The client, located in Michigan, is a Tier 1 Automotive Supplier that produces chrome plated products for large domestic automotive manufacturers. The client is strategically aligned with the auto manufacturer that they serve, even so far as coordinating plant shutdowns since all materials are delivered in a just in time manner.
The core process is the chrome plating of metal and plastic components in an intense, time-critical chemical process in which material is shuttled through a series of tanks containing various chemical solutions. There is a critical minimum and maximum time that each part is submerged in a particular tank. Failure to adhere to these times leads to the product not meeting quality standards. The parts are moved through the line using a series of very high-speed hoists and shuttles but have been running on technology from 1980. The old PLC I/O modules, variable speed drives, and laser distance meters were obsolete and began to fail. This resulted in the plant being unable to source spares or repairs and the inventory of spare parts was rapidly depleted. A team of companies that included Trutegra was hired to completely overhaul the automation system. Trutegra was responsible for the electrical control system and provided upgraded PLCs, variable speed drives, I/O blocks, and laser positioning systems, as well as the network backbone.
In a project that was spread over three phases and four years, Trutegra executed the overall management of the coordinated activities, manufactured a significant quantity of new electrical control enclosures, and performed startup activities in extremely limited windows of downtime. A modular control system was designed to allow the one-at-a-time transfer of each hoist and shuttle from the old to the new control system. This activity was crucial to avoid the downtime necessary to upgrade each line at once, downtime that the plant could ill afford. Incremental upgrades were completed on weekends until each line was fully upgraded, keeping the plant operating at full capacity.
The most difficult part of the project was to design a foolproof system that allowed incremental upgrades to coexist with the old control system. To realize this demanded coordination of new wiring activities around an operating production line.
Several other challenges were faced over the life of the project:
- The existing control system was definitely “delicate,” i.e. components were brittle, the wiring was unlabeled and only limited documentation was available.
- The old and the new systems needed to both coexist and communicate with each other.
- Downtime of no more than 18 hours every second and third weekend was available for the upgrade activities.
- Highly proprietary components that were being replaced required custom engineering to replicate.
As a consequence of the upgrade, the entire system now runs on current technology that can be readily supported and maintained, has remote access for rapid troubleshooting, and contains components that will be available for the next two decades. All the hoists, shuttles, and elevators on the three existing plating lines have been automated. More accurate and long-term historical data of products produced, together with better reports for efficiency/material flow planning are now available. It is recommended that in the future other ancillary processes to the plating line be modernized, as well as considering further improvements in documentation, long term planning and the management of spare parts.