Applying the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0 in the Plastics Sector
by Steve Bieszczat, chief marketing officer
Spencer Industries is a single-plant thermoformer in Indiana that produces cosmetic finish panels for the recreational all-terrain vehicle, tractor and commercial refrigeration markets.
Nissen Chemitec is an injection molder and assembler of components that require individual vehicle part sequencing and are shipped just in time to its automotive customers.
Tessy Plastics, which has multiple plants across the United States, is an injection molder that produces high-volume medical, disposable medical and consumer products in 24/7 operations.
Common Components of Industrial IoT Implementations
A significant part of any Industry 4.0 Internet of Things (IoT) project is ensuring that systems are “talking” with each other. This often requires updates to outdated controls and information gateways and possibly the addition of smart sensors to old iron horses on the floor. There are many kinds of devices and solutions available to consider in designing a modern smart, connected manufacturing system. Following is a review of the most common components.
- Equipment sensors monitor operating parameters, such as position, temperature, pressure, current and more.
- Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) offer improved communications abilities, allowing queries by servers and applications software.
- Edge data concentrator servers typically follow open platform communications (OPC) protocols and usually are installed on-premises due to the volume of data being captured in real time. Then, clean data can be pushed to or pulled by applications on central servers or in the cloud.
- Radio frequency ID (RFID) tags enable automatic tracking of inventory as it progresses through the manufacturing process. Some styles even incorporate “e-paper” visual displays, which act as human- and barcode-readable labels that can be updated for status, count and work instruction during production and storage.
- Inline automated product inspection equipment – providing position, dimensional, feature presence, temperature and other attributes – can be integrated into the plant IIoT intranet.
- Automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) in the form of forklifts, carts and tugs can be managed by enterprise application software systems.
- Manufacturing execution systems (MES) provide planning, scheduling and tracking, and they leverage many forms of data automatically captured and processed to provide real-time accuracy.
Everyone is talking about the promise of the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the related concept of Industry 4.0. But, discussions often are broadly conceptual, giving manufacturing operations managers and executives little real-world guidance on how to leverage new information and operational technologies to drive efficiencies in their facilities.
Fortunately, a number of plastics manufacturers have been pioneers in applying IIoT and Industry 4.0 concepts to their businesses. Their experiences provide valuable guidelines for manufacturing companies now starting this journey. However, before diving into best practices, it is helpful to provide overviews of IIoT and Industry 4.0 in the context of this discussion.
Broadly speaking, the Internet of Things describes the interworking of devices, vehicles and buildings with electronics, software, sensors and network connectivity that enable objects to collect and exchange data. IoT-enabled solutions allow objects to be sensed and controlled remotely across networks, creating opportunities for integration of the physical world into computer systems to improve efficiency, accuracy and economics.
The adoption of IoT is leading to the emergence of smart factories, smart homes and intelligent transportation. Within manufacturing, the application of IoT is known as the industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT.
Concurrently, we are seeing the rise of Industry 4.0 – or the fourth industrial revolution – which is defined by advanced automation and data exchange within manufacturing solutions that rely extensively on cyber-physical systems, IIoT and cloud computing. In doing so, it stands out from earlier industrial revolutions. These include the first industrial revolution, focused on the mechanization of production using water; the second industrial revolution, built around mass production using electric power; and the third industrial revolution, which brought the use of electronics and information technology to automate production.
The convergence of Industry 4.0 and the industrial Internet of Things has led to the development of smart factories where cyber-physical systems leverage IIoT technologies to monitor physical processes and create virtual copies of the physical world in order to perform analyses and automate decision-making. The tremendous amount of data generated and the higher requirement for fault tolerance and continuity has led much, if not all, of the underlying software to move into the cloud.
Five Characteristics of Successful Moves to Industry 4.0 and IIoT
In considering all of these concepts, it can be difficult for manufacturing teams to sort out if and how any of them should be applied to their businesses. However, when we studied successful early adopters of manufacturing IoT that now are enjoying strong benefits, we found five common characteristics in their approaches.
- They innovated with a purpose – starting with a specific problem and a fix in mind.
- They looked past the hype around IIoT and focused on how specific technologies could address their needs, helping to save time and money.
- They piloted one process or cell at first to gain experience with IIoT.
- They kept the initial scope simple and evolved it to become more sophisticated over time in an iterative fashion.
- They created an investment and roll-out plan in phases and analyzed the return on investment (ROI) from each project phase.
