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Converting Manufacturing Logsheets to Wireless Pays Dividends

Cytec Industries Fortier Complex has put its daily logsheets on the radio in a smoothly-orchestrated, staged rollout.

“It’s all pretty simple,” says Dave Stevenson, process automation and control, Cytec Industries Fortier Complex, Weswego, La. “We just converted paper logsheets to electronic ones.”

On the surface, it might have been a simple switch in medium—replacing dead trees with 1s and 0s sent on a wireless network from handhelds—but the replacement process had some interesting twists and turns. The Fortier plant makes melamine, acrylonitrile and other building blocks that go into plastics resins and end-products for a broad range of uses from automotive headlights to soil additives. The manufacturing processes are complex and require more than their fair share of oversight and monitoring.

“In the earlier, paper-based system, things moved slowly, and there could be gaps in information,” Stevenson says. “Operators might miss recording a little change in temperature or pressure or whatever, so we didn’t see trending the way we should. Or, even when all the data was totally complete, it might be a few shifts before someone compared one set of logsheets with another.”

Now, operators use Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi-based handhelds from Intermec Technologies Corp., Everett, Wash., and Symbol Technologies, Holtsville, N.Y., to download logsheets. Everything is coordinated through a Wonderware (formerly SAT Corp.) IntelaTrac workforce management system. Some download once a day, at the beginning of a shift, others might tap into the system two or three times a day. Recorded data goes back to control engineering continuously.  Maintenance and engineering review the electronic data and determine what corrections are required.

Detect drift

“We use the system for readings that aren’t normally captured electronically,” Stevenson explains. “Local indicators—pressures, temperatures, flows—the kind of thing you once took care of with a clipboard while looking at a fixed asset. The biggest gain has been the ability to detect a drift into fouling long before equipment goes down or the line shuts off. And, I mean it’s been really big. After full rollout, a single catch paid for the entire system within the first four months of use.”

The wireless system ties into existing plant infrastructure. In the background, the integrated system builds rounds and schedules, and pumps data through the data historian into Microsoft Outlook e-mail. “Anyone who’s qualified can see the data,” Stevenson says. 

Switchover to wireless presented some challenges. “Like everyone else, we have a wide range of skills in our workforce,” he says, “so we were faced with introducing a system to some people who are not into keyboards, or e-mail or other computer-based goodies. Plus, nobody likes change, so if you just dump a box of handhelds on the floor, not many people are going to rush in and pick them up with smiles on their faces.”

At Fortier, the engineering group began the change slowly. They chose sections of the plant where the utility and effectiveness were the highest, then pared down initial installation to a select core group of operators and engineers. “We were really easy on the gas,” he explains, “and we provided initial help in building rounds. We also did a lot of explaining of the benefits.”

The early adopters soon began providing their own word-of-mouth support—they could see maintenance jumping in soon after reporting a problem. They could see the history of the last few shifts on their handhelds and work with any changes. “In short, they could see the benefits first-hand,” Stevenson says. “You can tell them everything, but until they see it for themselves, it’s resisted. Bit by bit, operator by operator, we ended up with majority support for the change. We could have forced it on the whole group, but we’d have had a rebellion.”

All told, the rollout took between three and six months. The bottom line? “A lot of people are really surprised at how quickly it can pay back,” Stevenson says. “A few months at the most.”

Then, focusing on the logging process (and understating the planning, the development of facilitators, the education of the users and the behind-the-scenes software and hardware integration) he adds, “It was all pretty simple, really.”

Related Feature - Using Mobile Wireless Technology in Manufacturing
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