Edge computing provided cost-effective upgrades
Case study: Used equipment had functional controllers, typically legacy programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and others had defunct PLCs or no automation at all. Edge controllers and input/output (I/O) devices helped integrate the equipment into a cohesive system, which led us to make an edge controller the central focus.
- Edge controllers integrate two process lines as supervisory controllers to existing PLCs, controlling components not already managed by a local control system, and managing database transactions.
- Retrofits: 15 different pieces of equipment were running in 3 months.
Integrators for control systems are developing experiences with how edge computing can be applied to existing and new applications. Edge devices put computing, communications, and analytics on the edge of the process. In newer architectures, they can serve as the machine or process controller. What can you learn from system integrator experiences?
Q1. Can you please briefly describe the project?
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, in response to the huge demand for hand sanitizer, Emerald 66 (E66) set up shop in Seminole, Okla. With nothing but investor money and an empty denim processing plant, E66 hired Northeast Automation Co. Inc. (NACI) to help them develop an automated bottling and packaging process as fast as possible.
The quickest way to approach this was to buy secondhand equipment at auction, leading to the need to integrate various control systems as well as non-automated equipment into a cohesive system. In the middle of this process, an E66 customer suffered a financial collapse, prompting a critical change in the business model and further stressing processing capabilities.
Q2. What was the scope of the project and goals?
This project entailed building a brand-new process from the ground up without any equipment in place but a lot of urgency to capitalize on the spike in market demand. The ultimate goal was to build out a fully-automated, high-volume co-packaging and distribution company with the ability to fill, cap, label, and package one-gallon hand sanitizer bottles.
This aim was based, in part, on the initial business model, which focused on achieving the necessary throughput to meet demand for one very large customer. E66 were competing against low-paid, high-volume workforces doing things manually. They believed they could be a little bit smarter, pay their employees a little bit better and use technology to surge and flex and capture savings. Given that, the focus on automation also was driven by a desire to establish a state-of-the-art information management system with intelligent equipment that could inform future process improvements.
Q3. What types of automation, controls, or instrumentation were involved?
Since the approach to building up the process lines was to acquire low-cost secondhand equipment, Northeast Automation had a grab bag of control components to deal with. E66 process lines consist of conveyors, rotary fillers, cappers, labeling/wrapping/printing stations, box formers, case fillers, box tapers, and palletizers. Some of these units had functional controllers when we acquired them, typically legacy programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and others had defunct PLCs or no automation at all.
We looked for a way to integrate all this equipment into a cohesive system, which led us to make an edge controller the central focus. The edge controllers integrate each of the two process lines, acting as supervisory controllers to existing PLCs, controlling components not already managed by a local control system, and managing database transactions.
In addition, edge input/output (I/O) devices have proven reliable as a cost-effective, rapidly deployed remote I/O for the edge controller. In some cases where we have needed specialty I/O capabilities, we also used an older I/O system.
And more recently, as E66 has moved into original equipment manufacturer (OEM) development, we have designed equipment with edge controller and edge I/O devices as the primary control system.
Q4. What were particular challenges outlined in the project?
NACI was challenged with everything a blank slate and a short timeline could offer. The speed of development and the variety of equipment we acquired meant working without a clear plan. But this was all well and good given that the primary goal was to achieve target throughput for one unvarying product line.
However, this changed significantly when the big customer that E66 was working with suffered a financial setback and had to close. Then the whole business had to pivot to allow E66 to become a multi-product facility. Automation grew from processing a high volume of one-gallon containers to working with a variety of sanitizer chemistries in different batch sizes and packaging form factors: from small 2-, 4-, 6-, and 8-ounce containers, hand pumps, and spray bottles, to large jugs in excess of one gallon.
Q5. How were those issues resolved?
E66’s focus on smart automation was critical to solving both of our big challenges. Purchasing equipment at auction and integrating with edge controllers and I/O devices, NACI was able to get 15 different pieces of equipment running in 3 months. And when we had to change gears to develop a multi-product process, the investment in automation up front gave us the flexibility to quickly retool.
Initially, we bought 10 remote I/O edge devices, just to have them ready to go when new equipment arrived. As each new piece of equipment came online, we would pop one in, identify what kind of signals the unit provided and what kind of data we could get out of it. Then, we used the module to mirror existing I/O signals, like load cells and photo eyes, in parallel with existing PLCs to get that data into the edge controller control system. We could do this with maybe half an hour of wiring, which let us move very quickly. And in other cases, where the control system was dead on arrival, we would drop in an I/O device and integrate the controls directly. Combined with on-site panel building and 3D printing, it was incredibly fast to develop and deploy new capabilities.
In another example, as E66 has continued to diversify its business, we have found a niche for original equipment development for overseas export. In one case, using edge controller and edge I/O device, we took an inline mixer design from concept to implementation in about five days, including a mobile-ready human-machine interface (HMI) with an industrial server built into the edge controller. In about four hours, we built the automation for a system E66 will sell to other producers for $50,000.
Q6. Can you share some positive metrics associated with the project?
In spite of a significant change to E66’s original business model, it was able to break even on its initial investment in about six months. It is now capable of automated filling up to 1 million per week or more 32-ounce, 16-ounce and similar size bottles, and high-speed filling of 2-, 4-, 6-, and 8-ounce bottles in multiple shapes and caps. E66 has also started a technology division focused on developing original equipment.
Q7. What were the resulting lessons learned or advice you’d like to share, for your firm or the customer(s) involved?
It didn’t take long to impress the customer with the features offered in edge computing and I/O solutions. They are excited about how quickly we can go from concept to cash while also building secondary infrastructure like mobile visualization and information management systems that will help them stay competitive long-term.
Thomas Coombs is owner, Northeast Automation Company Inc. Northeast Automation Company Inc. and Opto 22 are CSIA members. CSIA is a CFE Media and Technology content partner. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, firstname.lastname@example.org.
KEYWORDS: Edge controllers, edge computing
Edge controllers integrate two process lines as supervisory controllers to existing PLCs, controlling components not already managed by a local control system, and managing database transactions.
Retrofits: 15 different pieces of equipment were running in 3 months.
How can edge controllers speed your automation updates?
If reading from the digital edition, click on the headline for more resources including diagram showing equipment integration.
Northeast Automation, a New Hampshire Corp., has been in the manufacturing and process engineering field since 1991. Initially focused on the defense industry, NACI has branched into the automotive, semiconductor and optics fields. Services included tool build, system retrofit and upgrade, programming and facilities build for process development. http://northeastautomationco.com/