Integrated controls and information system adds product consistency, quality

Integrator Update: A fully automated integrated control and information system helped Whitmore Manufacturing, an industrial lubricant manufacturer, increase production capacity 28% with a 9-hour decrease in cycle time, adding 150 batches per year while increasing quality for one product line. System integrator Innovative Control Inc. helped with batch software, temperature control, motor control for mixers, flow control, a historian and enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) software.

By Daniel Gass April 2, 2016

A fully automated integrated control and information system helped decrease cycle time and increase product consistency and quality for Whitmore Manufacturing Co., an industrial lubricant manufacturer, using batch software, temperature control, motor control for mixers, flow control, historian, and an enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) software with help from system integrator Innovative Control Inc. Production capacity increased 28%, and average cycle time decreased nine hours, adding 150 batches per year to production for one grease line. 

Many products, recipes

Lubricants, used in a range of industries, such as mining, railways, and space travel, keep gears moving, reduce friction, and improve performance and longevity. For NASA, they help transport space shuttles to the launch pad. Whitmore Manufacturing Co. produces industrial lubricants, sealants, coatings, cleaners, and oils. Lubricants produced amounts to more than 16 million pounds per year, including biodegradable and dry film lubricants, hydraulic oils, and tire sealants.

Whitmore manages lubrication production from research and development (R&D) through product formulation and application services for customers globally. A recent $20 million, 120,000-square-foot expansion of headquarters and manufacturing facility in Rockwall, Texas, included efforts to resolve challenges related to labor-intensive, often manual, batch processes. 

Batch process flow

The creation of a Whitmore lubricant begins in a batch mixer. The solution is heated within specific temperature parameters. At Whitmore, operators were required to manually select the number of gallons of raw materials to be processed at a charging and mixing station. Workers had to manually move the hoses and manifolds from each charging station to other areas of the plant floor.

Once the requested number of gallons was pumped out, a valve would shut. Operators then had to blow air through the hoses to remove lingering product. Forgetting to clear a hose could contaminate future batches that used the same hose with a different raw material.

Operators manually activated motors to spin and heat the contents. As the lubricant warmed, operators closely watched the temperature gauge and turned the mixer off at the prescribed temperature for that specific batch of lubricant. Operators then added other ingredients and repeated the mixing and heating process while watching multiple mixers and temperature gauges. Errors at this stage were responsible for the majority of batch re-work or losses. The process was time-consuming and error-prone.

"Contamination within hoses was always a concern," said Tim Meyer, quality manager at Whitmore. "Operators could choose the wrong hose or choose a hose that hadn’t been cleaned correctly. This led to quality issues with our products."

To reduce nonconforming batches, improve quality and meet customer expectations around the world, Whitmore decided to automate its lubricant making process and gain access to real-time information from the facility floor. 

System integration, automation

Whitmore engineers began working with Innovative Control Inc., a system integrator, to build an integrated control and information system using a platform with an integrated architecture. The multi-year project began by installing a programmable logic controller (PLC) that was integrated with motor control software for the facility’s charging and temperature control systems. Manufacturing execution system software provides a full and accurate view into the newly automated lubricant charging and mixing systems with tight integration with the PLCs and other plant floor applications.

Historian software tracks key variables, such as lubricant temperature, weight, and mixing time for more than 20 mixers at the facility. Operators can easily see where modified batches originated by reviewing historical and real-time data.

The historian information is fed into EMI software, which provides greater accessibility to in-context data and trend reports and enables operators to analyze multi-batch data more efficiently. Whitmore engineers can now chart connections between average cycle times and production rates. The solution’s dashboards allow operators to monitor and troubleshoot the system remotely or on a mobile device.

The controllers’ integrated platform and one programming environment has minimized operator interaction with materials that go into the lubricants.

Whitmore also implemented an electronic batch ticketing process to drive work flow. Every recipe and formula is programmed by engineers in the batch applications, which requires signoff s before recipes are released to production. 

No downtime transition

Whitmore automated more than 20 mixers without downtime and automated the motor control and charging systems. Since the implementation of the fully automated integrated control and information system, Whitmore has reduced product variation significantly because the new process replaced manual procedures and nearly eliminated human error.

For lithium-based greases alone, Whitmore increased production capacity by 28%, adding 150 batches per year and reducing cycle time by an average of nine hours. The new system has minimized work order variances—including cost and material usage—and yield is carefully monitored and controlled.

"This system puts Whitmore at the forefront of production technology in the lubricants industry," said Meyer. "More importantly, we have our production methods down to a science and a lot of happy customers."

Whitmore’s engineers are working with its IT team to integrate its new enterprise resource planning (ERP) and automation systems. Once the automation system is completely integrated with the ERP, Whitmore expects even more benefits, including real-time inventory control and increased reporting.

Daniel Gassett is mechanical engineer with Whitmore Manufacturing Co. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

Key concepts

Moving from a manual to an automated process reduced errors and increased quality.

Production capacity increased 28%.

System integrator helped integrate software and control technologies.

Consider this

Have you had an automation vendor or system integrator help with return on investment analysis of automating a manual process?

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