Do you know that old dusty thing tucked away in your plant’s warehouse that no one ever thinks about but is likely one of the most critical assets you own? It’s the dreaded palletizing system. Because most don’t understand its unique complexity, it has an aura of “don’t disturb the sleeping giant”. As a result of this stigma, palletizing machines are frequently poorly maintained, seldom upgraded, and often are not afforded a good preventative maintenance program. Moreover, it receives this neglect despite being one of the hardest running pieces of equipment in your plant; the palletizing machine handles all of your production 24/7/365 no matter what you throw at it.
When things go wrong with the palletizer there are two possible solutions: shut down production or hand stack. While shutting down production is a doomsday scenario, hand stacking is still a significant challenge because of the lack of people available to dedicate to the task, as well as other difficulties. For instance, imagine what would happen if a palletizer broke down and the repair required a number of obsolete parts that you can’t find, support, or replace. Replacing an entire palletizing system is a large undertaking from a logistics, financial and time sink standpoint. However, like other equipment, it can be treated as a targeted risk-based obsolescence upgrade that considers the relevant mechanical and electrical issues. As an example of this risk-based approach, Avanceon recently upgraded a 25 year old Linux-based palletizing system with numerous obsolete servo motors for positioning. The system included one main full pallet trunk, three individual robotic stacking cells, 18 infeed lanes for various product paths, and over 50 different pallet stacking patterns. On the positive side, the palletizer system had a solid mechanical frame and rails and, as a result, we worked with the customer to define an approach to the upgrade that addressed the substantial electrical issues and closed the gap on some well needed minor mechanical upgrades. From that 1990’s based technology, we took the old, unsupportable system, and morphed it into a system that an average 2020’s maintenance technician could support and modify. The renovated system included a solid foundation of Rockwell CLX, new Rockwell servos, and an AVEVA based HMI (human machine interface) and historian platform for visualization and connection to the production and warehouse management systems. The technology selections aligned with the customers standards both from a model and software methodology perspective as well as integrating with the overall AVEVA plant SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition). The system as a whole provided complete visibility into the palletizing and case management operation, upgraded and compliant safety measures, and the ability to expand the system. One key take away from the project was that, while the initial assessment predicted that the mechanical systems were stable, we uncovered that was not the case after undertaking the upgrade. While the equipment could deliver based on the old configurations and “delicate balance” tuned over 20 years of operations and concessions, it could not handle the variability and pace of the new electrical components. In this case it wasn’t just the e-brains that needed an upgrade—many of the critical sensors, and roller start-stop mechanics needed to be upgraded as well. A parallel to this would be putting a brand new engine into a car with old shocks, brakes, and tires. Without those ancillary mechanical upgrades, it will still perform like the original car.
With a new engine, key mechanical upgrades and a new dashboard on the system the operators and plant leadership can rely upon the palletizer to continue to be the lifeblood of the plant, ensuring production and pallets will flow for the next 20 years. So, don’t forget about that dirty old clanking thing in the warehouse. It is an important part of your production system, and it likely deserves attention and an automation upgrade.
Bryan Little is an Operations Lead at Avanceon, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Avanceon, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.