RFID, automation: One company’s trash is another’s competitive advantage

Garbage is never too far from Tony Romano’s thoughts. At 18, he was hauling huge containers of it to landfills around Philadelphia. Today, he's automating processes to deter employee theft and deliver preventive maintenance and cost savings. More photos and information about controllers, radio frequency identification (RFID), control software, and application advantages follow.

By Control Engineering Staff September 10, 2008

Garbage is never too far from Tony Romano’s thoughts, although today, it’s a lot more automated than it used to be. At 18, Romano was hauling huge containers full of garbage and demolition debris to landfills on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Today, he’s automating processes and using radio frequency identification (RFID) to deter employee theft and deliver preventative maintenance. [PLC and

Automation does trash, as these photos (courtesy of Siemens) of a Sonrai trash compactor show.

This is the same compactor, with the door open. Note the e-stop, at left.

Here’s the control cabinet for a Sonrai compactor, which can include RFID, predictive maintenance, Web-based intelligence, and other features not usually associated with trash.

Along with hardware shown, Siemens Energy & Automation WinCC human-machine interface software assembles remote data and offers a comprehensive view into the system, saving users on trash fees, maintenance, and theft, among other ways, Sonrai says.

“My family sold off the hauling operation a few years ago, but the trash business is in our blood and there’s no cure for it,” said Romano, who at 41 is on the verge of his biggest trash run yet, working as Sonrai Systems vice president of marketing and sales. He’s expanding the vision of managing waste with Sonrai’s founder Chris Flood.Romano asked Siemens automation and system integrator iQuest to help Sonrai turn its big idea into what it considers the biggest breakthrough since commercial trash compactors and hoists: Track Tracker. Firms ranging from giant retailers to cutting-edge hospitalsSonrai and its customers needed easy access to operational data about trash, anytime and anywhere, to operate more efficiently and avoid costly oversights. “Some trash haulers are known to skip pickups for weeks at a time, because they simply haven’t been monitored,” Romano explains, recalling a case involving a big retailer that had just installed Trash Tracker. Lower trash hauling fees “Their backroom was stacked with trash and the hauler kept promising it had emptied the store’s container and even suggested the retailer upgrade to twice-a-week service,” Romano recounted with a grin.“Both real-time and archived data from the PLC showed without a doubt that 26 days had passed since that customer’s last trash pickup. Needless to say, that hauler no longer picks up the trash there,” says Romano.Looking on a browser-based monitor, he observes a brand name pharmacy’s compactor. “This drug store location is paying about $600 a pop to have its container emptied when on average it’s only 38% full. They can easily save $12,000 to $15,000 a year by going to bi-weekly or on-demand trash service,” Romano says. Reduction of waste-related expenses is just one of the Trash Tracker benefits, he adds. Better maintenance Bob Meads, president of Atlanta-based iQuest, says most Sonrai customers use an Ethernet-IT expansion module for remote connectivity. Dial-up and cellular network options also are available. Either way, “businesses can, for the first time, get an accurate read on the health and operation of their trash compactors,” Meads says. They can expand as needed “from two or three test sites to dozens, even hundreds of compactors across the country,” with browser-based access, and include as needed a technician or operations manager for troubleshooting.Meads says, “Many of the Trash Tracker compactors are extremely isolated, with no connection to the outside world. That was a big challenge we solved with cellular modems. The majority of compactor sites can be tracked and debugged over Ethernet or dialup. The Trash Tracker network architecture is set up so that Sonrai can meet customer demands today and in the future. Siemens Energy & Automation software WinCC ties all of the remote data together, and offers a view into the system with its human machine interface (HMI) package,” he adds.

A Siemens RFID reader like this

“WinCC provides Trash Tracker customers with all the right connections they need to check compactor and system status from anywhere over any pipe,” explains Meads, pointing out that remote access requires nothing more than a browser. “It’s amazingly simple and allows a tech or even an ops manager who gets a call in the middle of the night to immediately go online to view the compactor operation without leaving their home,” he adds.Romano said recently, “Our biggest customer called up last week in awe, saying,‘I never knew we were operating so inefficiently in deterring employee theft and delivering preventive maintenance.’ They were ready to spend their day looking at trash data, but Trash Tracker does that for them,” says Romano. Referring to the control automation inside, he adds, “There is such a wow factor, an element of disbelief, that most of our customers think there’s a bunch of wizards turning dials and pushing buttons inside that control box.”  Seamless integration, teamwork The Trash Tracker control system runs as a standalone unit serving one compactor or can scale up to incorporate hundreds of locations and compactors. Sonrai Systems needed a universal control box that would work with its customers’ new and legacy compactors. “We had to be able to simply cut the lines to the factory control panel and rewire in our smart box,” says Romano, leaning on years of industry insight to ensure Trash Tracker can deliver real-life return on investment (ROI), such as loss prevention and extended compactor life.Because the system is an open data collection and visualization architecture, new features and custom functionality can be added quickly,Any integration project requires careful communication. “Trash Tracker is the result of seamless system integration and team work. Siemens and iQuest didn’t pretend to know the trash business. They listened to us, understood our mission to deliver unprecedented waste management efficiencies, and helped us hit the market with a real winner,” said Romano. A call from the compactor The intelligent Trash Tracker compactors can monitor their own mechanical health and call for a diagnosis before equipment goes down. “The PLC inside the machine puts out an alert and the remote capability of WinCC allows us to dial into the compactor for real-time information,” explains Meads. “Just based on oil pressure readings, we can tell if a hose is leaking or a hydraulic pump is failing. And we can easily trend that data to see if the pump or other piece of gear is in gradual decline,” Meads says. That feedback from the PLC reduces maintenance costs and extends the life of the compactor equipment.“That very same controller-based technology allows the compactor to call the trash hauler to schedule an on-demand pickup when it’s nearly full,” Meads says.Romano says, “Whether it’s shrink, trash collection data, equipment wear and tear or energy usage issues, that PLC is providing solid, exception-based reports that we can access any time. Our reports inform management when things aren’t happening as planned– from a cost and operations standpoint.” Some of Sonrai’s customers are tying the automated Trash Tracker into their energy management system (EMS). Applications for smarter trash Companies of all kinds are discovering newfound cost savings and improved margins in the previously ignored trash dumpster. Romano says the Sonrai Trash Tracker is going into manufacturers attempting to keep tabs on expensive tools, major airports in search of more efficient and secure trash compaction, and doctors’ offices and pharmacies striving to shred all confidential patient documents destined for the dump.“The best operations managers can be even better managers with the data and insight that can be automatically gleaned from the garbage,” Romano said. “That’s amazing. One company’s trash is definitely another company’s competitive edge.” For more details on technologies integrated into the system, look for the September RFID article in the North American edition of Control Engineering, available by mid-month at www.controleng.com/archive under September 2008 .Also read:

What’s Your RFID Spin?

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