Transportation is an important aspect of almost every business, whether it involves managing a factory’s supply chain or keeping rail lines functioning smoothly. Now the industry is transitioning from heavy reliance on manual labor to smart enterprises that take advantage of technology to improve performance. At the same time, this evolution is creating new business opportunities for equipment makers and automation suppliers.
Though the transportation industry has been slower to change than factories, there are lessons to be learned in how railroads, trucks and loading docks are using PLCs, wireless communications, networks and cloud computing to reduce costs and make their operations safer for the people who use them and the workers who must keep vital systems functioning.
Finding out how and why a piece of equipment has failed can be challenging enough within the walls of a factory. Now imagine the degree of difficulty if the equipment is hundreds of miles away. The nation’s rail system must overcome that challenge on a daily basis.
Given the geographic scope of rail lines, the challenge of modernization is immense, explains Haroon Rashid, industry manager for transportation infrastructure at Phoenix Contact. “There are more than 230,000 miles of rail tracks in the U.S., both freight and passenger.”
Although industry best practices call for control and communications cabinets (called trackside bungalows) every 5 miles, according to Rashid, there are still 100,000 miles of track in “dark territory” in the nation’s rail system, where central control room communications cannot reach.
Simplifying surge detection
Lightning strikes that cause equipment-damaging electrical surges are a major source of maintenance costs for U.S. rail companies. “There’s a massive amount of wasted time as maintenance workers travel from cabinet to cabinet to manually search for faults when there’s a problem in the system,” Rashid says.
A trackside bungalow typically contains 20-200 surge protection modules, so requiring crews to visually inspect equipment for the carbon residue left by a surge is exceedingly expensive and often leads to unnecessary module replacement. The modules also use multiple nuts for wire termination and connection, which increases labor expense for maintenance and testing. In addition, the crew has to shut off the power to work on the equipment, which means shutting down a section of the track.
Three of the nation’s largest rail freight companies have begun to install a new hybrid surge protection module from Phoenix Contact, the VAL-MS BE-AR, that provides trackside field connection to enable remote monitoring from a railway’s back office.
Compliant with recent government mandates for railway modernization, the module allows hot-swappable, tool-free replacement of surge plugs, touch-safe interaction, improved surge protection levels and a visual status indicator that turns red if there’s been a failure.
“We’ve designed the BE-AR product line to reduce a rail line’s cost of ownership, decrease trackside field connection time, improve track uptime and dramatically extend the lifetime of railroad wayside equipment,” adds Rashid, who estimates that the new module can reduce installation and maintenance time by at least 60 percent.
Mobile rail factory
Maintaining the tracks themselves is another area where automation technologies can improve efficiency and lower costs. Loram Maintenance of the Way Inc., which supplies track maintenance machinery, likens its rail grinding machines to a mobile factory. Grinding is necessary to prevent cracks and potentially dangerous breaks in the rail and to maintain the desired rail profile.
Loram has incorporated a mobility system from Rockwell Automation and Microsoft in its new line of grinders that allows real-time and historical visibility into critical machine performance data. The solution combines FactoryTalk software and its VantagePoint KPI mobile app running on Microsoft Surface tablets to enable real-time troubleshooting, maintenance and electronic reporting. The grinders are automated using PACs and an EtherNet/IP network to communicate between the various pieces of equipment on a machine.
A crew of 10 operates each grinder, but a team at the company’s headquarters in Hamel, Minn., manages engineering and troubleshooting. “Before the mobile system was installed, the team had to walk the on-site workers through the issue and potential fixes,” explains Nathan Moyer, field application technician for Loram. “Larger issues would require the technical staff to travel to the grinder, extending downtime further.”
“This is an example of the digital business transformation that’s occurring in both manufacturing and transportation as operators gain better insight into their processes and can act on it,” says Sanjay Ravi, managing director for worldwide discrete manufacturing at Microsoft.
“It’s not only transportation that requires remote management,” he adds. “Some manufacturing plants are huge, and managers need visibility to make decisions remotely when they’re not near particular equipment or even the plant.”
