Inductive Automation
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News / December 01, 2009

Growing a Small Company: Absorption Corp Increases Productivity on a Lean Budget

It's a catch-22. A small company needs to increase its production capacity, yet it is still on a small company-sized budget. Switching from hand-written logs and stand-alone equipment to a networked, automated controls system can be quite expensive.

This was the dilemma faced by Rollie Raper, process control designer for Absorption Corp. Prior to his position at Absorption Corp, Raper worked for a larger company and was familiar with the technology used to keep a company of that size running efficiently. His experience allowed him to see that Absorption Corp was growing, and the need to expand would soon arrive. He also knew that they were going to need a controls system based on a database to help keep the company running efficiently as its production increased.

Raper was familiar with the high-end data archiving software on the market, but knew those options weren't a good fit for his company. "Those high priced software packages were beyond the budget of our company's original scope," he explained. "On the other hand, many of the low-end or low cost solutions or tools were either restrictive in features or required an IT expert to implement and maintain. Inductive Automation's software seemed to hit good middle ground with a relatively low price, but with a user friendly environment that an engineer without much IT expertise could work with."

Making the Sell to Management
Absorption Corp was not yet convinced of the benefits of automated controls systems. Raper knew that selling his company on the idea of purchasing software would pose a challenge. "It was a matter of looking for a product that was not too expensive," he said. "I had to introduce the idea of a database controls system to them partly because they were a smaller company not used to the idea, and partly because of the concern of spending money on a concept that some thought may not result in any substantial benefits."

A major factor in convincing the company to implement a new system was the ability to use Inductive Automation's software in trial mode. Raper was able to work with the program, and show the company's decision-makers what could be accomplished if the production process was automated. "The final decision to purchase was made easier by the ability to install and work with the software prior to purchasing," he said. "This enabled us to demonstrate its capabilities to our managers before a purchase was authorized."

Multiple Plants Benefit From a Common Database

Above is a screenshot of a bagger machine production run. The fault codes (red dots) show what faults the machine had over the course of time. Most dots are when the machine runs out of bags – this is a normal operating fault. The stray dots are important to watch. If there is a pattern, it means there is a particular problem that needs to be looked into.

With the addition of a database-centric controls system, Absorption Corp consolidated the data together from its two plants – one in the state of Washington and one in Georgia. The database and FactoryPMI are installed in the corporate office in Washington, and the data is served to various clients within the company network.

Now that they can analyze data from both locations, the plants benefit by comparing any similarities or differences in their processes. Since the plants are set up the same, if one has a particularly good production run, the conditions surrounding the run can be captured and reproduced in the sister location. Likewise, any problems that pop up can be compared to the other location to see how it either solved the problem, or is avoiding it altogether.

One example of this benefit developed from kind of a "friendly competition" between plants when the bagging machine operators tried to see which plant could produce the most bags in one shift. At first glance, it appeared as if the plant in Georgia would win, as they had their machines set to the higher speed rates, but the operators in Washington seemed to consistently produce more by the end of the shift.

"Looking at the historical data side by side, we could see that the Georgia machines were having more jam ups and losing time between good runs," Raper commented. "While the Washington machines could run longer and smoother at a lower rate, they produced more over the long run." This correlation of data allowed both plants to increase the overall production throughput in that area.

Speeding the System Up
Using a database created another benefit for the system – data is no longer accessed straight from the PLC. Raper explained that much of the equipment in each plant was running almost entirely on a single PLC and when too many people pulled information from that data point at the same time, the device got bogged down.

"All of the data going across the network was getting bottlenecked at a single data point where it connected to the PLC," he said. "By sampling this data and putting it into the database, there was no longer a burden on the PLC. This was a huge advantage with the IA software. Many people can access the data without connecting to the PLC processor directly."

Raper said that by improving their access to system data, workers are better equipped to make decisions that increase the company's productivity. "Overall, the software has been a great tool for bringing our company into the 'Information Age'," he said. "It has resulted in a change in perception by many as to how good data can be used to improve various areas of our operation and to quickly make a difference in our production rates, product quality, and bottom line profits."

Absorption Corp manufactures small animal bedding, sold mostly through pet specialty stores under the CareFRESH® brand. The company operates two plants located in the states of Washington and Georgia. Each plant's process equipment consists of pulpers, screens, presses, dryers, and packaging equipment, similar to that of a small pulp mill.