Case study: System integrator fixes food processing equipment from 3 OEMs
Automation was needed for a refrigerated line, but customized fabricated equipment from three original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) wasn’t working. Work included simplifying the complexity of disparate systems.
- System integration project included repair of equipment designed and developed by a custom fabricator that was not working.
- Project resulted in an operational, integrated machine running the production line with efficiency and relieving a significant number of employees from being required to work in frigid temperatures.
- Lessons learned cover for areas: project turnover, communication, safety, and site visits.
A packaging research and development (R&D) project for a leading national food processing company responded to concerns about hiring and retaining employees to work in low refrigeration temperatures for an extended time period and investigate automation for a portion of the food line. Customized fabricated equipment from three vendors was not working. Huffman Engineering was called to assist in continuing the R&D project, which involve repairs, simplification and integration. The project included programmable logic controllers (PLCs), variable frequency drives (VFDs), motion control, an encoder, safety sensors, and a smart safety relay.
Q: What was the scope of the project and goals?
A: The scope of the project included repair of equipment designed and developed by a custom fabricator that was not working. This included examination of a multi-access feeding system, a saw and conveyor system to sort, which then tied into a wrapper/packaging system from three original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
- Simplifying the complexity of the disparate systems to allow for seamless transport, alignment, position coordination and effective transport of the food processing to the end packaged state
- Moving a concept implementation from a state of failure to a working development system that could be used to further investigate and implement design concepts for assembling food using automated processes
- Automated control of initial stages of food assembly preparation to packaging
- Elimination of need for the large number of employees with a high turnover rate to work extensively in non-climate-controlled areas of the company, thus retaining valuable employees
- Continued R&D funding – dependent on the success of this project.
Q: What types of automation, controls, or instrumentation were involved in the project?
A: Because this was a mid-start-up R&D project, much of the work was done with existing hardware. In redesigning the system to integrate with three separate OEMs Huffman Engineering used one vendor’s programmable logic controllers (PLCs), variable frequency drives (VFDs), motion control, encoder, safety sensors, and smart safety relay.
Q: What were particular challenges outlined in the project?
A: Challenges with this project extended in many directions. First, the existing equipment in this mid-start-up was not working. It was originally designed using three different OEMs that weren’t equipped to talk to one another. It required a re-design of the encoder which was improperly mounted causing a noise obstacle and incorrectly giving feedback. The motor speed of the conveyor also required technical re alignment of the product once it passed through the saw. While safety hardware was put in place, it was not being utilized to its capacity in the way it was originally intended and required adjustment. The packaging/wrapper equipment used a proprietary controller restricting the ability to communicate to it and other systems. Ultimately, maintaining funding for the R&D project by meeting project deadlines was the overall challenge.
Q: How were those motion and controller issues resolved?
A: Resolution started with great communication between the customer and the integrator. Understanding what works, what doesn’t work and what the ultimate customers goals are is a necessary and vital starting point. Especially with an R&D project in a mid-start-up state, (as opposed to a newly designed and engineered from scratch project) great collaboration with the existing team is the key to success. Clear understanding about expectations, timeline and deadlines required for the project must be laid out initially. From there, scheduling time onsite to view the existing equipment and set up is invaluable.
One of the lessons learned through the COVID-19 pandemic is the value of technology to connect virtually, while beneficial in some circumstances, cannot replace time onsite to view and work with the equipment.
Understanding the operational environment and seeing existing equipment in process onsite allows valuable insight that ultimately proves more efficient for all projects. In this instance specifically, our machine safety certified engineers and the knowledge they brought really came into play. One part of the process required a saw and the safety implications for the people on the line were significant. This is something we would not have been as aware of without being onsite and observing the operational order of the production.
With any packaging job, building in time to test and finding out how and why an existing system is operating with all the idiosyncrasies is honestly a matter of being onsite and having highly skilled and certified engineers just work with it. From there, in this instance, we determined the need to re-design the encoder and mount it correctly on the line to prevent noise pollution, the need for consistent attention to product back pressure issues, and the necessity of providing an HMI to allow operators to continually adjust the speed and manipulate other factors so the R&D could continue.
Q: Can you share some positive metrics associated with the project?
A: It became an operational, integrated machine running the production line with efficiency and relieving a significant number of employees from being required to work in frigid temperatures. Those resources then could be re-allocated to different parts of the company. This company went from a production line involving over 10 people in daily temperatures of about 45-55 degrees to significantly reduced the number of people working on the line in that environment.
Smooth operation of the disparate equipment in the end was a success, and continued funding for the R&D project to move forward was ultimately achieved.
Q: What were the resulting lessons learned or advice you’d like to share?
A: Lessons learned cover for areas: project turnover, communication, safety, and site visits.
- They built it ≠ They control it. It’s not adequate to only work with fabricators on complex systems requiring a multitude of steps. A system integrator, specifically one certified in machine safety, was necessary at this point to try to simplify the complex and allow disparate systems to talk to one another and protect the safety of the operators. You should never assume all fabricators, while incredibly talented at building, also understand how to apply controls.
- Communication = Success: Initial and ongoing conversation to examine the scope of what is working, what is not and what success looks like to the customer is vital. Even as you complete a project, making sure the operators understand the changes and any new modes of operation along with detailed documentation will ensure they feel the project is a success.
- Safety applied ≠ Safety applied correctly: Just because safety controls (hardware) are used does not mean they are used properly in conjunction with other elements of the production line, human or machine. Having a certified machine safety expert on hand ensures the safety of the equipment operation and of the most precious resource, people.
- Onsite visits = Expedient and efficient success: The value of being able to work with systems and equipment onsite cannot be replaced with pictures, videos or virtual calls. Submersing yourself in the environment allows engineers to look at all aspects of a machine and environment to produce the best, safest results. Pictures and other media sources should be used primarily for documentation.
Jason Weedin is an electrical engineer and Keith Mandachit is engineering manager, both with Huffman Engineering, a system integrator that’s a member of the Control System Integrator Association (CSIA). CSIA, a CFE Media and Technology content partner, is a global, nonprofit professional association with a mission to advance the practice of control system integration to benefit members and its clients. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, firstname.lastname@example.org.
KEYWORDS: Packaging machine case study, system integration
A system integrator can get equipment from different vendors working together, even if vendors refuse to design for interoperability.