Many companies are beginning to automate their production to a large extent in order to become more effective and less prone to errors. Thereby different machines and systems in the production process must be able to communicate with each other. Open Platform Communication (OPC) is a standardised communication protocol that enables data exchange between these applications. OPC is based on standard interfaces for automated data exchange across all levels and is therefore an important communication tool for Industry 4.0. Old communication paths are being replaced step by step and production is being modernised. The OPC standard is mainly used where controllers, sensors and control systems from different manufacturers have to communicate with each other and, if necessary, with other systems. The acquisition of process data and their visualisation enables both monitoring and optimisation of the entire production steps.
Automation of a filling line for special chemicals
A company with a long tradition in production of special chemicals has set itself the goal of automating and optimizing its production. In the course of process optimisation the company decided to renew its filling line completely and to simplify the individual work steps considerably and make them less error-prone. In the filling line, plastic is filled into containers – for example for sealing purposes. A pack is a transport unit for combining goods. In logistics, the goods are bundled in packaging units of different sizes. Afterwards they are loaded onto pallets and fixed with foil or straps.
Until now, the plastic was filled into buckets and placed on a pallet by a robot. After that, the final number of packs or buckets had to be reported back to the system by hand and an employee had to apply the label to the pallets by hand. A transport order was then manually entered into the system so that a forklift driver from the logistics department could pick up the pallet and prepare it for delivery. This process was very complex and error-prone, so the manufacturer decided to automate the process.
Communication and automated data exchange between different systems
After extensive research, the person responsible for the company’s SAP Basis & Subsystems came across inray’s software product “OPC Router”. He was particularly impressed by the good price-performance ratio: “First of all, we installed the test version, which worked without any problems and without any further support. When the new system was commissioned in May, the full version of the OPC Router was integrated directly into the new system”. For the chemical company this was the first use of a software-based middleware in operation.
In the new bottling line, the packs are automatically filled on a conveyor belt, and a robot places them on pallets according to a previously set palletising pattern. The pallet reaches a turntable with labeller fully automatically. During the entire process, the OPC Router continuously requests all required data from the connected systems. When it receives a telegram – for example for the automatic turntable – it retrieves the number of packs on the pallet and the process order number from the PLC (Programmable Logic Controller). The information will be translated and the correct quantity will be added to SAP using a Remote Function Call (RFC). Remote Function Calls can be used to invoke functions in remote systems. Communication via RFC is not only possible between two SAP systems, but also between an SAP and a non-SAP system. The label for the pallet is automatically created and printed in SAP, the company’s ERP system. This label is attached to the pallet by machine without the need for manual application by an employee. The forklift driver receives a message from the system on his terminal as soon as the pallet is ready for collection. After the entire process has been completed, the complete message is returned to the PLC by means of the OPC Router and additionally stored in an SQL Database. This ensures monitoring and malfunctions or failures can be traced back later. Thanks to the integrated database, every second of the filling process can be traced back.
Intuitive handling and optimised processes
The new bottling line has already been running since 1 May 2019 and is extremely productive. “We are very satisfied with our choice so far and have not yet experienced any failures or malfunctions. The OPC Router runs extremely reliably,” explains the customer.
The company had also considered another provider, but after successful completion of the test phase over a period of around four months, they decided to use the OPC Router from inray. The installation was completely independent of the industrial software manufacturer. “At the beginning, we naturally had contact with the support team, which always gave us feedback promptly, but the system is very easy and intuitive to use”. In addition, after a successful test phase, the company decided to make an expert of its own. This employee therefore took part in a training course at inray’s premises in order to learn more about the OPC Router. inray constantly offers up-to-date workshop dates on its own website in order to provide its customers with optimal support.
For the chemical company, the coupling with SAP was one of the most important basic requirements for the new communication solution. The communication platform to be procured had to have an SAP interface, as SAP is the central system in the company. The communication between the systems works excellently with the OPC Router from inray, explains the company.
By using the new machine with Siemens PLC and OPC Server, the company was able to significantly reduce the number of steps in the filling process. However, this does not mean that the employees are now superfluous. Where manual work used to be carried out, an employee now controls all work steps of the machine via a terminal and keeps an overview. This is far more reliable and can be easily monitored via the connected SQL Database. When manually entering the data for feedback, typing and input errors often occurred in the past, which can now be avoided. Filling has also become faster and more efficient, since manual labelling, for example, is now fully automatic. There is also no longer a backlog which previously had to be cleared manually by an employee.
Currently, the bottling line is the only machine running with this new technology. According to the customer, however, a follow-up project is already being planned. “Our next step is to optimise our transport routes in logistics. For example, where exactly a pallet should go, i.e. in which transport line after it has been shrink-wrapped.” The project is currently still at a very early stage of planning. However, the OPC Router from inray was convincing. Also in the next project, a Siemens PLC with OPC Server will form the basis and send the queries directly to SAP. The intuitive operation, the interface to SAP and the good price-performance ratio speak for themselves with the OPC Router. The easy handling clearly set the inray solution apart from the competition. The one-day workshop was completely sufficient to implement the new software correctly. Nevertheless, inray’s support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week – just in case.