How Single Platform Standardization Pays Off

snlnovinertsystemHow standardizing on Siemens PLCs and the TIA portfolio led to ‘all kinds of efficiencies,’ according to Boston-based manufacturer Inert.

Supplying customized solutions to diverse users has been a successful strategy for Inert, a Boston-based company that’s become a leading provider of inert atmospheres and equipment. However, creating innovative systems put the 35-year-old company in a difficult position, with a broad range of PLC platforms that were difficult to support.

“With three controllers from two different suppliers and two different voltages typically used worldwide, we had to manage six different controller platforms,” says Timothy Michael, Head of Engineering at Inert. “That complicated our engineering and manufacturing as well as downstream support and service.”

The problems didn’t end at hardware for those designing and maintaining equipment sold to semiconductor fabricators, photovoltaic cells, LEDs, lithium ion batteries, surgical and medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and specialty chemicals. Software was also getting increasingly complex.

“It started turning into a bit of a spider’s web in terms of different code,” Michael says. “To make matters worse, we were on our third outside developer, and because everyone does PLC programming their own way, making a change in one place could cause unintended effects in code elsewhere. That makes debugging and troubleshooting issues extremely tedious and time-consuming.”

Inert’s managers realized they needed to make a major change to simplify this complicated procurement, manufacturing, and support structure. After a careful market analysis, Inert chose Siemens SIMATIC S7-1200 controllers, HMI panels from its Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) portfolio and the Siemens TIA Portal common engineering framework. This combination let Inert accelerate its time-to-market, save time and costs, and gain greater flexibility in customizing its products.

Dittmann & Greer Inc., a Siemens’ distributor, brought in a Siemens engineer to help assess Inert’s legacy PLCs and determine the code migration requirements needed with SIMATIC components from its Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) portfolio.

snlnovinertplc“Siemens made it extremely easy for us to move to its TIA platform,” Michael says. “Their TIA portfolio and common software engineering framework, called the TIA Portal, were extremely compelling, especially its potential to solve the issues we had.”

“They offered to help us modernize our existing code, and lots of other support, without any extra cost and they more than lived up to their promises. That was a huge change for us because, before, we never got any support at all from our other suppliers.” Inert CEO Daniel Clay adds, “From the start, Siemens made it clear that it wanted our business and did everything we could imagine possible to earn it.”

Timeline for success

The experts from Dittmann & Greer and Siemens worked closely together to create a project specification and plan. Time was tight, as the debut of Inert’s rebranding at the American Chemical Society (ACS) was only weeks away. Both Clay and Michael wanted to impress attendees of the industry trade show with their new brand identity and improved PLCs.

“The engineers from both companies were amazing and on top of their game,” Clay says. “We had our code completely converted in six weeks and were able to bring our updated products to the tradeshow with a fully modernized look and feel,” Michael states.

For its new PLC platform, Inert chose the Siemens SIMATIC S7-1200 controller, one of the most advanced in the Siemens TIA portfolio. But the source of the “fully modernized look and feel” is the Siemens SIMATIC HMI color panels, also in the TIA portfolio. Both components are programmed using the TIA Portal.

“We’re thrilled by the Siemens SIMATIC HMI color panels, and so were our customers at the tradeshow,” Clay says. “While the SIMATIC S7-1200 is behind the scenes, the high-definition color panels are what everyone sees. They’re light years ahead of what we had, and having the Siemens logo visible provides a valuable brand association with engineering quality.”

He adds that the Siemens engineers developed code for the HMI as an extra value. “Talk about serving your customer,” he says. “The Siemens engineer had experience programming global HMIs and shared a lot of invaluable insights. We now use much broader terminology for the on-screen buttons to better serve users in our international markets. It really has helped put us heads above our competition.”

Since Inert’s debut at ACS, Siemens introduced its no-charge Code Migration Studio. This helps automate code conversion, and comes with expert assistance and consulting advice from a former top Rockwell Automation engineer.

snlnovinertsiemensplcBoth Clay and Michael agree that the switch to the Siemens SIMATIC S7-1200 PLC and HMI from the TIA portfolio was the best move Inert could have made. “The Siemens TIA components and common TIA Portal opened the door to all kinds of efficiencies, providing us with sizeable cost- and time-savings,” Clay says.

Michael states, “We can now bring our software programming in-house. Troubleshooting and developing new features will be much easier and faster. Fewer parts need to be ordered and held in inventory, and training of Inert’s service team only took about four hours before they were up to speed.”

Remote diagnostics are another improvement, as Inert discovered recently with a customer in Japan. “Our top technician flew there to discuss a sizeable upgrade. Whenever he needed advice, he called up the Siemens engineer who helped convert all our code and program the HMI. The engineer dialed into our machine in Japan from his office in the U.S. and they had interactive work sessions just as if they were sitting side by side,” Michael says.

“While simplification improved our time-to-market, we now have capabilities that give us even more flexibility in the customizations we provide,” says Clay. “For example, we can now offer Modbus and Ethernet communications features that we couldn’t before. And we can program energy-saving features and many other capabilities, too. Now that we’ve made the switch, we look forward to the continuous improvement and innovation that is the core of Inert.”

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