Fracking in the cloud
The oil and gas drilling industry is another area where transportation—in this case fleet management of fracking equipment—is central to operational effectiveness, according to Angela Rapko, Rockwell Automation’s commercial program manager for FactoryTalk Historian and VantagePoint software. “Automation and modern communication technologies also allow OEMs to extend their service business.”
A case in point is M.G. Bryan, a heavy equipment supplier to the oil and gas industry. Rockwell Automation developed a new information system that leverages the Microsoft Azure cloud-computing platform for secure access to real-time information from a variety of the company’s distributed manufacturing assets, which include advanced fracturing pump trailers, trucks and skids. It enables M.G. Bryan to use its assets more effectively and offer new aftermarket support services.
Vehicles for hydraulic fracturing can cost upwards of $1 million. They must operate in extreme, isolated environments and have many consumable components. Oil filters need to be replaced every 200-400 hours, and a complete engine rebuild is generally required after 4,000-7,000 hours of service. Since downtime on a fracking vehicle can cost up to $7,000 a day even without lost production revenues, most producers keep a backup vehicle onsite.
Many smaller and mid-sized producers lease equipment by the month and are not experts in equipment control systems or maintenance. To help customers maximize their return on investment, M.G. Bryan needs to understand how its equipment is performing in real time to keep tabs on performance and maximize customer uptime.
With the Rockwell Automation/Microsoft control and information system, relevant data from each fracking truck is collected and stored, enabling a set of dashboards and reports to optimize vehicle and fleet performance. The system brings together disparate information sources, including historical, relational and transactional data, then manages the data using cloud computing.
“We needed a solution that would work the same for our first five trucks and our next 1,000 trucks,” explains Josh Rabaduex, director of engineering at M.G. Bryan. “We also knew we did not want to make a huge upfront hardware investment or to have to handle long-term system maintenance, so a legacy data center wasn’t going to work for us.”
Cloud computing was the answer. “We can now pull data from the cloud via mobile devices and web browsers to produce reports and dashboards on the condition of an individual vehicle’s drive train and fracking performance, as well as process performance and maintenance trends related to the entire fleet,” Rabaduex says. “When you combine our new information system with the flexibility and scalability of cloud computing, we’ve really opened the door for a wide range of operations management solutions for our own vehicle fleets and those we sell.”
Bringing trucking into the digital era is the goal of Scania, a maker of heavy trucks and buses. The company also offers consulting services in logistics, transportation planning and monitoring of ongoing operations to ensure its equipment is helping to meet the business objectives of its customers.
In the case of mining, successful transport is all about moving high volumes of heavy material at the lowest possible cost, particularly since transportation expenses often make up a third or more of total mining operating costs.
|Cloud computing enables Scania to keep close watch on the productivity of its mining trucks.|
To help mining companies tackle these costs, Scania developed a system on the Microsoft Azure platform that measures the entire transport flow of a mine, with data sent seamlessly every second from the trucks in the production flow to Scania’s field workshop. This allows them to calculate uptime and downtimes and have useful data to make decisions that affect their customers’ operational efficiency in real time, which helps ensure Scania is meeting its contractual targets.
Site Optimization by Scania is a business intelligence platform being piloted with four customers in Sweden and South America. Early results show major improvements throughout the prototype’s deployment. The system has proven its effectiveness in minimizing operational disturbances like equipment damage or assembly, inspections or safety-related delays, and operator errors.
In addition to aiding predictive maintenance, the system can even measure how long it takes to switch drivers during planned changeovers, since a few minutes wasted each day over a year’s worth of mining equates to a huge amount of lost productivity.
Keeping watch on a transit system
Another smart technology for transit systems is the Wago-I/O-System, which is being used by AKN Eisenbahn in Hamburg, Germany, for the operation and maintenance of its transit system infrastructure and auxiliary services. This decentralized automation technology allows up to 4,000 fault messages daily to be centrally monitored from the control center.
