How I Run the Midwest's Biggest Microbrewery With My iPhone

Last Updated Feb 16, 2011 4:04 PM EST

Tony Lux is the Purveyor of Technology at the Boulevard Brewing Company, Kansas City, Missouri

Tony Lux
Six years ago we gave our brewery a major, $25 million upgrade. Boulevard Brewing Company's Unfiltered Wheat Beer and Pale Ale were already among the most popular craft beers in the Midwest, but we had outgrown our 1950s-era facility where we could only brew 35 barrels at a time.  So, we expanded to a state-of-the-art brewhouse with a sky-lit-atrium, a glass skywalk, and the capacity to brew 150 barrels of beer in one batch. We extended our product line to 26 premium brews, which made us the largest craft brewery in the Midwest.

The problem was, we kept our old-school technology. At least once every couple of years, we'd lose power due to a storm or other weather problem. Every time that happened, our two workstations went down, and we'd lose all of our real-time brewing data. Sometimes the power was out only for a few minutes, but we'd still need to scrap all of the beer, because we had lost track of where the materials were in the brewing process. It was a huge waste -- thousands of dollars in ingredients lost.

Mechanical errors would bring down the system, too. And even if it happened at 4 a.m., I had to rush to the brewery to get everything up and running again as quickly as possible.

This is an IT guy's nightmare -- and obviously it's far from ideal for a company that aims to brew about 148,000 barrels of beer this year alone. We needed an upgrade.

 Boulevard's founder, John McDonald, doesn't always understand all the technology. But he's easygoing and willing to entertain suggestions, so when I pressed him on it, he gave me the green light to find a better solution. 

When I started looking into computer systems built for manufacturing, all of the options I saw were very expensive, and required multiple licenses for various operating systems. At the same time, I was also looking at VMware virtualization software -- a cloud computing infrastructure system that runs on a virtual operating system -- for our offices. So I thought, why not combine the budgets and infrastructure for both locations, and move everything into the cloud?

On the recommendation of a friend, I decided to try a Pano Logic device. The system is what's known as a "zero client" -- it has no software, no operating system and no moving parts. It simply connects touch-screen monitors and other input-output devices to a virtualized operating system that runs on several servers in our private enterprise cloud. It acts like a computer, even though it isn't.

The system is extremely energy-efficient, requiring no more power than that of a light bulb. Boulevard is moving to be as green as possible with everything we do, so that was a real selling point.

Each box is small -- just the size of three decks of cards stacked -- and costs about $350. (The old workstations were $1,500 each.) Typically you might see these devices in schools, computer labs, and office buildings. But in a brewery? I was skeptical that they would work for us, so I only ordered a couple of units to try them out. 

When I saw how well the Pano system worked, I ordered 15 more units and deployed them throughout the production environment. Now, no matter where you are in the facility, you can see any part of the process. You simply touch the screen to locate the relevant data, whether you want to check the status of fermentation, production, or kegging and bottling. The employees got the hang of it very quickly.

Our developer built a custom software program to let us monitor temperature, time, and other aspects of the process. You can operate equipment and move a product from one location to another with the touch of a button, no matter where you are. It even works remotely -- I have my iPhone hooked up to the server, so I can log in and check in on the brewing process from anywhere in the world.

We still need employees on the premises to watch the physical process and pull samples during each 10-hour brewing cycle. But the virtualization system means that if there's a problem, I can just check in on my phone at night to determine if it's something that I can fix easily, or if it's an urgent problem that requires me to go to the brewery. With the old system, I always had to go in, no matter what.

Although we now have 17 workstations as opposed to just two, the system is no more work to maintain than it was previously. The information is all centralized, so it's not a big deal if one workstation isn't functioning properly. The best part: We haven't lost a single batch of beer due to a system failure since.

— As told to Kathryn Hawkins

 

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