The benefits of a modular control system design approach

Cover Story: A new automotive production facility used a modular controller design to reduce startup challenges and optimize plant operations for Mitsubishi Chemical Performance Polymers (MCPP).

By John Hamilton, Rockwell Automation January 3, 2018

Automation hardware and software was integrated into a new manufacturing plant in Brazil to add visibility and flexibility. A programmable logic controller (PLC), drives, and human-machine interface (HMI) software were expected to help with the new plant’s operations and remote diagnostic capabilities to reduce potential downtime from days to hours. The overall design approach to this project enabled the plant to launch quickly so the company could help auto suppliers meet the impending airbag requirement.

New mandate for Brazil’s auto industry

Consumers in places like the U.S., Japan, and most of Europe assume new vehicles will come equipped with an airbag. The safety feature became prevalent in vehicles in many developed countries during the 1990s. By the turn of the century, it was either required by law or considered an essential component for automakers to include in vehicles to achieve desired safety ratings.

In many developing and emerging countries around the world, airbags still either aren’t required or aren’t commonly found. In Brazil, a new law took effect in 2014 requiring airbags and other safety technologies be installed in all new vehicles sold in the country.

Brazil’s new airbag requirement was the driving force that led Mitsubishi Chemical Performance Polymers (MCPP)—a group specializing in polymer design and compounding production facilities—to establish a greenfield production facility in Brazil, the world’s seventh-largest car market. The new facility would primarily support the automotive market and supply resins to airbag manufacturers for safety-critical airbag covers.

Prior to expanding to Brazil, MCPP had operations in 16 countries around the world and provided custom automotive solutions for fuel management, interior, exterior, wiring, and other automotive applications for more than 30 years. 

MCPP production facility in Sao Paulo

MCPP selected an industrial site north of Sao Paulo as the location for its new production facility in Brazil. The company wanted to get production up and running quickly to help local auto suppliers meet the airbag requirement.

"We wanted the start of production to coincide as closely as possible with the timing of the new airbag requirement," said Lee Wilson, plant manager for MCPP. "The harsh rain season pushed our site work behind schedule somewhat. When that happened, it became all the more important to look for ways to be efficient in launching this new location."

For the production infrastructure, the new facility required a feeder and extrusion system that could produce up to about 10 million pounds of resin per year at maximum production capacity. Wilson and his team wanted the Brazilian plant to mimic what MCPP already did in other regions in terms of production speed and quality management.

"Quality was our first priority," Wilson said. "We needed to make sure we could maintain tolerances with the feed systems that were feeding the extruder, as well as achieve proper distribution and dispersion of the various ingredients inside the extruder. Aesthetically, we needed to be able to maintain a consistent product look as material is compounded and pelletized."

Accessing the system remotely would be essential to help operators monitor quality and quickly take action in the event of potential production issues. This would allow U.S.-based MCPP employees and other outside experts to troubleshoot or diagnose technical challenges and help compensate for a lack of local technical support in Brazil.

A modular approach

MCPP chose Indiana-based Apex Engineering and its subsidiary, Apex Controls Specialists, a Rockwell Automation-recognized system integrator, to develop the extrusion system for its Brazilian production facility. Apex Engineering proposed a solution based on its proprietary modular extrusion system. The material-handling system receives raw materials including various rubbers, oils, heat stabilizers, impact modifiers, and pigments. Those materials are then distributed through a feeder deck down to the extrusion system, where they are heated and blended. Then they are sent to an underwater pelletizing system that produces the final bead-like product, which is packaged into large bags and boxes before being shipped to the airbag manufacturers.

A compounding control center housed the extrusion system’s electrical and control infrastructure, which included a PLC, ac drives, and solid-state relays. A separate control center housed the system’s utilities and information server.

The information-enabled system allowed workers and outside experts to see the critical manufacturing intelligence, temperatures, feed-rate pressures, and feeder motor speeds. Historian software collected thousands of these data points throughout the production process while HMI software and enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) software allowed workers to manage recipes, monitor processes, and identify and resolve production issues.

Communications over EtherNet/IP, an Ethernet protocol by ODVA, allowed information to be shared throughout the plant and with outside experts via remote access. This also reduced the amount of wiring in the facility. 

MCPP’s modular design

The extrusion system’s modular design helped MCPP speed up the launch of its new facility. During the construction of the plant in Brazil, Apex was simultaneously designing and building the system in Evansville, Ind. Wilson and his team at MCPP communicated weekly with Apex engineers throughout the process. Once the extrusion system was complete and operational, they were on-site with Apex personnel for a week of testing.

"We crawled all over the equipment," Wilson said. "It was great being able to see the equipment running and test it firsthand. We only made small changes, but it was nice being able to make them before shipping the equipment to Brazil. It helped us avoid production delays and saved us some long flights to Brazil."

Once the equipment arrived in Brazil, an on-site contractor easily assembled the system. The system’s power and electrical components, for example, were set up on connectors. Workers only needed to pull cables from cable trays and plug them in. The system’s mechanical components also had an accompanying drawing with easy-to-follow instructions to build the system.

The system took about one month to install at the new facility. This saved MCPP as much as four months in deployment time and allowed the company to finish the extrusion system right around the time it finished construction of the facility.

The facility’s integrated control and information has been vital in helping workers optimize quality management and identify production issues.

"Operators can see trending information on the screen to make sure all the equipment and feeders are running right where they should be," Wilson said. "Any processes that run outside their minimum or maximum setpoints will generate alarms on the operator screen so they can quickly address the issue."

MCPP and Apex team members can remotely access the system to monitor systems and help workers without traveling on-site. This was especially valuable early on as workers were getting the system up and running and had limited access to local technical support.

"I can look at any of the data points from right here in my office," Wilson said. "We’ve looked at alarms and helped them diagnose issues, such as when they had trouble getting the proper feed rate or were encountering some initial mechanical issues with the feeder. It’s safe to say remote support helped us reduce some of those early downtime incidents from days into hours."

By using add-on instructions in the extrusion system’s development, Apex Control Specialists created plug-and-play functionality for any future changes or additions at the facility. For example, MCPP can add a new feeder to the system in as little as 10 minutes.

Wilson said MCPP might seek to replicate some of the modular extrusion system’s benefits at other facilities.

"The next project we do, we’re going to consider replicating some of the benefits we’ve seen with the modular system," said Wilson. "It made the project a lot more manageable than a conventional build. I could even foresee using the approach closer to home here in the U.S."

John Hamilton is an account manager at Rockwell Automation. Edited by Emily Guenther, associate content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,



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