Automation strategy increases volume

What began as a Y2K update for Washington Quality Foods' Baan enterprise system became a transformation from manual to automated manufacturing processes. The path toward greater use of automation began for this 90+ year-old flour milling and dry-mix producing company just after the Y2K fix. Dry mix operations were expanded in 2000 to include a new facility with the goal of significantly increas...


What began as a Y2K update for Washington Quality Foods' Baan enterprise system became a transformation from manual to automated manufacturing processes. The path toward greater use of automation began for this 90+ year-old flour milling and dry-mix producing company just after the Y2K fix. Dry mix operations were expanded in 2000 to include a new facility with the goal of significantly increasing capacity.

This new facility in Halethorpe, MD, was formerly a brewery and therefore required a complete replacement of mixing and packaging equipment. New equipment included 24 silos for storing product ingredients. Six silos contain more than one million pounds of flour, and the others store sugar, salt, and dextrose and other ingredients for production of custom products.

Along with the new hardware, InTouch human-machine interface software and InBatch batch management software from Wonderware also were installed to run the new plant and automate, for the first time at Washington Quality, the processing of product batches.

David Greenfield, Control Engineering editorial director, spoke with Tony Murray, director of information technologies at Washington Quality, to learn why the company decided to go with the software systems they chose and how the relations between the plant engineers and IT department have fared since getting this new plant up and running.

Q. Why were the human-machine interface and batch management software systems chosen for use in the acquired plant?

I was given the task to come up with a controls solution [during the rebuilding and restructuring of the Halethorpe plant]. We had a concept as to how we wanted to manufacture in the new facility to realize some efficiencies and maintain product quality. I looked at several control vendors, and Wonderware's recipe-management capabilities, batch execution controls, and human-machine interface tool gave us what we were looking for. I also liked its scripting capabilities, because we have a customized application developed for use here in this new plant.

Q. Since you were in charge of selecting the controls solution, how did you work with the engineering group on this decision?

We had a team made up of our plant engineer, our COO, our vice president of research and development, and myself. We were the concept team for this new plant. IT was clearly going to be an integral part of the project due to the amount of automation we wanted to achieve. So I was brought in early on. The engineer realized that he was limited in his knowledge of new control technologies and a lot of it lent itself to the IT side of the house. So we worked together very closely. I learned a lot from him, and he learned a lot from me.

Q. How did the software alter engineering practices to enable you to increase capacity?

When we looked at how we wanted the plant to function from a mechanical point of view, it was immediately recognized that we needed a powerful controls tool. In our older plant, most of our ingredients were manually dumped into mixers for blending. Therewas also very little bulk storage beyond flour and sugar. It was a very labor-intensive process, and we wanted to get away from that.So we came up with the concept of an ingredients tank farm where we would store up to 24 of our most frequently and most voluminously used ingredients. But we had to have a way to convey those ingredients to the mixers; so we knew we had to have a controls tool. By storing more ingredients ourselves and automating the delivery and mixing operations, we increased our volume by 200-300%.

Q. What devices are used with the human-machine interface and batch software?

The primary linkage is with the PLC; we're using a Rockwell Automation/Allen-Bradley PLC-5. We also have NEMA-rated touchscreen technology from Strongarm in place in our hand-add operation.We use over 300 ingredients, and only 24 come out of bulk storage. Operators are prompted by the recipe on the touchscreen as to what, when, and how much ingredient to add. They respond with lot numbers as it's weighed. This is all based on improving internal efficiencies.

Q. How has use of the new software affected how engineers operate at the device level?

It's required them to know a lot about what I do. Now I work with our chief mechanic and our chief electrician, who is also a control engineer, and who is now a PLC programmer. They now understand that, as they look at a device, it has to be able to talk to an Ethernet network and have capabilities that have previously only existed in the IT world. One of the things I'm looking at is thin client. That is in our future. If I had to do this all over again, where I have PCs and touchscreens, they'd all be thin client [a setup where applications and data are centrally hosted on a server and accessed by computer clients, that may be more economical than stand-alone PCs].

Q. Can what you learned about setting up this software in new plants be applied to replacing existing systems?

We've decided that all of our PLCs will be network-capable as we go forward. We wanted to be one entity from a development and maintenance standpoint, because it's very beneficial if I can make a change from where I sit, as opposed to having to run out on the shop floor with my notebook computer. We strive to have everything data-compatible so that all devices can talk to one another.

Q. Explain how IT and engineering are working together in your plant. What's changed?

Now I interface much more with our plant manager to effect changes. I also work more directly with our chief mechanic and electrician. We work as a team, and we have the support of our executive management. They're laissez-faire in how we run things between us.In all, this was more of a change for IT. The engineering side of the house had been introduced to computers and controls technology many years ago. But the controls side was all new to me. I had to learn a lot about manufacturing. It's really broadened my world and perspective.

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