Project Success: Automating Complex Systems

Alyssa Asplund
September 15, 2023
10 minute read

Manufacturer's Journey to System Automation

A renowned manufacturer decided to undertake the challenging task of automating their intricate material production system. Manual operations of the system were difficult and complex, requiring several precise adjustments at key moments throughout the process. This was essential to create an end product that would meet the stringent specifications set by their critical client. Unfortunately, manual operations often resulted in failed batches and wasted time and material, compelling the manufacturer to automate the system in order to maximize precision, consistency, and cost-effectiveness. The outlook seemed bleak, however, as they had already failed three previous attempts to automate the system. It seemed that the extreme complexity of the process made it automation-proof; however, they determined the persistent waste in materials, time, and opportunity from the batch failures was too high to ignore.

Background Information

The manufacturer's proprietary product system exhibits unparalleled excellence in its designed purpose and sets the industry standard. It owes its unique functionality to the formula's incorporation of special particles arranged in a precise distribution. Achieving this critical specification involves an intricate procedure, mandating precise adjustments in heating, cooling, pressure, and mixing speeds--all with impeccable timing. This process is transformational and is the key to giving the product its unique functionality, provided it is executed correctly.

The final and paramount step is rigorous testing to ensure that the particle dispersion of the final product falls within an acceptable range. This crucial quality control test is performed twice, once by the manufacturer and again by the client, with success leading to the sale of the batch to the client, and failure resulting in its disposal.

The Process Automation Challenge

Despite monumental efforts made in three previous attempts to automate their intricate process, the exceptional precision and variations required for successful production proved elusive to automation, necessitating manual operations. Operators manually controlled variables in heating, cooling, pressure, and speed, opening a substantial risk for human error. As a result, approximately an eighth of the batches failed quality control testing and had to be discarded, creating major losses in material and labor costs, as well as the opportunity cost created by suboptimal operations.

Recognizing the substantial value that could be gained with improving the process, the manufacturer embarked on a fourth attempt at automation, with an understanding that the benefits of successful process automation would quickly offset the automation costs within approximately two years.

Project Initiation

The manufacturer opened the project up to competitive bidding. Three bids were received, including one from their preferred automation provider, and another from a surprising contender, APCO Inc.

Initially skeptical, the manufacturer conducted thorough interviews with the APCO team to assess their competency. Ultimately, they were convinced of APCO's expertise, and entrusted them with the project.

APCO's approach was distinctive from the project's outset. They began by meticulously crafting a comprehensive and detailed layout of entire system process: a challenging task, given the lack of up-to-date P&ID documents. Additionally, APCO's engineers actively contributed process improvement suggestions throughout the project, demonstrating their unwavering commitment to manufacturer' s long-term success.

The Results

After successful implementation of the new system, all that remained was the final production step: rigorous quality control testing. They had to ensure that the distribution of the special particles of the batches created on the automated system met the stringent qualifications to be considered a viable product. A comparative analysis between the end product of the automated system and that of the manually operated system revealed that the automated system consistently delivered a more optimal and uniform dispersion of the particle. When the client received the product and conducted their own quality control tests, they were highly impressed with the quality achieved by the automated system. Consequently, the client mandated that all future product they received be exclusively manufactured using the automated system. Over time, the effectiveness and consistency of the automated system led to the tightening of the acceptable margin of error, ensuring only the highest quality materials would be produced. 

In conclusion, the project represents a significant step forward for the manufacturer in terms of consistency, precision, and automation. With APCO’s expertise and cost-effectiveness, the resulting collaboration transformed the manufacturer's operations and improved the product's quality, reduced batch production time, and significantly curtailed waste and costs.

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