Supporting Arcane Software

Have you ever felt your manufacturing systems had a mind of their own? A client recognized that they were in danger of losing control of their factory equipment, and needed help to bring it back under control. In fact, two other companies had tried to help, but both failed. Our first challenge was to assess their production system.

An Inefficient Production Line

When the client approached Polytron, their operations were at risk. As the last U.S. manufacturer of solid, non-pneumatic tires, they depended on their production to meet the demands of loyal domestic customers.  Trying to meet these demands, their production line was incurring significant waste and requiring more plant resources.  Downtime was becoming a more frequent and prolonged consequence.

The factory process involved many recipe formulations that had to occur in very specific sequences. The system used a software queue to hold one of dozens of unique tire recipes.  Depending on the tire type they needed to produce, the system would add that recipe to the top of the queue.

Occasionally, the queue would stop in mid-sequence. Since no one understood the control system, they were forced to abandon the current queue and start over, which wasted time and money. They couldn’t even troubleshoot because their programming system was not properly documented.  The final blow came when they were informed that the PC-based control system would no longer be supported by its manufacturer.

Ongoing Support

Typically, companies in this kind of predicament can turn to a vendor or software support company. However, the tire business was up a creek because their system was old and arcane. Literally, no coder or developer understood the program. There was no documentation. Essentially, the programmer had created the system without making an instruction manual and then disappeared. As time had passed, others had modified the system without documentation.  The control code had conflicting logic that was “fighting” itself.  To help our clients avoid the same predicament, we typically install solutions that are clearly documented and utilize common programming.

When the tire firm approached Polytron, they knew the process was malfunctioning and wasting material, but they did not know what was to blame. Was it a physical machine, computer hardware, or software? We needed to identify the responsible party.

Fortunately, our client caught their rogue system before it rebelled against them entirely. We went in and brought it under control.

A Precise Solution

After conducting our assessment, we recognized that the real problem came from their process control systems. Working with the client, we concluded that the underlying infrastructure, the I/O system, was fine. Replacing this portion of the architecture would only incur unnecessary costs and loss of production, so it could stay.

Our goal, then, was to integrate a more standardized control system with their existing I/O. We reverse-engineered the code, because it was not documented, created logic diagrams, and reprogrammed using the Rockwell control system.

Not only was this an obvious choice for us, but it was a better choice for them. Many manufacturers use Rockwell Automation, and plenty of professionals can provide technical support for Rockwell software and hardware. Standard hardware and software means they won’t have to worry about an unfixable, rogue system. Also, transitioning from a PC-based control system to a PLC-based will be a more robust and long lasting solution.

How We Succeeded

Our engineers sat down with the code, line by line, and documented it. To transfer our knowledge, we held design review meetings and conferences to help them understand the new programming. We also suggested strategies for how to improve it, how to recover from faults, and how to purge a recipe from the system without hanging up the entire queue.

After two failed attempts by other vendors, the manufacturer can now support their own operations, in-house, without outside engineering support. When they do larger modifications, they come back to us for help, not because they must, but because they know they can depend on getting the job done right the first time.

They lost roughly 10 hours of productivity, total, while we worked out the kinks in the new system after migrating to the new control system. If we had tried to install an entirely new system, they would have lost weeks. Polytron identified the real problem and relieved the manufacturer’s urgent needs and prepared them for long-term success.

Diversified Technology Solutions

Polytron chooses to be technology agnostic – we have expertise in a variety of technologies. Our solutions are engineered to meet the business needs first, and the technology we recommend must fall in line with those needs. We needed to put in extra work for the tire firm, and we also needed to execute on their schedule.

Our Preparation Increased Production

Polytron took the problem head-on with thorough preparation and planning. For starters, we had one of each of their existing I/O devices shipped to our headquarters. Once we received them, we were able to build and test our communications network and logic for each piece of equipment.

We set up the hardware at our place to test the interface, conduct memory mapping, and build a virtual model to test and debug our code. This occurred weeks before we took it live. During the process, we discovered there was another computer in the plant performing conflicting logic with the main control system. The scan showed two different pieces of codes battling for control. If that had occurred in their plant, the integration would have caused serious damage to productivity.

The on-site integration was quick, easy and as painless as any major outage can be. We had a weekend to set up, and took about 10 hours of reduced production time to perform the full integration. After  brief period of reduced productivity, their plant outperformed itself.

Stage-Gate Product Delivery

Our Stage-Gate product delivery model gives us a loose framework, not a restrictive laundry list of actions. We stay focused on the goal, and we can adjust our execution depending upon what the client needs. The result of our flexibility allowed our client to save time and money without losing any part of their production schedule.