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Introducing A New Line? What’s Your Breakdown Plan?

The marked increase in the use of automation in manufacturing industries has been driven not only by the need to realize the lowest possible costs for a product but also by consumer demand for variety and customization.  Control systems are cost-effective and provide the means to maximize efficiency and accuracy of the processing lines.  Therefore, today the set-up, change-over, product scheduling, and sequencing, together with quality control are necessarily automated.  The control systems also allow the collation of documentation for all materials and processes used in production, which is essential to meet product safety.  It is also necessary to be able to recall defective products quickly and cost-effectively.  These demands have led to the integration of critical information from the plant floor and from suppliers into corporate enterprise resource planning systems.

The adoption of automation technology has not happened without problems.  In the planning stages for the installation of control systems, the focus is predominately upon the existing product line or new process and the in-house production team that will be involved.  Training programs to improve the skills of the in-house production team and/or the hiring of additional engineers with the required skills will be included in the planning stages.  The plant services are often overlooked, yet it is these engineers, technicians, and electricians that will be required to respond to maintenance problems that arise, some of which may result in costly downtime.  It is possible that there is a lack of understanding of automation technology within management.  It has been suggested that in some instances the control systems selected for a project may be limited to the ability of the available in-house engineers and electricians (the KISS philosophy). This apparent reluctance to accept automation is somewhat reminiscent of the reaction to the introduction of fuel injectors in automobile engines several decades ago.  The fuel injector represented an innovative technology that at first was regarded as complicated and it replaced the carburetor, which was a simple engine part.  Technology for the automobile has advanced to such a degree that today it requires the assistance of a computer (a specialized technician) to service the engine.  Yet this is no longer difficult to accept.  Similarly, it should be realized that the maintenance of control systems and automated equipment will require “a computer,” that is expertise not readily found in the electricians and engineers that make up the in-house plant services.

Automation brings the ability to control, process, track and manage production in real time while reducing labor costs and improving efficiency.  However, once a company has invested in automation technology, that technology and equipment must be protected from breakdown and the expected early wear and tear.  As stated earlier, the question of how to provide that protection, particularly over the long term, is not often addressed in the planning stages.  It may be that providing the required support services increases the overall project costs and this is a concern to management.  But surely it is obvious that such support will be needed.

There are three approaches to the maintenance of control systems and automation equipment that may be considered:

  1. Create an in-house team of electricians, engineers, and technicians to provide the necessary maintenance and support. This will likely require the addition of personnel with specific skills related to automation.  Training programs directed to support services may be introduced, the training customized to the product line.
  2. Completely outsource maintenance activities related to the control systems and automation equipment.
  3. Establish a hybrid arrangement in which the mission-critical engineering skills are kept in-house, but general maintenance services are outsourced.

There is a key factor that should be considered in determining how to best provide maintenance and support services.  Determination of the impact of downtime should be given the highest priority since downtime affects both productivity and profitability.  Establishing in-house capability that can quickly deal with breakdown problems is advantageous.  However, it must be recognized that the in-house team will need ALL the necessary skills related to automation technology and control systems to quickly deal with every problem over the long term.

If it is decided to keep the critical engineering skills in-house several questions arise:

  1. What is the availability of skilled engineers and electricians?
  2. With possibly a relatively small number of skilled individuals available, do you hire to support current operating systems or for new processes under consideration?
  3. Should you seek multi-skilled individuals with considerable experience in automation?
  4. Should these individuals have the ability to grow and change as technology changes and how is this ability recognized?
  5. Are you able to offer attractive compensation packages, including pension and healthcare benefits as well as salary?
  6. Will you be able to retain these individuals?
  7. Is the location of the plant attractive and interesting to mobile, skilled engineers?

Clearly, these questions only apply to options 1 and 3.  Completely outsourcing maintenance activities avoids these uncertainties, and it is possible to acquire the skills needed without long-term commitments to employees. However, it is recognized in manufacturing industries that plant managers may struggle with the loss of control that results from outsourcing activities.  Under these circumstances, the plant manager finds it difficult to directly manage, set priorities, and instruct the workforce.  Yet, without question outsourcing delivers expertise, efficiently provides high-quality work and is NOT costlier than establishing in-house capabilities.

Finally, it is the responsibility of the end user to determine the focus, flexibility, control, and cost-effectiveness, required to manage maintenance activities.  Automation has perhaps upset the traditional balance between the process and the maintenance required by that process.  Automation and today’s control systems demand a range of specific skills to install and maintain and outsourcing does offer immediate access to those skills.  It may be argued that many companies are prepared to invest in their own people, recognizing the positive impact that competent and responsive maintenance has on their business.  That indeed may well be true but there are situations where it is better to outsource the responsibility, e.g., the lack of sufficient skilled people being available, where maintenance is cyclical and has periods of low activity, where equipment is highly specialized or where the facility is too small to warrant investment in an in-house maintenance function.







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Dynamic Formulation Improves Quality

The science of formulating products requires an understanding of how material properties can affect the final product. Making changes to recipe set-points to accommodate for varying process conditions and material properties is commonly performed in the industry. The team or individual responsible for calculating the required amounts of material will be referred to as the ‘Formulator’. Often this aspect of the science can be described as a set of equations used by the Formulator to adjust the amount of material required. The following is a simple example to illustrate a common process to adjust the formula of a product. A Formulator has a Site-Recipe that requires a blend of:

The properties of each lot of material may come from the material supplier or may be derived by the end-user’s lab analysis. The material to be used in this example is moist (Material_Moist) and contains 20% moisture (Moisture_%).

Since the material is moist, the Formulator calculates the amount of moist material (Material_Moist) required and adjust the Water (H2O) required to obtain the desired ratios and specifies it on the Master Recipe.


Therefore, the Control-Recipe should call for 120 kg of moist Material to obtain the 100 kg of dry Material needed. Water introduced by the moist material (Material_H2O) is then factored into the amount required for a batch.

This scenario describes what is very common in the batching industry. The Formulator is required to modify the Master recipe to accommodate for changing raw material properties. There are many more factors that can be taken into consideration when adjusting the amount of material such as concentration, potency, percent fat, percent solids, sweetness, etc.

The automation solution can be constructed to allow the recipe author to specify the properties to be dosed (100 kg Dry material & 100 kg H2O) and allow the control system to perform these calculations by tying a material management system to the batching system. Dynamically adjusting the amount of material required becomes a very practical solution since the master recipe doesn’t have to be modified to adapt for changing raw material properties.

The experienced team at ECS Solutions takes a simple approach using an ISA-88 based standard commercially available off the shelf Software. A phase is created that provides the Formulator the ability to specify the amount of Dry Material to be added or the Amount of Moist material required. If the Amount of Dry Material is specified, then the control system will determine the amount of moist material required.

If a container runs out of material during the addition, and it is considered an incomplete feed, the Software will find another container with the required material, it will request the properties of that new lot ID, and complete the addition considering those new properties. The amounts, and lot IDs of materials used are automatically reported in the Batch journal. In addition to creating a master recipe that doesn’t have to be modified to accommodate for changing material properties, dynamic formulation is especially practical to accommodate for unplanned activities such as having to switch to a different material source. Dynamic Formulation eliminates the risk of having to perform manual calculations and recipe updates at the correct time, while allowing the Quality of the products to be improved.

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