Intelligent Automation for Manufacturing: Part 3

Conveyor belt running through lightbulb

This article is a guest post from Alex Marcy, President of Corso Systems. If you have any questions for Alex about manufacturing automation, please contact him at 775.750.0540

Now that we have covered the path up the automation pyramid, let’s take a look at a real world example. Over the past eight years, we’ve worked to bring a customer from the “Control Systems” level of the pyramid (adding information systems, expanding the scope of these systems and implementing data analysis tools) to ERP integration. Through automation, our customer has realized production gains, reduced downtime, increased product quality and been able to influence the expansion/design of additional facilities across the United States.

We began working with a leading mineral ore processing company in 2006, when they had three facilities in the western United States. Each facility had comparable control systems running their processes, which consisted of PLCs, HMI applications for each processing line, and OEM equipment with local panel controls. Data was collected in the HMI applications with handwritten operator logs for each shift. At this point in time, each facility was a standalone entity, producing different SKUs and working with different customers (with a central corporate office near their largest plant).

Use a Process Historian to Eliminate Drops in Quality

Our first project was to implement a Process Historian with supporting data analysis tools at one of their facilities. We trained their process engineer on how to use the analysis tools, add tags to the historian, and provided ongoing support. During the first month, the process engineer was able to use trending tools to analyze process conditions; allowing him to prove one of his hunches about the cause of regular downtime on a major piece of equipment.

Prior to each downtime event, pressure in one of the lines would spike and return to a slightly higher than normal level. Occasionally, the equipment would shut down due to product loss caused by a plugged pipe. Using the information, the process engineer was able to calculate the cost-per-downtime event and immediately received budget approval to fix the problem. After this success, we were brought in to implement process historians at the other two plants.

Smooth Shift Changes with a Lab Information Management System (LIMS)

After the plugging issue was resolved, we worked in conjunction with the QA/QC Lab to design and implement a Lab Information Management System (LIMS) for technicians to enter their data into a database. The information was then correlated with real-time process data in the analysis tools. Shortly thereafter, the process engineer was able to come up with even more cost savings due to product quality and reducing rework.

Displaying data from the LIMS system alongside historical process data showed correlations between process setpoints and quality issues on some SKUs. These were problematic during shift changes because each shift had a different “feel” for the system and felt their setpoints were the ideal way of doing things. Quality suffered during change-overs until the process came to a new, steady state. The drop led to a training program and better standardization of setpoints across the shifts, increasing product quality and greatly decreasing the amount of rework. LIMS systems were implemented at the other facilities and displayed similar results

Next, we put systems into place tracked energy usage and raw material vs. finished product amounts and interfaced with a proprietary emission monitoring system. The systems helped the engineers understand their energy use, track OEE and more quickly understand emissions issues with real-time notifications of alarms from the system.

Replace Excel/Email Chains with a Custom Web-Based System

After changes at the corporate level led to new initiatives to reduce overhead costs, we worked with operators to streamline workflow each shift. The first system involved building a web-based tool to replace handwritten supervisor logs (which were scanned and emailed to management) with a data entry interface and automatic email disbursement of reports from the system. The system saved the night shift supervisor an hour every night, as they no longer had to compile the morning shift’s report, scan everything, and email it to the right people. Supervisors simply had to enter the data they were already collecting into a webpage and the system handled the rest

Additional projects helped replace tasks, including process change management, being done in Excel. Prior to our system, changes to the process started in an Excel document, were emailed around to notify people, get approvals, manage questions, and ultimately decide if the change was acceptable. This resulted in a lot of overhead to track down old changes, make sure any change had the right approvals, and manage 30-40 different versions of the spreadsheet.

The new, web-based system replaced the Excel documents with a form. Each change was visible in the system and could be found via search. The highlight of the system was the approval settings. As the change request went through its lifecycle, the system automatically notified appropriate staff if they would be affected by, or needed to approve, the change. This system took over as the gold standard for change management and is used during weekly staff meetings to track progress on any open requests.

Finally, we implemented major data analysis systems to track downtime, product throughput and product quality, and help determine ideal process setpoints. The first system is an off-the-shelf software platform providing data collection, analysis and reporting capabilities to track OEE for the plant. This tool allows plant engineering teams to understand (in real-time) the health of the plant, the major causes of downtime and where bottlenecks are located.

The second system tracks process setpoints alongside product quality data from the LIMS system, which gives users Pareto chart analysis of the most common quality issues, and trends the impact of specific process setpoints on quality. This is accomplished using a concept known as “center lining”, used to determine ideal process setpoints and ensure they are being used at any given time.

ERP Integration

The final level of the pyramid, ERP Integration, is the glue that holds all of these projects together. Various data points in each tool come from the ERP system, including:

  • Quality control specifications to enable flagging out of spec test results in LIMS reports
  • Shift scheduling at the plant level to populate operator lists for each shift
  • Incorporating LIMS information into shipping and customer complaint databases for timely access to quality information impacting those areas

The success of all of these projects comes from starting with a small project focusing on a specific area of the process. With the project in-place, it is easy to have an internal champion who understands the project and get other members of the staff to buy into moving up the pyramid.

Impact of smaller project gives momentum to other systems, allowing new ideas and tools to spread throughout the company. As we have seen in this particular case, the process can take a number of years to grow in both the depth of available information, and adoption in multiple facilities. This approach enables quicker ROI than to implement all of the projects at once, and lessens the cost of subsequent projects as they are building on existing ideas and codebases.

We hope you have enjoyed this series on Intelligent Automation. If you have any questions or want more information on any of the topics we have discussed please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

This article is a guest post from Alex Marcy, President of Corso Systems. If you have any questions for Alex about manufacturing automation, please contact him at 775.750.0540