Flint Ink Steps Its Way to Success

Committed to increasing productivity, lowering costs, and reducing product variability at its New Albany, Indiana facility, Flint Ink began an automation journey that, like most journeys, included a number of unexpected bumps, twists, turns, and thrills along the way. Though the journey isn't complete, all the participants are positive the hardest parts are behind them and the rewards have alre...


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  • Unconventional automation choice

  • Implementing controls on-the-fly

  • Step-by-step project

Seeking case histories

Committed to increasing productivity, lowering costs, and reducing product variability at its New Albany, Indiana facility, Flint Ink began an automation journey that, like most journeys, included a number of unexpected bumps, twists, turns, and thrills along the way.

Though the journey isn't complete, all the participants are positive the hardest parts are behind them and the rewards have already made the trip worth the effort.

Ink is not just ink

Most ink is used in high-speed printing of newspapers and magazines, but just looking at it, ink doesn't seem that complex.

Formulas of inks differ widely to suit the variety of printing presses, methods of drying, variations in print substrates, and end-user considerations.

Because press type, drying methods, and paper stock offer few adjustable parameters, Flint Ink employs more than 500 PhDs, chemists, physicists, chemical engineers, ink formulators, and technical service representatives to work with customers to create just the right ink formulation for an application.

From a control viewpoint, ink manufacturing isn't nearly as complex as other batch processes, such as biotechnology. Yes, there are many discrete valves and mass flowmeters; some temperature, level, and speed controls; and a definite need for coordinated unit transfers, but the basic process is relatively simple. Mix combinations of raw materials, grind them to a uniform particle size, add solvents to adjust the final formulation, and ship it.

What makes ink production hard is the seemingly endless number of formulations that customer applications require and the scheduling of ink production to meet last-minute customer orders.

Future proofing

When Flint Ink began exploring the application of instrumentation and automated control to its New Albany production center, the obvious choice was to expand the existing raw material and truck loading PLC (programmable logic controller) and HMI (human machine interface) system. However, past PLC/HMI system problems had been significant and frequent enough that production and maintenance staff weren't ready to "rubber-stamp" an expansion of the PLC/HMI system.

Over several months, the staff evolved a "wish list" of goals and expectations into a functional specification designed to create a totally automated and integrated, paperless ink production center.

"We knew Flint Ink's executive management would insist on two things," explains Greg Geary, former process manager and now Flint Ink's director of engineering for new technologies. "Any re-instrumentation and control system additions would need to be implemented without impacting production; and we would only receive funding for the first project phase, after that, project financing would need to come from increased productivity and improved first-pass product consistency earnings."

Flint Ink's functional specification was divided into project phases with phase one being to re-instrument and automate the main ink production facilities. Subsequent project phases were planned to:

  • Optimize mill controls;

  • Improve the accuracy of material measurements and transfers;

  • Automate remaining ink production facilities;

  • Optimize raw material recipe additions;

  • Eliminate manual scheduling activities;

  • Close the loop between order entry and batch-yield reports; and

  • Apply batch campaign management to optimize the entire order to shipment cycle.

After fine-tuning the functional specification and getting site-wide agreement, the specification defined what the company wanted to achieve. It was then time to determine the best-suited control system platform—PLC/HMI or distributed control system.

Eventually, Flint Ink selected Emerson Process Management's DeltaV digital automation system as the platform of choice, and it chose an Emerson representative, Cornerstone Controls, to provide system integration services.

Project recovers

The project implementation commenced early in DeltaV's life, thus Flint Ink and Cornerstone Controls discovered previously undetected system anomalies that created some intense conversations and unscheduled plant visits from Emerson's and Cornerstone's senior management.

"I recall when Cornerstone's president, Kasey Kuhlman came calling one time, I said to him, 'So, you've covered yourself in gasoline, are walking into the fire, and are hoping I will put you out," Flint Ink process manager J.B. Burdette says with a grin.

Another distraction occurred when the project manager and lead architect unexpectedly quit.

"I was working on a small part of the project and wasn't really aware of all the issues the project was experiencing," shares Cornerstone's senior application engineer Mike Andress. "Over-night I went from a bit player, to having responsibility for the whole thing."

