The time and expense spent on integrating controls for the machines on a packaging line has been a source of frustration since the dawn of automation. The good news is that integration is getting easier. The better news is that more improvements are in store.
“Islands of automation” was a term created with food and beverage packaging lines in mind. Machine building was a U.S. cottage industry in the late 20th Century, and while consolidation has produced some organizations with the capability of fabricating most if not all the equipment from filling to stretch wrapping, turnkey packaging lines are a rarity.
A best-in-class approach is standard operating procedure, but integrating controls for one OEM’s casepacker and another vendor’s labeler for condition monitoring and performance reporting can be a tedious and costly process.
A 20-year slog toward more standardized and reusable computer code has resulted in huge efficiency gains, although systems integration still can represent up to 80 percent of a line’s capital costs, according to Greg Hood, a product manager with Rockwell Automation Inc., Milwaukee. “OEMs do a wonderful job, but they’re forced to look at their machine controls in a vacuum,” notes Hood. The task of integrating those controls still falls to an engineer, and how well the integration is executed “depends on the skill level of the engineer,” he adds.
Regardless of skill level, the integration engineer is underutilized if most of the project time is spent reconciling tag names and dealing with non-standardized code, argues John Kowal, business development manager at automation supplier B&R Industrial Automation Corp., Roswell, Ga. “Sixty percent of an integrator’s time is spent finding the tags, and that’s make-work,” he says. If all controllers on a line use standard language, the integrator is liberated “to be a problem solver, instead of an hourly biller,” Kowal suggests.
The standard in this case is ISA’s TR88.00.02, commonly referred to as PackML. Food companies drove its development, with involvement from automation suppliers, OEMs and other interested parties. Soon after the turn of the century, engineers from Hershey and M&M Mars called a truce in the candy wars to champion the PackML initiative, putting aside competitive considerations in pursuit of standardized coding for faster, cheaper commissioning of packaging lines.
Food manufacturers are realizing some benefits from open architecture, though a chicken-or-egg situation prevents companies from deriving full value. Few food companies are using TR88 in their machine specifications, and OEMs are reluctant to rewrite code until there is enough demand from consumer packaged goods (CPG) firms to justify the expense.
“We need a champion in food to push implementation in the vendor community,” says Paul Nowicki, global information design engineer with Heat and Control Inc., a refrain heard from many TR88 advocates.
Full speed ahead
Rather than wait for a critical mass of food companies to get behind TR88, managers at Pro Mach Inc. decided two years ago to embrace it as their internal standard. “Some of our 22 divisions are fully compliant, all the way up to HMI [human-machine interface] displays, and some are just using the common tag names,” according to Mark Ruberg, director-corporate business collaboration at the Loveland, Ohio-based company. “We’re past the tipping point for adoption.”
Few machine buyers are specifying PackML, he concedes, but in-house engineers are on board. “It required up-front programming work, but it’s a better, modular approach that produces faster commissioning and easier maintenance,” Ruberg says. Finding tags and dealing with other connectivity issues on a line is a waste of integrators’ time. “This allows them to do more value-added integration,” he believes.
Another vendor to see the PackML light is Bosch Packaging Technology, although interest is limited to CPG firms with multi-national plant networks. “We are using PackML templates as a base framework for our controls platforms,” reports Pascal Witprachter, head-electrical engineering in Bosch’s Beringen, Switzerland office.
Intellectual property in the coding is retained, but end-users benefit from faster integration and superior diagnostics. “As we move from mechanical to mechatronic machines, we need to be sure that all engineers can understand the controls design, not just the engineer who designed it.”
Two years ago, Pro Mach demonstrated a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system with standardized displays from Rockwell at Pack Expo to highlight the ease of integration now possible. The system, named Rapid, also presents key performance indicators to operators.
“If a CPG firm is putting in a line with multiple controllers, the Rapid system is designed to communicate with all of them,” Ruberg explains.
Rapid is a component of a SCADA system, “but the main goal is line integration and performance improvement,” Rockwell’s Hood maintains. “We recommend that machine-level control be compliant with PackML, but it’s not required.” If a machine supplier doesn’t use TR88, Rapid still can convert data output into PackML-based displays.