2016 – spring Issue

Breathing New Life Into An Old Machine

At Dean Foods in Le Mars, IA, a decision had to be made. Should the company replace the aged and malfunctioning Spot-Pak packaging machine or spend the money to re-automate and give it a new ?life?? To avoid long downtimes and stay cost effective, Dean Foods chose Interstates to help rejuvenate the equipment.

Jeff Miller, Director of Project Management at Interstates, says, ?We basically did a complete retrofit of this machine which included new servo motors and drives, new machine safety equipment, a control panel upgrade, a new Human Machine Interface (HMI), and a complete controls software rewrite.? Precision was of utmost importance for this motion project. Filled containers needed to be picked up and placed precisely on cardboard sheets to which hot glue had been applied, then picked up again and double stacked with another layer of product. At that point they were conveyed to a shrink wrap machine and then to a palletizer.

Ultimately, the operator selects a formula from a predefined list that then loads the control parameters to handle the incoming containers in exactly the same manner each time. ?It?s all about making sure everything is perfectly lined up, every time, no matter the container size that enters the machine? says Miller. Interstates ended up replacing all the machine motion control equipment. ?It?s critical to be able to track and control exact positions,? says Miller, ?so we installed all new, state-of-the-art equipment.?

The Interstates team spent quite a bit of time up front listening to the plant engineer, operators, and maintenance techs to fully understand how it needed to work as well as to determine where the current ?pain points? were. The old machine would frequently get lost during operation and need to be ?re-homed? by opening up the safety doors and manually positioning the lifting head so it could find the home position again. One of the client?s goals was to provide the operator with a method to re-home without having to open up the safety doors, speeding up this process significantly. With the new controls, instead of opening the safety doors (and encounter the risks involved), problems can now be sorted out with a simple touch of the HMI screen. With upgraded systems and controls, human intervention is far less necessary, fulfilling one of Dean Foods? primary goals for the project.

To get the plant back up and running with very little downtime, Interstates teams worked over a busy weekend to get the job done. ?We got in there on a Friday, and by Monday they were running product through again,? says Miller, who adds that choosing the retrofit option versus purchasing a brand new machine saved Dean Foods weeks, if not months, of downtime.

Miller also identifies determining project scope as somewhat of a challenging task. ?We wanted to deliver what they truly needed, not just what they asked for,? he says. A lot of time was spent discussing with the client and figuring out their needs and the real issues behind what they wanted done. This communication helped Interstates meet Dean Foods? needs and deliver the right outcome. For example, the controls software is much more user-friendly than before, based on listening to the client?s issues. ?Instead of just making it work better, let?s really solve their issues,? is a sentiment that Miller explains the team had throughout the project. Another key to the project?s success was utilizing expertise. By using the talents of a wide range of Interstates employees and other partners, the project was completed with great results despite the tight time frame. ?The machine was probably over 15+ years old, and our hope is that now they can get another 15-20 years out of it,? says Miller.