Software Helps Plants Integrate Cross-Functional Platforms

Islands of automation are giving way to plant-wide (even enterprise-wide) efforts that yield performance analysis and front-office profit maximization.

By Bob Sperber, Contributing Editor

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Manufacturing Trends 2008It takes 50 million lbs. of milk to churn out a year’s worth of Breyers yogurt. But over the past few years of skyrocketing milk prices, Breyers’ plant in North Lawrence, N.Y., was going bananas – and strawberries – trying to hold onto its profits.

“Instead of passing on the all of the cost increases to consumers, we looked to manufacturing to make up the difference” and keep prices in check, says Matt Davis, business unit manager. Operating 24/7, the plant seemed to be running at capacity until new management initiatives and a new software system from CDC Software, Atlanta, came online in June 2006. Some of the performance gains uncovered:

  • Reduced production line changeover from 25 mins. to 18, for a 250,000 case-a-year bump.
  • On-time order fi ll-rate increased from 94 to 99.6 percent.
  • Quality-check completion rate hit 98 percent, up from 50 to 60 percent, within two weeks of installing the new software.
  • Annual manufacturing costs reduced by $120,000.
  • A one-time, $1 million cost avoidance when the system identifi ed a $50,000 repair instead of a fi lling line replacement.

Plantwide integration now enables operational managers to directly identify what parts of an operation are meeting safety, quality, productivity and overall effectiveness targets. In turn, enterprise connectivity to the plant allows executives to know what parts of an operation are making or losing money.

With appropriate cross-functional plant integration, every product, every SKU, can have completely accurate profit profiles based on actual, real-time, KPI-powered plant data. If this sounds like a pipe dream, pinch yourself: Industry leaders are doing it now.

Business demands drive technology

A confluence of factors is driving demand for plant automation – including “slow growth, rising costs, waning pricing power, accelerated regulatory and customer requirements and a growing percentage of sales from a limited number of powerful and demanding retailers,” says John Blanchard, research director for tech analyst firm ARC Advisory Group, Dedham, Mass.

“A lot of what’s driven us to automate has been consolidation and downsizing. You have to automate to compensate,” says Roy Speers, a control specialist with 27 years at the Molson brewery in Vancouver, British Columbia, part of the Molson Coors Brewing Co. merger. “We’ll keep running full-out as more plants close – and we’ll be looking for ways to lessen downtime,” he says of the three-shift operation now expanding as plants close in Edmonton, Alberta, and elsewhere.

Smithfield Foods has standardized on Rockwell Automation hardware and software, from real-time PLC controls (shown) to performance-managing execution systems that communicate with the front office.

“There used to be just water. Today, there’s water with nutrients, electrolytes, flavored waters,” says Charles Rastle, industry marketing manager in the Boulder, Colo., office of Rockwell Automation. “About 20 percent of the products in any given plant are new. Multiply that by however many SKUs the plant is running, and it’s easy to see the need for more, or better, automation.”

Federal requirements mandate that companies track products one step forward and back in the supply chain, and trace the cause of an incident within 24 hours. Business demands are more stringent as companies including Wal-Mart conduct mock-recall audits of suppliers and demand that causes be traced any number of steps across the supply chain.

Salmonella in peanut butter, E. coli in spinach, even an animal handling video scandal on YouTube can cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in short-term sales losses, product replenishment costs and legal and investigative costs. The longterm consequences can be far worse.

As the Chinese melamine scare of last year proved, keeping only your house in order is not enough. “As the food processing industry has become dependent on extended supply chains with multiple vendors, risk and quality management has become critical. But most organizations still implement their food safety and quality management system in a paper-based approach,” says Nikki Willett, vice president of marketing and regulatory products for Pilgrim Software Inc., Tampa, Fla. Pilgrim provides an enterprise compliance and quality management software platform.

“Companies need to take a look into the same principles of industrial automation and apply it to best practices in quality and safety management automation and think of the system as a whole,” she continues. The ideal is “a global program, trained employees, well-documented SOPs and utilizing technology properly to put global practices and procedures in place.”

Evolving price/performance

Mike Cole, a veteran engineer and information technology pro, could never have guessed how far technology would advance. Coming from the continuousprocess world where distributed control systems (DCSs) are the norm, he says, “In the mid-1980s, I put in Serial No. 1 of the Rosemount [now Emerson Process Management] RS3 [DCS]. It gave us a full 40-megabytes of hard drive to work with. And it only cost $2 million!”

Today, a single programmable logic controller (PLC) “can do everything we were doing back then,” says Cole, director of information systems and plant automated systems and standards for Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork processor, based in Smithfield, Va. And the cost of even a high-end PLC is about $500. More impressive: PLCs at Smithfi eld today handle motion, motor and process loop controls that a decade ago required multiple vendors, tools, parts and training that far exceeded the hardware cost.

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