WestRock Consumer Packaging manufactures, prints, cuts and palletizes consumer food packaging cartons for leading manufacturers. Flat, branded cartons are manually loaded onto folding and assembly lines where they are glued, folded and palletized for Just In Time (JIT) shipments to various food manufacturers, who then fill the cartons and ship to grocers and other food retailers around the world.
In food manufacturing, incorrect packaging can bring serious liability, particularly due to consumer allergies. Although WestRock’s Claremont, North Carolina manufacturing facility used automated material handling for carton folding, assembly and palletizing, they, along with other WestRock locations, experienced frequent mixed cases on a pallet, resulting in the wrong packaging being sent to food manufacturers, and opening the potential for large liability. Palletized cartons, packaged flat and on their edge, tend to look the same during assembly. If, for example, a case of pepperoni packaging were to be interspersed with broccoli/cheese packaging, operators could not easily detect the mixed cases in the batch visually.
Mixed case scenarios were happening repeatedly at multiple WestRock locations. With numerous errors and such potential liability at stake, WestRock’s largest customer, a leading consumer food manufacturer, required changes to ensure mixed-case pallet errors would be eliminated for good. Although WestRock implemented a variety of manual processes to solve the problems, including visual “line clears,” supervisory sign-off on visual line clears, mandated emptying of all waste after production runs, and eliminating the reuse of old product on a line, etc., the errors still occurred, primarily due to manual processes, human errors and individual facility issues. WestRock’s customer wanted to see an automated system put in place to prevent human errors.
WestRock discovered Inovity (formerly BarCode ID Systems) from an Internet search for barcoding companies in Atlanta. Along with several other contenders for the business, Inovity began the meeting/discussion process with WestRock and quickly won the business for several key reasons.
Being Atlanta-based, Inovity could provide WestRock with an accountable, hometown provider, since the multi-facility project was driven out of WestRock’s corporate location in Norcross, Georgia, a northeastern suburb of Atlanta. Additionally, Inovity’ business footprint, which includes sales and system engineering offices in various locations in the central and eastern regions of the United States, fit closely with the WestRock plants that needed to be automated. Lastly and most importantly, Inovity was not just an industrial automation specialist, but also the only contender under consideration with extensive and comprehensive data collection, data management and industrial automation experience.
During initial discovery meetings, Inovity uncovered that WestRock was lacking visibility into its Work-In-Process (WIP) functionality, which could lead to damaging traceability issues. If they were to experience any printing, manufacturing or material problems, WestRock had to manually review production information with each department manager to get detailed traceability information for any job, other than the raw materials used and the day it was produced.
In order to provide the best solution possible for the mixed-case problem, Inovity suggested additional improvements to WestRock’s current WIP system. The solution known as Automation IQ™ or AIQ, would provide WestRock with real-time information about which case, which line, which operator and which raw materials went into a production run, along with where it was packaged, and where it shipped. By selecting Inovity for WIP system integration beyond the initial mixed case problem, WestRock would reap the benefits of improved traceability with immediate, on-demand access to production information.
Inovity visited WestRock’s most- and least-automated facilities to understand the gamut of production scenarios. The goal was to provide a solution for the mixed-case problems that would have minimal impact to operators, yet be flexible enough to accommodate other facilities of differing automation levels. Ultimately, if the solution worked to WestRock’s liking at the Claremont plant, it would be implemented across all of their facilities nationwide.
WestRock Consumer Packaging at Claremont was running long and high speed print jobs on four packaging lines moving at approximately 40 feet/minute, with one foot of distance between cases. Each line had its own robotic case palletizer that required no operator intervention, and workers rotated stations approximately every two hours. Product mixes often occurred when workers or shifts changed, when one job stopped and another started, when operators forgot to clear the palletizing robots, when they failed to eject existing product on the line before they programmed the next job, or for other manual/human reasons.
Inovity implemented programming changes to WestRock’s homegrown MRP system, “PFDCS” (Plant Floor Data Collection System), which feeds current job number information to the Automation IQ (AIQ) software, as well as programming changes to WestRock’s robotic palletizers and pallet stretch wrap machines. The complete system was designed, built and installed by Inovity.
Automation IQ is a Windows-based server application that controls peripheral devices such as fixed-mount scanners and digital I/O modules (in this case, two Microscan QX870s and two Moxa I/O Logic E2210s per line), and applies business rules and logic as required by WestRock. Upon receiving input from PFDCS and the fixed-mount scanners AIQ would use the DIO modules to translate Ethernet data messages into control signals which activated light stacks and signaled WestRock PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) to either activate diverters, end the robotic palletizing cycle, or stop the stretch wrap machine. The DIO modules were also used to receive control signals, such as resetting after a line stop. The AIQ solution works in detail as follows:
- Capture PFDCS job number and await input from a fixed-mount scanner positioned to scan the job number and unique case ID number from barcodes printed on the side of the shipping cases by an inkjet printing system. Send data to AIQ.
