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July 25, 2002

6 Min Read
Wireless, Web-based monitoring makes its debut

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Maca Plastics CEO Andy Culbertson adopted a wireless, Web-based process monitoring system that has improved productivity and eliminated waste at his facility.

How would you like to link the factory floor to your ERP system and supply chain? Thanks to a new wireless technology, you can. It's called 802.11b/802.11a, or wireless mobile computing—a name that definitely needs work. Even without a catchy label, however, the technology is opening doors for molders.

Imagine being able to carry a PDA that gives you real-time production data, get a call on your mobile phone when a machine alarm goes off, or equip forklift operators with portable Web pads that carry inventory data. Andy Culbertson, CEO of Maca Plastics, did more than just imagine. He implemented a Web-based, wireless production and process monitoring system from Syscon-PlantStar, and then set in-house programmers to work writing software with PlantStar as the core. The results have been so positive and wide-ranging that Maca has yet to measure them all. "We know that this has eliminated waste for us, and that we have accomplished greater cost downs for our customers that formerly were not possible," he says.

Maca is a small, progressive molder located in Winchester, OH with $11 million in sales. It serves Tier One automotive suppliers whose JIT systems require a safety stock inventory. As a result, inventory control is crucial. After installing the Web-based PlantStar system, raw material and inventory inaccuracies at Maca are down to single digits, the lowest they've ever been.

Quality improvements have exceeded customers' ppm requirements, too. "We have since achieved and maintained a Sigma 6 threshold," says Culbertson. "Across the board, we now average 4 ppm quality defects per year and 0 ppm defects for JIT delivery. It is because of this type of software that we can do that. It shows us where defects are coming from so that we can eliminate the cause."

Culbertson believes the wireless business operating software system (Boss) concept is a total plant monitoring system that will have a bigger impact than when Milacron put the first PC on a machine. He spent several years watching the industry for suppliers of production and process monitoring systems. "I looked at all the brand names, talked to each company, and then ran demo software. We selected PlantStar because Web-based html software is what we were looking for."

Maca found the system easy to integrate into other types of business operating systems. "We wrote our own software called M2K Boss, with PlantStar as the core. It is an enterprise planning and control system that integrates into the accounting module Made to Manage." The system gives Culbertson real-time supervisory control and data acquisition (Scada).

"We always had a lot of data," he says, "but not in a form that can be read easily and quickly. Now we can manipulate the data as graphs and charts." Instead of one huge spreadsheet, the software automatically processes data into a graph or chart using color coding. This alone has improved productivity on the shop floor, according to Culbertson. "The human brain processes visual information 10 times faster than numerical information," he adds.

Although Maca has yet to add up dollars saved, Culbertson is amazed at the productivity benefits. "With the same amount of equipment, we have increased our capacity by 2 to 21/2 machines on the floor," he says. "We're identifying nonvalue-added effort and 'created' nonvalue effort. It's like running around, picking money up off the floor. We find waste areas like setups or scheduling material into a workcell."

Culbertson offers examples of waste elimination. For one, the system identified that when technicians were doing a tool changeover, they would move dryers out of the workcell into the holding area. At this point, there might be 10 lb of material still in the dryer. Someone would have to empty the dryer, which created 15 minutes of nonvalue-added time.


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Programmers at Maca wrote M2K Boss software using PlantStar software as its core to combine Scada, video monitoring, and accounting systems.

Another example involves a specific machine problem. One technician assigned to monitor 10 machines found that one particular machine would alarm and stop. Data showed that this machine regularly had more downtime than others. Further investigation revealed that the radius on the nozzle tip was incorrect, and the setup indicated that the nozzle tip hadn't been changed since the last job.

Rather than dealing with crisis management, Maca technicians now use the PlantStar system as a diagnostic tool. "Our people are being trained in root cause analysis and elimination," says Culbertson.

The wireless option means plug-and-play convenience, because it doesn't require a programmer or hardwire installation. "With 100 employees, and three people in our IT department, plug-and-play makes sense. We can't spare the manpower or resources to hardwire everything," he says.

To connect to the Internet, Maca runs two satellite systems, one for live streaming video and the other for Scada. When an alarm goes off, it alerts Culbertson's mobile phone and PDA.

According to Steve Thomas of Syscon-PlantStar, the types of benefits that Culbertson describes have been available for some time, although they've been economically out of reach for all but largest molders. "If we had implemented a system such as Maca's in previous generations, it would have cost $100,000 to $120,000," says Thomas. "By going to a Web-based architecture, we have eliminated the hardware and can invest in IT infrastructure." The result is that Maca's installation today costs less than $40,000—a third of the former cost.

Syscon-PlantStar believes it can now put powerful tools in the hands of more people by changing to the latest and most prevalent technology—Web-browser-based system architecture. Wireless adds an even further installation cost reduction to the mix by eliminating the hard wiring required for terminals on the shop floor. "This technology has the power to make information portable," says Thomas, "and that can mean such improvements as having inventory and production information available on forklift trucks, mobile access to maintenance manuals, or remote device diagnosis and monitoring."

What types of molders are buying this type of system? The most active area is automotive, but Thomas is also seeing some interest among medical and consumer product processors.

Another benefit of transferring to browser-based technology is that it also makes Syscon's software more compatible with a wider range of systems. In the past, being compatible was expensive. Data-gathering devices as part of a monitoring system were almost always a proprietary set of hardware and software provided by the monitoring system OEM. That equipment accounted for 70 percent of the cost. Eliminating that hardware requirement and being able to run on a PC, PDA, or WebPad brings down the cost considerably. In fact, Syscon is now getting out of the hardware business altogether.

"Customers are coming up with new and different applications to add to our system," says Thomas, "like document control for ISO, managing part drawings, video feeds onto the shop floor, and material data sheets. It's a bit like PDM and ERP rolled into one."

Contact information 
Maca Plastics Inc., Winchester, OH
Andrew Culbertson; (937) 544-8618
www.macaplastics.com
[email protected]

Syscon-PlantStar, South Bend, IN
Lyn Davis; (574) 232-3900, ext. 203
www.plantstar.org
[email protected]

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