How a Leading Automaker Achieved a Major Controls Upgrade in Three Months

Siemens Solution Partner A&E Engineering executed the design, installation, and commissioning of two new paint-shop conveyor control systems for a major automaker, from control room and operator interfaces to motors, sensors, and machine interlocks.

1According to Dan Hassert, area manager, factory automation at Greer, South Carolina-based A&E Engineering, Inc. (A&E), the timeframes in which engineering firms have to execute their work are shrinking. “In general, we’re seeing that the speed with which clients want projects started and finished is accelerating,” he says. “The time we have to complete our work has become condensed.” A&E’s recent project for a major automotive manufacturer underscores his point, which is particularly apropos to that fast-moving sector.

“It’s hard to understate the size of this job and the speed with which it had to be executed,” says Hassert. “It was like remodeling your house— not taking out the carpet but stripping everything down to the studs— and having your wife tell you she’s having a dinner party in seven days. In our case, the dinner party was having the automaker return to full-scale production within seven days of us starting to execute the upgrade on the floor. Not having the work done was not an option.”

Upgrading at Breakneck Speed

A&E, a Siemens Solution Partner, was responsible for a complete control systems upgrade for two conveyor systems located inside a leading automotive manufacturer’s paint shop. The scope of work included the design, installation, and commissioning of main control panels, operator control panels, VFD motors, conveyor sensors, and interlocks to adjacent systems. “This project began at the end of March 2014 and had to be installed in three month’s time,” says Hassert. Projects of this size typically run between nine and 15 months.

According to Justin Nardone, A&E project manager for this system upgrade, the scope of the project was as daunting as the speed with which it had to be executed.

“It was actually two conveyor projects going simultaneously, on two different levels of the automotive plant,” he explains. “There were 3,000 feet of conveyor and over nine miles of cable to remove.”

Keeping in mind the client’s on-going objectives of maintaining existing systems, and incorporating Siemens Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) best practices, A&E commenced a rapid two-month design phase. Prior to putting pencil to paper, it was imperative for the team to study and document the existing system to gain a complete understanding of existing functionality, locate any hidden challenges, and ensure that the upgrade met the client’s operational goals.

The existing conveyor system used lower-performing, antiquated hardware that did not match the client’s current standards, and differed from the majority of their other systems. “This situation required a tremendous amount of upfront work,” says Tim Cobb, senior technical lead on the project for A&E. “In this case, we had seven days to implement the upgrade, over the company’s July 4 shutdown. Usually, by the time we get to shutdown and installation, it’s all execution. We immediately move into action; it’s like a step change.”

Due to the accelerated schedule, A&E’s in-house installation team began work during the design phase to prepare for the seven-day shutdown window. During scheduled downtime, the team prepared for the conversion by developing detailed plans for removing old panels, cable tray, and wiring, and installing a new cable tray. Using A&E’s shop space, the team also developed a process to effectively organize, package, and install cables, device tags, cable tags, fittings, and other large components such as motors, VFDs, and brackets.

By having everyone involved from the get-go, the installation team was ready to go the minute they had access to the plant, as the need for the usual “information hand-off” was eliminated by their up-front involvement in the process. This accelerated the speed of project execution.

“A project like this consumes the whole group,” notes Hassert. A&E’s installation and project team worked around the clock in two 12-hour shifts to execute the project in the allotted seven-day window. During the course of the project, the team installed and deconstructed 99 percent of the existing cable tray and wire-way. The team also deconstructed controls panels, removed existing system wiring, upgraded 145 gear motors with new VFD controls, and replaced more than 400 sensors.

“On two levels there were between 44 and 50 people working on the project at any given time,” says Nardone. “This number was 20 people from A&E— our in-house installation team— as well as 30 contractors, 24 electrical and six mechanical. Everyone pulled together 24/7 to tackle what was a really difficult challenge.”

