed rate even for intermediate products with difficult flow characteristics.

   The soft wheat mill also uses Puromat purifiers. But because the soft wheat milling process involves more reduction passages than durum milling, the plansifters are most critical to ensure high operational efficiency as well as product quality, and therefore, high-capacity Buhler MPAH square plansifters were installed here.

   “Manitoba” is the hard wheat mill, nicknamed many years ago after the Canadian province that was the main source of the mill's hard wheat supplies. Even today, the hard wheat mill's control panels, lines and conveyors running through the plant are labeled “Manitoba.”

   This smaller 200-tonne-per-day specialty wheat mill also has its own cleaning and tempering system, and like the other units, uses Airtronic rollermills and Puromat purifiers. To provide the flexibility for future expansion, the mill is equipped with modular drawer-type plansifters. The Manitoba mill also contains bran finishers.

   A striking aspect of all three milling sections is cleanliness, underscoring the family's attention to sanitation and quality. It is no exaggeration to note that the facility is so spotless, one could “eat from the floor.”

   Flour from Romana Macinazione's three milling units is stored in bins with a total capacity of 10,000 tonnes. As with wheat storage, the large amount of flour storage capacity permits sophisticated blending and separating of flours to meet customer needs.

   The plant contains two flour blending lines, with two batch mixers and weighers. The plant uses few additives, which were banned in Italy until about two years ago, although some are used for a few manufacturers of export or frozen pasta.

   About 78% of the facility's output is shipped in bulk to industrial bakers, but the packaging plant features a high-capacity packer for household-size packages of 0.5 and 1 kilogram.

   The mill also supplies flour packed in 50 kg bags to small bakers in the city. Another market is small restaurants, including a charming operation just down the street from the mill that serves tasty homemade bread and pasta made from Romana Macinazione flour. For this market, flour is packed in 5 kg bags.

Quality Control

   The heart of the facility's milling processes is the control center, from which all process operations are monitored. Systems are linked via programmable logic controllers to the master computer.

   Settings for scales, flow controllers and automatic tempering systems are set by the computer, which also processes data, generates graphic displays and produces printed reports. The p.c. stores flour formulations, including the wheat blends needed, conditioning requirements and other specifications. On-line near-infrared control units monitoring moisture, protein and ash content of finished products report to the control center.

   Another critical facility component of which the Agostinellis are especially proud is the fully-equipped laboratory. Andrea Agostinelli says it is difficult to overestimate the importance of a well-equipped laboratory with well-trained personnel. “You must have your own laboratory, given all the importance of quality,” he says. “If you make a mistake, it can be very costly. And the same person must do semolina analysis to assure consistent results.”

   Among the laboratory's features are four ash ovens, three traditional and one microwave. Andrea Agostinelli notes that the microwave oven in one hour produces results that mirror within 95% the results of the traditional oven tests, which take eight hours to complete.

   Other equipment includes near-infrared and gas chromatography instruments, along with the traditional milling laboratory items such as a Chopin Alveograph and Hagberg Falling Numbers. All equipment is checked and, if necessary, recalibrated at least once a week.

   With the modernization project completed, the Agostinellis think the Romana Macinazione facility on Via Flaminia will be more than able to compete in the tough Italian market of the future. Italy's flour milling industry continues to suffer from overcapacity, Andrea Agostinelli says; he estimated about 600 to 700 mills operated in 1996, most in the 10 to 100 tonne per day capacity range. Although that number is down considerably from the 1,000 or so mills in the early 1980s, it still represents significant overcapacity.

   In the next 20 years, about three or four groups are likely to control most of Italy's flour market, he predicts. With the Via Flaminia mill, the Agostinelli family has demonstrated their determination to make sure Romana Macinazione is one of the survivors.