- AIQ compares the scanned data to the job data received from PFDCS
- As a configurable system based on rules created for WestRock, AIQ logs information into a database. If a NO READ occurs (box detected but scanner could not decode), it triggers a yellow flashing light and signal diverter.
- If a second case is a NO READ, AIQ flashes yellow & diverts the case again.
- On a third NO READ, the light stays yellow and a signal is sent to stop the line. Such a scenario could indicate a print quality issue with the inkjet barcodes on the shipping cases.
- On the first MISMATCH read (scanned data is different from job number expected), AIQ flashes a red light, triggers a diverter, stops the line, and sends an email to the quality control manager. The responsible line lead must manually reset the line by pushing a button, which forces the lead to address and/or resolve the problem. While any operator can stop the line, only the line lead has authorization to restart it.
- A MATCH scan triggers a green light and allows the case to pass.
- When workers begin a job from PFDCS and send the value to AIQ, AIQ triggers the robot to eject the pallet if the job number is different from the expected value. Operators can then confirm or change the load pattern.
Between the first fixed-mount scanner and DIO module is an intentionally-designed station for operators to manually inspect cartons. The second scanner and DIO act as a failsafe, because no operator can interfere with boxes on the line after the inspection station. This setup ensures that only the correct cartons and cases proceed to an elevator for robotic palletizing. Incorrect or poor-quality items are kicked-out before palletizing, which improves line productivity since the robots never have to stop.
Since implementation of the fully-automated AIQ solution, WestRock’s Claremont facility achieved 100% accuracy in packaging shipments to its customers. Personnel from WestRock’s largest customer have come to the WestRock facility to observe and evaluate the solution in action—and continue to do so—and are highly pleased with the improvements. The facility is also used as a showcase to attract new WestRock customers.
In addition to the mix-prevention functionality, the AIQ solution from Inovity added traceability improvements that WestRock didn’t consider when the project started. Each case is uniquely identified and production data is captured to reveal the day and time each individual case came off the line and was palletized. They now know which operator was running the line and which cases went onto each pallet, so any quality or performance issues can be addressed specifically.
Although WestRock had full understanding of its raw materials inventory and finished goods counts, they had no visibility of the materials or production status in between. The AIQ solution has allowed for improved piece-count accuracy and complete visibility of accurate, real-time production data. Prior to implementing AIQ, WestRock did not know which material runs were complete until an entire pallet was packed, shrink-wrapped, labeled, scanned and added to inventory from any of four lines running simultaneously. If operators went home for the evening and left both partial and full pallets on the line, WestRock had no way of knowing how many cases remained or where in production the job was, nor could they tell with certainty if an order would ship that day. Since they operated with paper tickets, often without true job numbers, they did not know the status of each order or even what job was running without asking a floor supervisor. Additionally, they did not know their scrap and waste rates. With the AIQ solution along with some adjustments to the PFDCS manufacturing system, WestRock could now determine which jobs were running on what lines and have production counts (cases produced, cases needed, etc.) and finished-case information available down to the second. All production visibility problems were eliminated and plant managers and supervisors could have immediate access to production information from all lines.
Because of the successes at the Claremont facility, Inovity has implemented AIQ at three other WestRock locations in Nicholasville, Kentucky, Conover, North Carolina and Joplin, Missouri. While each plant had unique production setups, AIQ was flexible enough to accommodate greater or lesser degrees of automation present at each location. WestRock is also considering implementation of a similar AIQ solution from Inovity in some of its pharmaceutical packaging plants.
The Automation IQ solution from Inovity provided WestRock with complete production visibility and traceability, and eliminated all mixed-case errors. With improved accuracy, efficiency and quality control, WestRock has maintained production output while achieving 100% accuracy in its food packaging shipments.
Since the initial installation, WestRock has migrated to Windows® 7 plant by plant. In an ongoing Professional Services engagement, Inovity provides on-site visits to ensure system functionality and assist with training new staff members, and has refined the “challenge process,” –a procedure to ensure that the system is catching errors properly—in a documented, repeatable process.
Inovity also provided WestRock with a stand-alone “line-clear” application, which verifies that all lines are truly cleared after product inspections. For this project, WestRock had various inspection points on their lines to check quality, glue dryness, package colors, etc. Inspectors would pull products from lines at any of 13 inspection points, and the products would then be added back to the line at some point after inspection. When operators changed product runs, they were supposed to perform a full line clear with a supervisor verifying that all points had been cleared. Because this was another manual process, some checkpoints were being missed resulting in mixed product lines.
Inovity wrote a stand-alone .NET application to ensure that the supervisor visited all 13 inspection points by scanning a stamped, metal barcode at each point to confirm the cleared line. The application would let the supervisor know if any of the points were missed.