The system monitors 39 stations on 95 km of tracks and includes a central signal tower with depot, 118 public railroad crossings, 277 signal lights and the only tunnel in the Schleswig-Holstein region. Auxiliary services, which are distributed throughout the region, include point heating, station lighting, ticket machines, public address speakers and tunnel monitoring.
A comprehensive fiber-optic network ensures that data from the entire railway system is available at all times to the dispatchers at the central signal tower. Messages received over the network can be distributed directly to the mobile telephones of the employees responsible.
Automatic failure detection and response are critical to the running of a stable transit system. In winter, for example, frozen points can cause delays in rail traffic. Usually caused by a fault in the electrical supply network, it leads to an outage in the point heating. The challenge is to recognize when the network has restabilized and the heat can be switched on again.
In the past, this had to be checked on site, at significant expense in personnel and time. Now, the Wago-I/O-System recognizes the power failure and automatically switches the point heating back on as soon as the network has been stable for 10 seconds.
|Central dispatchers can keep tabs on faults in any part of a German transit system, from rail switches to ticket machines.|
“By monitoring power to switches from a central location, operators know ahead of time what the problem is and can get to it faster. Ethernet makes it easy to connect information sources and send data to an OPC server for collection,” says Charlie Norz, North American I/O product manager for Wago. “The system also supports emailing for alarm messages, alerting maintenance personnel to a problem and telling them what spare parts they might need to fix it. This shortens downtime and increases customer satisfaction.”
Keeping the trains rolling
Even something as routine as refueling rail cars used in producing iron ore can be improved with automation technology. An international iron ore producer working in Canada was recently looking to replace the aging positive displacement meters in a refueling station in its rail yard.
The company relies on more than 20 locomotives and nearly 1,000 cars to transport some 75,000 tons of iron concentrate along its 420 km private railway every day. An additional 300+ utility cars use the rail lines to transport commodities and timber back and forth from the interior mining area to a port complex.
On average, five full trains with two locomotives per train return from the mining site to the port every day. Accurate and efficient refueling of those trains is critical to continuous processing and fulfillment of orders. “The company was looking for a turnkey solution for diesel mass flow measurement and data transmission through a Profibus network,” explains Steffen Ochsenreither, business driver solutions and services for Endress+Hauser Canada.
The project involved installation of two Coriolis flowmeters, a Profibus network, electrical panel and wiring for the new fueling system, startup and commissioning. Moreover, the new system had to be installed and functional within 10 weeks with no prolonged interruption in the company’s logistics and production schedule.
One of the benefits of using the Endress+Hauser Proline Promass 80E Coriolis flowmeter, in addition to its accuracy, was its ability to work independent of physical fluid properties, such as viscosity and density, so there was no need for temperature or pressure compensation. The new metering system ensures the company always has an accurate understanding of its diesel fuel inventory.
Smart trains and loading docks
A new control system from Rite-Hite, a Milwaukee, Wis., manufacturer of material handling systems for trucking applications, promises to bring the factory loading dock into the 21st century. The company’s Dok-Commander Control System integrates the controls of multiple loading dock devices into a centralized, easy-to-operate system. It can power a variety of equipment at each loading dock, including a vehicle restraint, dock leveler, door and dock light. This eliminates the need for multiple controls to operate different pieces of equipment and provides the ability to interlock equipment to design a safe sequence of operations.
Another new product, from Lilee Systems in San Jose, Calif., enables freight and passenger rail and bus fleet operators to provide Wi-Fi services for both workers and passengers. The TransAir LMS-2450 series combines wireless communications with positive train control compliance for safety and speed enforcement, as well as to manage other business data without having to invest in additional software or hardware for what is typically limited onboard cabinet space.
“The rapidly growing Internet of Things trend opens up vast opportunities for communications technologies driven by user requirements for speed and reliability,” says Peter Chung, product line manager for Lilee Systems. “We can now deliver ubiquitous, always-on connectivity that enhances the passenger experience and supports the transit industry’s requirement to meet positive train control compliance and ensure the highest levels of safety possible.”