Outsourcing: Plant gets support for AutoCAD switch, production-line move


Info control, controllers, software, MES, Design

The ability to use a Microsoft Windows-based CAD system provides Toll Brothers with needed flexibility. New database scripts have contributed considerably to plant uptime.

A manufacturer formerly dependent on its system integrator used the services of its controller vendor to take back control of its plants. Outsourcing specific tasks brought immediate productivity improvements and freed up personnel to focus on training and expansion at Toll Brothers Inc., a leading luxury home building company in the U.S. GE Fanuc Professional Services helped Toll Brothers' engineers switch to Windows-based Autodesk AutoCAD (a transition still in process), learn the intricacies of Proficy HMI/SCADA-Cimplicity, and physically move a production line from one plant to another.

At its manufacturing facilities in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Indiana, Toll Brothers produces wall panels, trusses, and millwork, and then distributes these building materials with just-in-time accuracy to building sites in 21 states. The company develops customized home options that have been structurally engineered by the company's in-house engineering division.

To manufacture wall panels, a process which consists of framing a wall, sheeting it, and cutting out the openings, a Toll Brothers production line must do everything from handling the raw lumber to banding 8-ft-tall stacks of walls and shipping them to where homes are being built. This process saves some time over conventional stick framing, and "our manufacturing process provides quality assurance," said Patrick Duffy, production engineer for Toll Integrated Systems, a division of Toll Brothers Inc. "Providing a high level of automation gives Toll Integrated Systems the capacity and scalability needed to keep up with the sales divisions of Toll Brothers. Automation insures product integrity."

Toll Brothers has been working with GE Fanuc Automation since 2001 and uses Proficy HMI/SCADA-Cimplicity and GE Fanuc Series 90-30 PLCs to control the production lines that build the wall panels. The company had been tied to one Unix-based CAD system used for product plans and drawings, but the output from the CAD system was a text file (CDT) that couldn't be read by Cimplicity. The Unix system was no longer being supported, so Toll Brothers knew it was time to migrate to another software package that runs on Autodesk AutoCAD in the Microsoft Windows environment. The company wasn't ready to transfer everything at once, however, and it didn't have the expertise on staff to do the job.

Separately, the company had been working with a vendor/integrator from Sweden, AQ Elautomatik, to automate the line at its Pennsylvania plant. That company had originally configured and implemented the Cimplicity project and programmed all of the plant's PLCs, and it had used the CDT files for continuity.

"They really haven't had anyone who is familiar with Cimplicity and PLCs," said Bill Shaw, GE Fanuc Professional Services Field Engineer. "They were totally dependent on the European integrator. Since Patrick [Duffy] has come on, he's been driving his group to understand how the system works."

Shaw is a member of GE Fanuc's global Professional Services team. The group provides an array of project services, driven by Six Sigma quality methodologies, to help put the full potential of GE Fanuc's software and hardware applications to work. Shaw was brought in on the Toll Brothers project implementation to provide the company with proven design capabilities, specification, and implementation, as well as post-implementation support of GE Fanuc Automation software and control solutions.

"Bill Shaw modified our Cimplicity system by adding a Microsoft SQL database which provided us with much more flexible integration points," said Toll Brothers' Duffy. "Before, we were married to one CAD program, which in turn limited our manufacturing capability to that of a single ASCII text file. Now, we can create SQL database links to our Cimplicity projects, which are much faster and more flexible than the file transfers. The system works perfectly and troubleshooting the manufacturing process is easier than ever!"

GE Fanuc's Shaw rewrote the project in Cimplicity to create a transition solution so the SCADA layer could get the data from a database (Microsoft SQL) and process it to send to the line independent of the CAD program. This program is strictly custom-written with the main purpose of opening up files. It encompassed rewriting about 40 or 50 scripts to accomplish the task.

"The original scripts that were provided by our European vendor were extremely difficult to understand," said Duffy. "Having Bill Shaw rewrite the scripts has contributed considerably to the uptime at the plants."

Toll Brothers also has taken advantage of training offered by GE Fanuc as it applies to their application. They are eager to learn how their system really works so they don't need to be reliant upon integrators to solve minor issues. To that end, the company signed up for GE Fanuc's GlobalCare Enterprise edition for easy upgrades and 24-hour service. That gives them instant access to Bill Shaw and others, who carry pagers should a problem arise.

"We are very happy with support," said Toll Brothers' Duffy. "I feel we are taking advantage of everything from upgrading all of our Cimplicity packages to being linked up to our favorite service folks. GlobalCare is an easy, painless way to pay for services without creating a huge project. Having a GlobalCare account is almost like having the best engineers working for Toll Brothers."

—Edited by Renee Robbins , Control Engineering editorial director
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