The Importance of Using Best Practices

Using previous PLC program examples and leveraging both Siemens TIA best practices and the automated features of ePLAN P8 helped A&E’s programmers and designers complete the design phase on an expedited schedule. Project-specified materials included Siemens S7 PLCs and Siemens industrial control hardware. They generated a master database to enhance project accuracy and communication between the installation team and the in-house panel shop.

“The TIA best practices facilitated use of Siemens processors in a way that makes coding efficient,” says Cobb. “For example, we had a bunch of the same types of conveyors and drives, so instead of creating code every time we came across a common component, we created a single function block and re-used it.”

This strategy included a number of benefits:

  • Kept everything uniform.
  • Facilitated rapid code development.
  • Increased the accuracy of code development.

“That’s why Siemens preaches TIA best practices, because everyone benefits from them: our team as an integrator (i.e., in development and implementation) and the end client (i.e., in operation and maintenance),” notes Cobb.

Once a function block is proven out, how it works is known, so if an issue comes up you can look elsewhere to find its source. “Also, if there’s a bug, you can fix it in one spot instead of 500 spots,” adds Hassert.

In addition to following TIA best practices, design objectives included implementing integrated safety with fail-safe I/O and simplifying the control system architecture. The project also called for decentralizing an existing large, nine-bay main enclosure by relocating motor controls to the field. This process resulted in a three-bay system that was easier for the client to maintain. Variable speed drives were also added to enable material handling speed control.

4The Advantages of Partnering with Siemens

According to Cobb, the company’s relationship with Siemens was key in executing on time and to the client’s satisfaction. “Being a Siemens’ Solution Partner was instrumental,” he says. “We have seven Siemens certified professionals in our organization, so we were able to write the code very quickly. The technology is something that we are used to because of our relationship with Siemens, and being a solution partner helped us execute very quickly.”

Success through Working Smarter

This wasn’t just a normal fast track project for A&E—it was an extremely tight schedule; and what made the project successful were a number of key factors:

  • Having the right team.
    A&E team members had done conveyor projects before; they had a background with Siemens; so knowledge-transfer from working previous projects enabled proactive preparation and execution of the project. Setting expectations with the client and knowing what challenges they would face and how to overcome them helped to keep the project on schedule.
  • Outstanding risk management
    Traditionally when A&E does an installation like this (i.e., ripping out old conveyor systems and installing new ones), there are many decisions made right on the spot during the window of execution. With lessons learned from previous projects, A&E pushed the customer for mechanical layouts to the system, allowing it to pre-plan and get approval for all cable tray routing, which had been a huge issue in prior conveyor projects.
    Normally the installation crew makes critical decisions on the fly, but in this case we pulled the decisionmaking process ahead,” says Hassert.We sat down with the customer and determined how the cable tray and wire routing should be, both from an efficiency and customer standards standpoint.”A&E was able to design the cable tray to scale on a layout in advance. After the customer signed off on this, they were able to isolate space in the plant and pre-build the cable tray in sections. Mitigating risk by taking something they would normally do on the fly after demolition and preparing it upfront— this proved very successful.

    “Doing this not only facilitated execution, it allowed us to be more accurate in knowing what cable lengths were needed, where they would be used, where to purchase them, etc.,” notes Nardone. “So for us, pulling the decisionmaking process forward made many other decisions on the project go smoother.”

  • Preparation in parallel through in-house capabilities facilitated the speed of project understanding and execution.

“Bottom line, we worked smarter, not harder,” concludes Nardone. A perfect example of this is how A&E leveraged the manufacturer’s existing car transport system to move motors. To move 150 new motors being installed – about two-thirds of which had to go to second level, A&E manufactured a custom metal pallet that fit on the same skid used for cars to load up motors and automate their movement, rather than have the work done manually. Each of the motors is 150-200 lbs., so we’re talking about 30,000 lbs. of motors!

“The bare minimum cost per minute for being late is something in the ballpark of several thousand dollars per minute,” says Cobb. “A&E has never had to endure a back charge for not meeting a scheduled implementation. There’s a lot of work in that— a lot of expertise in project management— and we certainly drew upon that to complete this challenging project with no problems on start-up.”

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