Almost 60 years ago, the Washington State College Division of Industrial Research engineered a dry, one-pass whole grain milling system. This semester, seven Washington State University Industrial Design Clinic students brought the Unifine mill up to speed with modern technology.
Brendan Vermeulen, team leader and mill engineer, said during a breakfast presentation Thursday he and his group had the opportunity to dial into the engineering aspects of a project that first began in their department more than half a century prior.
Vermeulen said the first Unifine mill was introduced in 1950 when an article published by WSC explained how members of the school had been working to develop a simplified milling process. The Unifine milling system not only eliminates about three-quarters of the steps required in a roller mill system, Vermeulen said, but it produces a whole grain flour that offers the same desirable qualities as white flour.
White flour - a product of a roller milling system that removes the bran and germ of the grain leaving only the endosperm by sending it through the mill several times - is preferred for baking because it allows for fluffier breads and pastries, he said. Vermeulen said bran and germ are course and would puncture air bubbles making for denser baked goods.
Even though removal of bran and germ makes for fluffier bread, the two items contribute nutrients not found in the endosperm. Consumer demand for the lost nutrients led to the production of whole wheat flour, which Vermeulen said still goes through the same process as white flour. He said once the flour is processed as if it were white, the bran and germ are added back in. He said with the Unifine milling system, the bran and germ remain in the flour from the beginning.
The Unifine flour milling system was brought back to the forefront at WSU by Steve Fulton, president of the Unifine Flour LLC after his wife noticed an increase in consumer demand for whole grain products in 2006 and remembered his uncle's mill.
Fulton is the nephew of Leonard Fulton, who owned and operated the Unifine mill until he retired at age 89. Fulton said his uncle contracted with WSU to produce three mills - two of which were donated to the school - and the university allowed him to use the Unifine name. When he was younger, he said, he had very little to do with the mill despite his parents involvement.
"I didn't even know how the mill worked," Fulton said.
But when he started looking into what happened to it, he said he learned Azure Standard, a nonretail cooperative located in Oregon, was using the Unifine name for its flour. After sending an email to Azure, he found out the company had not only his uncle's mill, but three other reverse engineered mills.
Azure Standard founder Alfred Stelzer, who also attended the breakfast presentation, said they increased the size of the motor from 20 horsepower to 30 creating a second model of the mill.
"It's high output with what little goes into the mill," Stelzer said.
The Industrial Design Clinic students said they wanted to stay true to the original technology of the mill in the model they designed, and traveled to Oregon to see the working Azure mill. Taylor Mishalanie, who worked on mill engineering and manufacturing in the group, said they were given design notes and drawings from previous designs that they worked from to create a 3-D model. He said they made some minor improvements, but were able to use previous dimensions to ensure manufacturing ability.
"The mill itself ... if you picture a dishwasher or stove at home, the mill will fit into it," Vermeulen said.
Because the Unifine mill eliminates about 8-12 steps required for a roller mill, as well as its size and limited required manpower, Fulton estimated the cost to manufacture at $75,000-$100,000 compared to the multi-million dollar investment for a roller-mill system.
The newest version of the mill, which is in the process of being manufactured and should be completed by March, will also be sporting some Cougar pride, which Mishalanie said was a result of Fulton wanting it to look "killer." While the mill will be primarily made of stainless steel, Mishalanie said he researched FDA requirements and found accommodating materials and protective coating to use to give the mill color.
"No one wants nice Cougar colored flakes in their pancakes," he said.
Fulton said the students mill design is expected to produce 2,000 pounds of flour per hour. He also said the cost to purchase the whole grain flour would be comparable to similar flours found on store shelves.
Throughout each version of the mill, it has needed little maintenance, and Vermeulen said that is an aspect that is still true for the team's design. The mill can also process a variety of grains, pulse crops and rice.
"In my opinion, I do not see any limitations to this design," Vermeulen said.
Unifine flour for purchase can currently be found at Azure Standard and orders can be made online at www.azurestandard.com. Fulton said he has also let WSU know he is willing to donate a mill if the university wishes to add a "Cougar Golden" flour line, but nothing is set at this time.
Fulton said he plans to manufacture 10 mills to begin a joint-venture approach with farming cooperatives to get the Unifine milling system on the market and is confident the milling system will be successful. For more information about Unifine Flour LLC, visit www.unifineflour.com.