Americans are more germ-conscious than ever. That’s one factor fueling the demand for hard-surface disinfectant wipes, which are designed to remove bacteria and viruses on everything from kitchen counters to doorknobs. Convenience is another major factor: You can simply pull the ready-to-use wipes from a plastic canister, rather than turning to the more traditional spray-and-paper-towel method of household cleaning.
Rockline Industries has built a healthy business by manufacturing these disposable, private label wipes for major retailers. At its plant in Sheboygan, Wisconsin — one of seven the company operates globally — Rockline produces millions of wet-wipe canisters a week.
“It’s been a great run for these product lines and the demand continues to skyrocket,” said Pat Rusch, operations manager at Rockline’s Sheboygan plant, which also manufactures coffee filters. “We can sell every canister we can produce. It’s been a tremendous challenge scaling our operations with that growth.”
That means that any increase in incremental capacity is well worth the return in revenue. “An incremental 5 percent in throughput is an incremental 5 percent in capacity for us, which means an incremental 5 percent that we can sell,” explained Frank Hacker, general manager at the plant.” To capture those dollars, plant management embarked on a journey in 2006 to obtain the real-time data that’s essential to drive continuous improvement.
A Backwards System
Back in 2006, the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) for many of the manufacturing cells on the wet-wipe side of the plant was below 50 percent. Improving that number would require better visibility into how the lines and the individual machines were operating within in the five large work cells, which operate 24 hours a day. Each manufacturing cell is dedicated to producing a specific size or type of wet wipe. The products vary in count and ingredients, including different sanitizing formulations and scents.
The cells contain a series of machines and equipment that are strung together in series. Maintaining the right balance and speed on the line is critical to avoid common bottlenecks, like a jams in a capper, labeler or filler, that disrupt the flow and trigger unplanned downtime.
Before 2006, each of these events would be captured manually. Whenever a machine went down or came back up, an operator would enter the time on a piece of paper, as well as line speeds and other parameters. Later, technicians had to key the handwritten metrics into an Excel spreadsheet, which was then shared with operators, managers and engineers in various plant departments.
“Our paper-based system for production reporting was very cumbersome when it came to trying to understand and analyze data,” said Hacker. Another problem: The system only looked backward. “We needed to understand our assets in real time. With that information, we could also look forward to see how we could fine-tune the process to increase throughput and reduce costs. Rusch added, “It became very obvious that the only way to sustain growth was to find a tool or a set of tools that would allow us to consistently deliver year on year continuous improvement.
In search of a solution, the Sheboygan plant managers turned to Rockwell Automation and Stone Technologies, a Gray Company Allen‑Bradley products already were the cornerstone of the plant’s manufacturing infrastructure. Rockline managers were impressed by the capabilities of the company’s FactoryTalk® Metrics software as a potential solution for monitoring its plant-floor equipment. The solution helps provide accurate, timely, granular and specific information on machine production, performance and activities.
“Given that we were already using an Allen‑Bradley control system, FactoryTalk Metrics was the ideal option as it would integrate seamlessly to the technology we already in place,” Hacker said. To convert that option into reality, Rockline put together a team consisting of its own engineering experts, some from Rockwell Automation and others from Stone Technologies, a Rockwell Automation Information Solution Partner. They approached the project in systematic stages, starting with one cell and a scaled-down version of the software solution – meaning it collected a limited selection of data.
The results of the pilot far exceeded Rockline’s expectations. Managers had projected a six-month pay back on initial project, but got their return on investment in three months. “Within a couple of weeks of implementing the FactoryTalk Metrics solution, we saw an immediate 5 percent gain in OEE and throughput,” Hacker recalled. “That was enough to see the system was well worth the benefits. Just by being able to react and to respond to issues in real time, we were minimizing downtime and optimizing uptime.”
As Dan Engelhard, Director at Stone Technologies, explained, “Previously, Rockline was catching big downtimes, but missing the micro stops. With the Rockwell Automation data analytics solution, Rockline could now understand those stops and how they were disrupting continuous flow. The results justified moving the FactoryTalk software into the other manufacturing cells. By that time, employees in others cells were clamoring for the new system.
Each cell underwent a “hard” transition, meaning the software replaced the manual data-collection system virtually overnight. To quickly bring operators up-to-speed on the computerized solution, training experts from Stone Technologies knew they needed to take an immersive approach.
“Cultural adoption of a new system can take a while in many companies,” Englehard said. “Rockline, with our assistance, became very aggressive in that arena. Operators weren’t allowed to use pencil, paper or clipboards after the system went live. We went straight to the screens.”
Employees can view the real-time status of the operation from any vantage point in the cell. Large panel displays in the center of each work center scroll data points at a steady rate. During downtime – scheduled or unplanned – the displays become giant clocks that track the time required to return to normal operations.