Following are three examples of plastics manufacturers that have taken a practical approach to IIoT and Industry 4.0 innovation by starting modestly and growing thoughtfully into large-scale deployments that are delivering a strong ROI. Their experiences can provide useful insights on how other companies can apply these concepts to their own manufacturing operations.
Spencer Industries: Real-Time Analytics and Monitoring
Spencer Industries is a single-plant thermoformer in Indiana that produces cosmetic finish panels for the recreational all-terrain vehicle (ATV), tractor and commercial refrigeration markets. More than 10 years ago, Spencer had one full-time statistical process control (SPC) administrator whose job was to manually gather process data and record it in spreadsheets. The company wanted to create a system of leading indicators. However, its legacy customized system lacked the comprehensive analytics and reports to summarize SPC trends and schedule production; nor could Spencer view operational status at a glance.
To meet its goals, Spencer first began by implementing an application that included multiple ovens, sensors and software tools to collect process parameters such as oven temperatures, material temperatures, air flow and vacuum, among others. To date, a controls engineer has expanded this to the development of customized programmable logic controller (PLC) devices and software that combine to operate 21 work centers.
In 2011, Spencer added a comprehensive enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution system (MES) from IQMS with real-time monitoring and reporting. This has enabled managers to see colorized up-to-the-second work center status and key performance indicators (KPIs) across the entire shop floor with SPC charting and trend analysis. Moreover, with the system in place, the company was able to redeploy the SPC administrator to a more productive role.
Spencer now reviews the automated SPC reporting at the end of each job run to drive continuous improvement of work center setup and operations for each product. The system also makes scheduling fast, flexible and comprehensive. Most significantly, Spencer has seen year-over-year improvements in key manufacturing KPIs.
Nissen Chemitec: Just in Time Barcode Labels
Nissen Chemitec is an injection molder and assembler of components that require individual vehicle part sequencing and are shipped just in time (JIT) to its automotive customers. Six years ago, the company printed barcode labels in batch from a central location. The labels then were carried to the production line and manually applied to product containers, opening the company to the risks of mislabeling product containers.
The Nissen Chemitec team sought a new process for ensuring the delivery of the correct product in correct container with the correct label in the correct order and quantity at the correct time, just in time – with 100 percent consistency. The team’s approach was to connect floor devices, including real-time computer tablets, wired fixed-location and handheld barcode scanners, and line-side label printers, to ensure that floor process execution and packaging would always stay in sync with the master production schedule.
Now, at job setup, the solution conducts automatic mistake-proofing to confirm that the raw materials, components, containers and tools are the ones specified for the run. It then prints a test label, which is scanned to verify that the format and content match specifications. Only then can the production job start. As a result, Nissen Chemitec’s deliveries now are virtually 100 percent accurate, leading to high customer satisfaction.
The company’s solution also automatically updates the job status for right and left side product processes in its ERP and MES systems, and it automatically calculates and refreshes overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) stats and KPIs, all in real time.
Tessy Plastics: Up-to-the-Moment Production Visibility
Tessy Plastics, which has multiple plants across the United States, is an injection molder that produces high-volume medical, disposable medical and consumer products in 24/7 operations. Previously, the company maintained paper folders with static product and process information at work centers on the plant floor. However, with challenges in taking timely action when after-the-fact performance data analysis indicated quality inconsistency, the leadership team identified continuous improvement of quality and delivery through process and information automation as the business’s most pressing need.
The solution was to implement a comprehensive ERP and manufacturing operating system, which was integrated with Tessy Plastics’ equipment to enable real-time monitoring and reporting. The company used real-time work center tablets to create information podiums at each work center. To make key information available to all employees, the team also deployed large-screen information centers on the plant floor.
Today, managers see colorized, up-to-the-second status updates on work center job schedules and KPIs, along with a layout view of the entire shop floor. All team members have up-to-the-moment work center status and performance information at a glance.
This level of clarity and accuracy means fewer work-hours are needed to capture and analyze production data. Team members can confirm that the correct components are being used as specified every time, and technology placed in key areas along the assembly automation line verifies that the components are produced without defects.
The insights and efficiencies gained at Tessy Plastics have translated into savings of between $1.2 million and $2.5 million annually.
As the three plastics manufacturers demonstrate, it is not necessary to tackle Industry 4.0 and IIoT in their entirety to realize significant business gains. Instead, manufacturers can eat the proverbial elephant one bite at a time to start on a path of thoughtful innovation that leads to higher customer satisfaction, smarter and more efficient use of resources, and measurable boosts to the bottom line.