Making changes to a manufacturing plant can be costly and confusing. A dairy products company in the Midwest was recently faced with a difficult decision: Should the company simply replace the aged and malfunctioning packaging machine or re-automate and give it a new life? In an effort to avoid lengthy downtime and remain cost-effective, the company chose to rejuvenate the equipment.
Interstates basically did a complete retrofit of the machine, which included new servo motors and drives, new machine safety equipment, a control panel upgrade, a new human-machine interface (HMI), and a complete controls software rewrite.
Precision was crucial for this motion project. Filled containers need to be picked up and carefully placed on cardboard sheets where hot glue has been applied, then picked up again and double-stacked with an additional layer of product. Next, they are conveyed to a shrink-wrap machine and finally a palletizer. The operator selects a formula from a pre-defined list that loads the control parameters to handle the incoming containers in precisely the same manner each time. It’s all about making sure everything is perfectly lined up, every time, no matter the container size that enters the machine.
We replaced all of the machine motion control equipment for the dairy products company. It’s critical to be able to track and control exact positions, so we installed all new, state-of-the-art equipment.
The Interstates team spent time with the plant engineer, operators and maintenance technicians to gain a thorough understanding of the company’s current pain points and goals for the future. A specific pain point with the old machine was that it would frequently get lost during operation and need to be re-homed by opening up the safety doors and manually positioning the lifting head so that it could find the home position. Therefore, one of the company’s main goals was to provide the operator with a method to re-home without having to open up the safety doors, thereby significantly speeding up the process.
Rather than spending time opening the safety doors and potentially encountering a risky situation, new controls would allow the operator to remedy a re-homing issue with a simple touch of the HMI screen. By implementing upgraded systems and controls, human intervention is decreased and one of the company’s goals was achieved.
Another win for the company was that the controls software was significantly more user-friendly than it had been before. Based on early conversations with the company, Interstates was able to identify this need and present a solution.
The importance of communication with the client cannot be overstressed. Rather than just making it work better, we should really solve the issues. We also wanted to deliver what they truly needed, and not just what they asked for. Much of the project’s success can be attributed to Interstates’ ability to rely on teams with specific areas of expertise. By using the variety of talented teams at Interstates and through other partnerships, the project was completed successfully. The machine was probably more than 15 years old, and our hope is that now they can get another 15-20 years out of it.
To ensure downtime for the plant was minimal, the Interstates team was on site throughout the weekend to complete the project as quickly as possible. We got in there on a Friday, and by Monday they were running product through again. Choosing the retrofit option vs. purchasing a brand new machine saved the company weeks, perhaps months, of downtime.
Jeff Miller is director of project management at Interstates Control Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Interstates Control Systems, visit its profile on the Industrial Exchange.