Smart, Modular Control System Drives New Polymer Plant

Control System Drives New Polymer Plant

Learn how Mitsubishi Chemical sped up its polymer production site deployment for automotive airbags and used remote access to reduce start-up challenges.

Consumers in places such as the United States, Japan and most of Europe take it for granted that their new vehicles come equipped with airbags. The safety feature became prevalent in vehicles in many developed countries during the 1990s. And, by the turn of the century, it was either required by law or considered an essential component for automakers to include airbags in their vehicles to achieve desired safety ratings.

But the same can’t be said in many developing and emerging countries, where airbags still either aren’t required or aren’t commonly found. This was the case for car owners in Brazil until just recently. In 2014, a new law took effect requiring that airbags and other safety technologies be installed on all new vehicles sold in Brazil.

Brazil’s new airbag requirement was the driving force that led Mitsubishi Chemical Performance Polymers (MCPP) to establish a greenfield production facility in Brazil, the world’s seventh-largest car market. The new facility primarily would support the automotive market, supplying resins to airbag manufacturers for use in safety-critical airbag covers.

Even before expanding to Brazil, MCPP has been a global supplier of custom automotive materials for more than 30 years. With operations in 16 countries, the company provides solutions for fuel management, interior, exterior, wiring and other automotive applications.

However, building a facility from the ground up on a new continent — while also meeting key quality, safety and production demands — would be no easy task.

The Need for Speed

With an industrial site north of São Paulo selected for its new facility in Brazil, MCPP wanted to get production up and running as soon as possible to help local auto suppliers meet the impending airbag requirement.

Figure 1. Apex Engineering combined material-handling, extrusion, and underwater palletizing systems into one modular design that produces the final polymer product. [CLICK TO ENLARGE]

“We wanted the start of production to coincide as closely as possible with the timing of the new airbag requirement,” explains Lee Wilson, plant manager for MCPP. “The harsh rain season pushed our site work behind schedule somewhat. When that happened, it became all the more important to look for ways to be efficient in launching this new location.”

In terms of the production infrastructure, the new facility required a feeder and extrusion system that could produce as much as 10 million pounds of resin per year at maximum production capacity. Wilson and his team wanted the Brazilian plant to mimic what MCPP already had in other regions in terms of production speed and especially quality management.

“Quality was our first priority,” Wilson notes. “We needed to make sure we could maintain tolerances with the feed systems that were feeding the extruder, as well as achieve proper distribution and dispersion of the various ingredients inside the extruder. Aesthetically, we needed to be able to maintain a consistent product look as material is compounded and pelletized.”

Visibility into the system would be essential to helping operators monitor quality and take action quickly on any production issues that may arise. Additionally, there was a desire to provide remote access into the system. This would allow United States-based MCPP employees and other outside experts to troubleshoot or diagnose technical challenges and help compensate for a lack of local technical support in Brazil.

A Modular Approach

MCPP evaluated two vendors and ultimately chose Indiana-based Apex Engineering and its subsidiary Apex Controls Specialists, a Rockwell Automation Recognized System Integrator, to develop the extrusion system for its new Brazilian production facility.

Apex Engineering proposed a solution based on its Apex Modular Extrusion™ system (see Figure 1). The three-system design consists of a material-handling system at its top level that receives raw materials, including various rubbers, oils, heat stabilizers, impact modifiers and pigments. Those materials then are distributed via a feeder deck down to the extrusion system, where they are heated and blended, and finally sent to an underwater pelletizing system that produces the final bead-like product. That product then is packaged into large bags and boxes and shipped to airbag manufacturers.

A compounding control center houses the extrusion system’s electrical and control infrastructure, including an Allen-Bradley® CompactLogix™ programmable logic controller (PLC), Allen-Bradley PowerFlex® 755 AC drives and solid-state relays from Rockwell Automation. A separate utility control center contains the system’s utilities and information server.

Figure 2. Enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) software and a human machine interface (HMI) allow workers to manage recipes, monitor processes and identify and resolve production issues. [CLICK TO ENLARGE]

The information-enabled system gives workers and outside experts visibility into critical manufacturing intelligence, including temperatures, feed-rate pressures and feeder motor speeds. FactoryTalk® Historian software from Rockwell Automation collects thousands of these data points throughout the production process, while FactoryTalk View human-machine interface (HMI) software and FactoryTalk VantagePoint® enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) software allow workers to manage recipes, monitor processes and identify and resolve production issues (see Figure 2).

Communications over EtherNet/IP allow the manufacturing intelligence to be shared plantwide and with outside experts via remote access, while also reducing wiring in the MCPP facility.

Rapid Deployment

The extrusion system’s modular design proved crucial in helping MCPP speed up the launch of its new facility.

While construction of the plant was underway in Brazil, Apex simultaneously was designing and building the system in Evansville, Indiana. Wilson and his team at MCPP kept in close touch with Apex engineers during this process through weekly calls. When the extrusion system was complete and operational, they were on-site with Apex personnel for a week of testing.

“We crawled all over the equipment,” Wilson says. “It was great being able to see the equipment running and test it firsthand. We only made small changes, but it was nice being able to make them before shipping the equipment to Brazil. It helped us avoid production delays and saved us some long flights to Brazil.”

After the equipment arrived in Brazil, an on-site contractor quickly and easily assembled the system in a paint-by-numbers approach. The system’s power and electricals, for example, all were set up on connectors. Workers needed only to pull cables from cable trays and plug them in. Similarly, the system’s mechanicals had an accompanying drawing with easy-to-follow instructions for bolting the system together.

In total, the system took only about one month to install at the Brazilian facility. This saved MCPP as much as four months in deployment time. It also allowed the company to finish the extrusion system right around the time that it finished construction of the facility it was housed in.

The facility’s integrated control and information have been vital to helping workers optimize quality management and identify production issues.

“Operators can see trending information on the screen to make sure all the equipment and feeders are running right where they should be,” Wilson notes. “Any processes that run outside their minimum or maximum setpoints will generate alarms on the operator screen so they can quickly address the issue.”

Both Wilson and Apex team members can access and monitor systems remotely and help workers without traveling on-site. This was especially valuable early on as workers were getting the system up and running and had limited access to local technical support.

“I can look at any of the data points from right here in my office,” Wilson says. “We’ve looked at alarms and helped them diagnose issues, such as when they had trouble getting the proper feed rate or were encountering some initial mechanical issues with the feeder. It’s safe to say remote support helped us reduce some of those early downtime incidents from days into hours.”

Additionally, by using add-on instructions (AOI) when developing the extrusion system, Apex Control Specialists created plug-and-play functionality for any future changes or additions at the facility. For example, MCPP can add a new feeder to the system in as little as 10 minutes.

MCPP may seek to replicate some of the benefits of the modular extrusion system at other facilities, notes Wilson. “It made the project a lot more manageable than a conventional build. I could even foresee using the approach closer to home here in the U.S.,” he adds.

The Journal From Rockwell Automation and Our PartnerNetwork™ is published by Putman Media, Inc.

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