Acadian Seaplants Ethernet connections help with 40% capacity increase

Plantwide Ethernet: New seaweed-processing facility with Ethernet infrastructure and integrated motor control centers allowed Acadian Seaplants to increase capacity by 40% and provide flexibility, visibility, and improve maintenance without production disruption.

By Wade Hazel September 20, 2015

A seaweed producer switched from hardwired controls to use of Ethernet to facilitate a 40% increase in production without downtime, while improving maintenance via remote support, increasing visibility, and providing flexibility to make production changes as needed at a lower cost.

Seaweed’s natural nutritional and healing powers have been known for millennia: The Romans applied marine plants to help heal wounds and rashes, and the Japanese made it a dietary staple. Today, processed seaweed is a key ingredient in everything from human nutritional supplements to animal feed. Acadian Seaplants, based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada, cultivates and processes seaweed for a variety of products in this international industry. One of those products is crop biostimulants, derived from a species of seaweed called Ascophyllum nodosum, used to improve the health and growth of plants.

Hardwired inflexibility

Acadian Seaplants produces crop biostimulants in liquid and powder formats at its facility in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, Canada, and ships branded products to more than 80 countries. Its proprietary production process starts with locally and sustainably harvested seaweed. Then various bio-active compounds are extracted, clarified, filtered, and concentrated. Finally, the compounds are tested for quality, preserved, and packaged.

This complex manufacturing process requires a high degree of process control. Before 2006, motor controls and facility communications were hardwired. If the company wanted to change or add a step in the production process, rewiring areas in the facility would be required.

Between 2006 and 2008, the company began automating the Cornwallis facility. Modernization wasn’t enough to meet growing demand. In the last decade, the use of natural biostimulants in agriculture and horticulture increased substantially, and Acadian Seaplants needed to grow and upgrade its biostimulant production facility in response. The company decided to build onto its existing plant to add capacity and automate the new equipment to increase process control and manufacturing efficiency.

Easier integration with Ethernet

Electrical supplier, Graybar, knew Acadian Seaplants was already using Ethernet-enabled programmable automation controllers (PACs) from Rockwell Automation. To help Acadian Seaplants expand without adding hardwiring for motor controls, Graybar proposed using motor control centers (MCCs) also enabled by EtherNet/IP (an Ethernet protocol from ODVA), so the MCCs could easily integrate with controllers in the existing system.

Acadian Seaplants continued to automate existing processes and increased production capacity by about 50% between 2008 and 2009. But by 2011, the company needed to expand again and decided to build a much larger plant across the street.

The proven technology in the existing space needed to be implemented on a larger scale. Downtime during expansion would have made it difficult to continue to meet orders. In the new facility, Acadian Seaplants also wanted to expand its recently implemented integrated MCCs and controllers and enable remote support to reduce maintenance time. 

Three-year expansion

Over three years, the Acadian Seaplants engineering team moved existing processes and equipment into a new facility, the Deveau Center. The plant science division gained three times more manufacturing space, meaning they needed more equipment. Experiences from the 2009 expansion were applied to help Acadian Seaplants implement a similar MCC implementation at a facility five times the size of the original operation.

With counsel from Graybar, the Acadian Seaplants engineering team designed an integrated plantwide infrastructure for system monitoring and motor control over EtherNet/IP.

The network became critical when the Acadian Seaplants team worked in stages to move existing processes to the new site. To start, the team built a piping system over land and under the street to move liquid product between the two facilities. As the team installed new equipment, they connected it via EtherNet/IP to the existing equipment on the other side of the street.

Acadian Seaplants subscribed to remote maintenance services for many years, providing 24/7 phone support to help the engineering team resolve issues quickly, especially in the early stages of plant automation.

The engineering team installed three PACs to manage system functions. The PACs seamlessly connected with other system components via an EtherNet/IP network. System information was fed to a desktop computer on-site, where staff could monitor operations in real time.

The Acadian Seaplants team moved the existing MCCs and installed additional ones to provide precise motor control and power in the seaweed-processing facility.

The team easily set up and configured the MCCs using the same engineering and design programming software environment. Related software that monitors the MCC also could send the motor control device information directly to the design and programming software, which recognized the intelligent components in the MCCs, including variable speed drives and full-voltage starters. Libraries of software objects (blocks of code) immediately provided parameters for each component for faster configuration. 

No downtime, demand met

The new seaweed-processing facility was completed in 2014 without downtime, and Acadian Seaplants gained the production capacity necessary to meet immediate crop biostimulant demand. Already, the facility is operating at 40% higher capacity than the previous facility. With its EtherNet/IP-based design, the facility could grow to 250% the prior output.

The facility isn’t static. Acadian Seaplants may need to change functions one day, do improvements the next, or add processes. With the controls connected via EtherNet/IP, wires are virtual, and the company can make changes a lot faster at a lower cost. 

Improved access

With integrated MCCs and controllers, Acadian Seaplants gained a more connected, reliable, and continuous facility. Information is now shared more seamlessly between processes and operators. In case of any issues, engineers can remotely access the desktop computer, helping to immediately reduce downtime compared to previously required on-site visits. Issues automatically appear on the operator screen, a human-machine interface (HMI), making them more visible to operators than the previous mechanical blinking lights.

Based on the success of Acadian Seaplants’ expansion, the company is considering similar changes at other facilities. The engineering team has begun to automate processes with PACs at the food science division’s land-based cultivation facility and would like to move to EtherNet/IP-enabled MCCs at the animal science division’s facilities in the next few years.

– Wade Hazel is engineering manager for Acadian Seaplants. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

Key concepts

  • Hard-wired networking discourages upgrades and optimization.
  • Ethernet facilitates easier expansion, changes.
  • Easier maintenance, less downtime, and increased visibility are among other Ethernet benefits.

Consider this

When doing a cost-benefit analysis of an upgrade that includes Ethernet, are lost opportunity costs part of the calculation?

ONLINE extra 

Links to related information below on Ethernet protocols, Ethernet use in process control, and EtherNet/IP implementation.