Swapping Whiskey for Hand Sanitizer: How Flexible Instrumentation Enables Rapid Adaptation

As countries around the world continue to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, demand for alcohol-based hand sanitizer has skyrocketed. Southern Distilling Company, one of the nation’s largest liquor manufacturers, located in Statesville, North Carolina stepped up to the challenge by producing ethanol for hand sanitizer.1,2 In this article, we take a look at how Southern Distilling Company transformed their manufacturing capabilities in record time, thanks to help from control system experts at Wisner Controls, and the use of adaptable instrumentation from ABB Measurement & Analytics.3–5

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Ethanol-based hand sanitizer is a convenient way of minimizing infection risk on the go. It’s especially useful for those who regularly encounter infection risks and may find themselves without access to a handwashing facility.

Despite widespread reductions in trade tariffs and the increase of supply by manufacturers, hand sanitizer production is still struggling to keep up with demand.

In an unusual alignment of the alcohol and healthcare industries, several distilleries are taking on the challenge of helping to overcome this shortage. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers consist primarily of ethanol; which means that, following a few modifications, distilleries are uniquely well-suited to hand sanitizer production.

Adaptation of Distillery Processes for Hand Sanitizer Production

Southern Distilling Company, a whiskey distillery in Statesville NC, is one such company. On the 18th of March, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau announced that any existing distilled spirits plant could assist with the production of distilled spirit to be used in hand sanitizer.6 So Southern Distillery Co reached out to their control system supplier, Wisner Controls, to make the necessary process and controls adaptations that could make this possible.

Adaptations at the distillery included the addition of 5,000-gallon fermentation tanks to existing processes, and changes to process parameters in order to produce a higher alcohol concentration. Rick Wisner, the owner of Wisner Controls, drew up plans to make this possible: Existing instrumentation would need to be augmented with additional modules, requiring installation and additional wiring, and configurational changes would have to be made.

However, as Wisner was preparing to make the journey from Wisner Controls HQ in Florida to the distillery in North Carolina, a statewide travel ban was imposed on Florida. This meant that anyone leaving the state ran the risk of being subjected to a 14-day quarantine, or potentially not being allowed to return at all. This was not a viable option, especially as Wisner Controls provides equipment and services for a number of necessary industries including food plants and dairies.

The Benefits of Modular and Networkable Instrumentation

Fortunately, there was a solution, thanks to the flexibility of the monitoring and control equipment already in place. Much of this equipment, was designed to be upgraded in the field.5 For example, the control panels, designed by Wisner using ABB instrumentation, feature a range of communications protocols which enable them to be easily connected to additional modules to expand functionality. This meant that Wisner Controls was able to simply ship the required parts along with kit directions that the team at Southern Distilling Company could use to easily upgrade the equipment themselves.

In addition, the monitoring equipment used at the distillery – such as paperless recorders – features secure remote web server and mobile technology. Usually, this is used for remotely monitoring important system parameters, but in this case, it allowed Wisner Controls to carry out programming upgrades and changes remotely and securely.

As a result, Southern Distilling Company was able to pull things together in around a week – a huge change in timescale from the years of product development usually undertaken.1 It now takes Southern Distillery Company around 72 hours to produce a large batch of ethanol that can be turned into hand sanitizer; with around 80,000 32 oz. bottles ready to ship after a few days.

Versatile, Secure and Networkable Controls Instrumentation from ABB

The connectivity and versatility of Southern Distilling Company’s instruments – including ABB’s ControlMaster panel-mounted controller and ScreenMaster paperless recorders – were essential to the rapid turnaround of production capabilities.4,5

Parts and upgrade kits for these instruments are readily available from ABB, offering the addition of any required features and functionality. An emphasis on usability and connectivity ensures that upgrades can easily be carried out even by inexperienced users.

These instruments can be accessed securely anytime, anyplace, which enables companies like Southern Distilling Company to reduce time and cost associated with deploying engineers to make onsite changes to individual devices. This is especially ideal when skilled staff are in high demand.

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