"To Mike's credit, he jumped in and took control of the project in a way that demonstrated that, despite the project's many problems, things were going to turn out okay," says Burdette. "The fact that the Emerson and Cornerstone folks were always willing to go the extra mile to fix problems and ensure our expectations were met or exceeded speaks volumes about the relationship we forged and now enjoy."

Changing minds

Flint had installed a PLC/HMI system in the raw material handling and truck loading area, but the heart of production had always been manual. There were a few "automated" valves, but the term automated really meant the valve's manual lever had been replaced with an actuator and could be activated by the operators from a centrally located panel board.

During early conversations about automating the facility, some operators argued ink production was an art, not a science. Some even predicted that if automated, the plant would never produce another pound of ink.

Of course it's now clear that ink production is a science and can be automated, but that doesn't mean it was achieved without addressing cultural issues.

For example, each vessel has an inspection door on top. Early on, rather than trusting that the operator screens accurately indicated additions were being made, operators would open the inspection doors to verify additions were actually happening.

Another past practice was to fill mixing tanks as full as possible. Because material additions were manual, it was possible for someone to forget to close a valve and ink could spill onto the production floor. Any such spills could result in waste and lost productivity.

Mixing tanks are now equipped with level probes, interlocks, and two audible notifications. One audible is a claxon-like horn, the other is a recorded voice "nagging" that the level is too high and needs to be reduced. The claxon can be silenced with an acknowledge button. The nagging voice only stops when the level is reduced.

"Since automating, we've had no overflows," explains Burdette.

Baby steps to success

Flint Ink's requirement to not impact production during implementation of the instrumentation and control system required special attention to project scheduling, almost daily communication between the project team and Flint Ink's production scheduling group, and a highly modularized, well-tested application design.

Using an early version of Mynah's mimic simulation software, application specific control, equipment, and unit operation modules were tested prior to deploying on the Flint Ink DeltaV system.

According to Burdette, operators were apprehensive about each layer of automation installed until they used it, then they would embrace it and become apprehensive about the need to install the next layer.

"I believe we could have installed layers faster than we did, but we needed to take baby steps and allow the operators to get comfortable with one layer before introducing something new," Burdette says. "We aren't quite there yet, but we are moving toward a system that performs like our best operators, on their best day, every day."

A peek at Flint Ink's productivity numbers validate the progress the New Albany production center has achieved as a result of changes in work processes and the addition of the new instrumentation and control system. Productivity highlights include:

  • Efficiency increased 50%;

  • Waste has reduced 90%;

  • Post-batch adjustments have reduced 75%; and

  • Scheduling crises have reduced 40%.

Do overs

Most projects include a task to hold a "wrap-up" meeting (or party) to review what went right and what went wrong during the project.

If Flint Ink were doing this project over, things they say they would do differently include:

  • Asking more questions about the selected system's capabilities;

  • Tightening-up requirements in the functional specification;

  • Not being so insistent on integrating an existing Microsoft Excel-based formulation workbook as the recipe interface [a requirement that was eventually eliminated];

  • Specifying, the biggest, fastest, most-capable server and operator interface hardware platforms available; and

  • Prioritization of functional specification requirements to assist decision-making during any project descoping exercises.

What's next

Flint Ink's New Albany production center employees are excited about what they've accomplished, but they aren't satisfied. Already well through defined subsequent project phases, new productivity opportunities are being discussed, prioritized, and added to what's become the center's continuous improvement project list.

For example, an XML (Extensible Markup Language) project to eliminate manual production scheduling activities is about to kick off-a forerunner of electronically closing the order to batch-yield loop, and one step closer to achieving the vision of a paperless, optimized ink-production center.

Flint Ink operates in a highly competitive market space. It would have been easy to dismiss using an advanced and more expensive, control system solution. However, Flint Ink is convinced that the DeltaV system's capabilities have and will continue to challenge their ways of thinking, and continuously improve production flexibility, quality, and profitability.

Comments? E-mail dharrold@reedbusiness.com

Seeking case histories

If you have a process case history you'd like to share, please contact Dave Harrold, Control Engineering senior editor covering process control and instrumentation at dharrold@reedbusiness.com.

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