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Pouring Innovation into Cereal

System integrators working with Fortune 500 companies have their work cut out for them. Key contacts and priorities change on the regular, making it hard to build lasting relationships. Even when you have a solid relationship at one facility, it often doesn't transition to working across multiple plants, where go-to local contractors are already in the lineup. It's a bit like trying to join a dance party where everyone else has found their partner.

Whether we’re just really likable or it’s our outcomes-focused approach (we prefer to think it’s both), our Solutioneers have a talent for cultivating strong cross-facility relationships. For instance, take our collaboration with a powerhouse brand of deliciousness. Our Solutioneers have fostered a relationship spanning decades that’s resulted in over 160 projects across 14 facilities.

Facility Revitalization:  Turning Cereal dreams and data streams

A solid, enduring relationship that leads to revamping your previous modernization effort is a rare feat for integrators, but that’s exactly what we did at this one North American-based facility.  In this bustling plant, an array of cereals churn across three production areas.

When we kicked off our large-scale modernization project, the system boasted 120 PLC-5s, 20 legacy serial networks, 10 redundant servers, and 55 human-machine interfaces (HMIs). The customer was eager to update their HMIs, making the switch from the outdated Vista/T30 graphics to the more informative and industry-standard AVEVA Wonderware InTouch HMIs.

The intricacies of data transfer and management posed challenges due to the substantial network traffic volume. At Gray Solutions, we eat challenges for breakfast, so we tackled this through meticulous planning and organized scheduling to ensure efficient, consistent update cycles. We also developed comprehensive standards for Wonderware InTouch HMI programming and thoughtfully adjusted the existing PLC-5 software. These refinements allowed us to seamlessly present and manage production information through the new system.

Recognizing this system’s vital role, we incorporated redundant, high-availability servers. As part of the modernization push, the HMI servers underwent a transformation, shifting to a VMware ESXi infrastructure. This strategic move leveled up flexibility and redundancy, boosting their supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems.

Each subsystem underwent meticulous testing, securing the customer’s stamp of approval before making its debut in the facility. With an eye on keeping production on track, we knocked out the installation in five well-timed phases during scheduled shutdowns.

Sweet innovation: Modernized control systems

About 10 years later, the customer tapped us again—this time for a chocolate-filling injection system for a delicious new product in their pipeline. As part of this project, they needed to leverage our extensive knowledge of their existing control system to cook up a pilot that integrates their existing PLC-5 standards with their new ControlLogix standards. This would set them up for the future, should they decide to convert all PLCs down the road.

Building on the success of our pilot conversion, this mega manufacturer awarded us a substantial modernization project at the facility that involved transitioning from outdated PLC-5s to sleek ControlLogix controllers for all 12 control systems, each of which housed multiple PLCs. Since we’re not fans of recycling solutions, these would not be straight-code conversions. Before diving into development, we started by listening and keeping an open mind. Sounds simple, but too often companies march in with preconceived notions about how something should be done. Instead, we sat down with the operators to get the lowdown on all their pain points with the current system. The customer’s needs became the functional spec that defined how the system should work. We’re always looking to help our customers become their next best selves, so we took this project a step further by integrating the plant floor controllers with the manufacturing data and adding reporting to the new PLCs.  

We firmly believe in empowering our customers to take the reins (unless, of course, they'd rather leave it to us), so we organized training sessions for maintenance technicians. These classes covered the ins and outs of the new ControlLogix standards and how they work with the HMI setup. Armed with these skills, the customer received the full toolkit to independently handle their control systems and standards after our implementation work wrapped up.

Recipe for success: Elevating the MHC system

Once the cereal has been in the production spotlight, they’re sent to a common material handling center (MHC). The cereal is sorted, palletized, and moved using automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to a buffer warehouse. This customer wanted the full (data) scoop—a comprehensive view of what was occurring across all areas of the MHC. We developed an interface that captures all production data from the three feed lines and six unitizers and then passes it on to their material requirements planning (MRP) system. We also cooked up the interface that captures and displays data for the entire MHC building and utilized SCADA to stir that data to life so they could take action.  

Next up, different facility, similar design – this time with a twist. We needed to amp up case rates as well as accommodate smaller case sizes than the system was designed for, all on 28-year-old equipment that needed an upgrade. It was like reimagining a classic recipe and we were ready to get our hands dirty. We updated the MHC with new conveyor sections and unitizers, and replaced all the PLC-5s with ControlLogix hardware, leveraging the standards we had already developed for the other facility. This new system brings heaps of flexibility for operators, offering a clear view of production efficiency and rates so they can precisely assign lines in the MHC.

Logic meets the line: Efficiency unleashed

With upgraded control systems in place, we're ready to roll up our sleeves for projects that boost efficiency and contribute to the bottom line. A prime example: our recent work on packing lines across cereal and snack plants. These systems act like data collectors, tracing the journey up the line. We hopped into each PLC, added the necessary logic, and introduced supervisory PLCs to gather info from the line PLCs. This data then makes its way to their AVEVA PI system.  

What’s next? Frosting robots. (Cue excited Solutioneers.)

Where curiosity and collaboration meet

We're gearing up for an exciting journey ahead, looking forward to many more fruitful years collaborating with this leading manufacturer.  The foundation we've built is sturdy, and we're ready to add new layers to it. It's all about trust and success, a bond solidified by proven achievements over time. What sets us apart is our unique approach that dives deep into our curiosity to uncover innovative paths that lead them toward their goals. We're not just innovating for today; we're also charting a course for the future, where our shared accomplishments continue to flourish.