Manufacturer Leans In On Shop Floor Automation
May 18, 2016 Alex Woodie
When Hoffmaster finally flipped the switch on its ERP migration at the end of February, IT director Rick Dittberner was nervous. Not only was the paper-goods supplier consolidating a manufacturing site on Infor ERP LX, but it was also replacing an old shop floor reporting system with a new one from Crossroads RMC. There was a lot that could go wrong for the IBM i shop.
Hoffmaster is a half-a-billion-dollar manufacturer of disposable tabletop paper products, including plates, cups, cutlery, napkins, placemats, and table covers. You can find products from the Oshkosh, Wisconsin, company’s consumer division in stores such as Target and Wal-Mart, while its institutional division makes custom-printed products for big food service companies like Sysco and US Foods.
On the manufacturing floor, giant mechanical presses run 24/7, converting massive rolls of tissue into final product. A devoted AS/400 shop since 1990, the company has come to rely on Infor ERP LX (formerly BPCS) to automate manufacturing processes, while it counts on Manhattan Associates‘ IBM i-based Warehouse Management System (WMS) to handle distribution of finished goods.
Nearly 10 years ago, the company acquired a competitor that ran an IBM i-based ERP application from fellow Wisconsin company HarrisData. While Hoffmaster had been diligent about keeping its Infor LX environment up to date (it’s currently running version 8.3), the HarrisData environment running at the Clintonville, Wisconsin, facility was not kept up to date. Eventually, it decided to consolidate on Infor LX.
Those Green-Screen Shop Floor Blues
In addition to consolidating ERP systems, Hoffmaster had to decide about the shop floor reporting. There were significant differences in that department. The Clintonville facility had an integrated system–in fact, the company Hoffmaster acquired had worked with HarrisData to develop it–whereas Hoffmaster’s original manufacturing facilities used paper-based methods.
While the HarrisData-based system was computerized, getting it to work with Infor ERP LX was not a task Hoffmaster wanted to explore. In fact, the functionality was no longer up to snuff. “The old system was green screen. Everything was function-key driven,” Dittberner tells IT Jungle. “You had to push 15 different function keys, then all of a sudden you’re out of function keys, so you press F24 to get more keys. You’re going through screen by screen by screen. It was very cumbersome.”
It could take two to three months of training to get new operators–many of whom were temporary workers–fully up to speed on the green-screen shop floor system at the Clintonville site. And even then, the reporting system didn’t always correctly account for the amount of raw material going into the presses, and the amount left over that needed to be flushed back into inventory.
“We found out, at the end of the day, we were doing more adjusting on the backend of the system to correct the errors,” Dittberner says. “Really, we had a double entry going on. We probably would have been better off going back to paper.”
Hoffmaster does its best to keep track of the giant rolls of tissue paper. Because they can sometimes be hard to find on the open market, the company stockpiles paper in warehouses and even stores some offsite. But whatever the company tried, the rolls somehow found ways to disappear–or at least to become invisible to the computer system until it was too late.
“If you miss a couple rolls in there, it’s big bucks,” Dittberner says. “We were actually struggling so bad we had to come up with a custom application that allocates it based on what they produced on the finished good side. It all comes down to [the fact that] we’re not scanning the rolls directly as the operator is consuming them. We’re basing it off of product produced.”
The situation was screaming for a solution, and it would soon find one.
At A Crossroads
When Dittberner asked his contact at Infor what to do about his shop floor reporting problems, Infor recommended that he look at Crossroads RMC. The Infor partner actually sells its IBM i product through Infor, so that was a pretty good recommendation.
The Crossroads RMC shop floor system runs on IBM i and features a graphical, touch-screen interface. The system is designed to replace paper-based processes and enable operators to report the number of widgets they create and back-flush the remaining raw material into inventory–all without the need for paper. Giving managers real-time visibility into the state of affairs on the shop floor is another advantage that Crossroads brings.
It all looked good on paper, but Dittberner had his concerns. ERP migrations can be career killers for IT executives, and here he was being asked to tack a shop floor reporting migration on top of an ERP migration. With all the additional moving parts involved in a new client-server system–including 802.11x wireless networking, new thin-client computers, barcode scanning, thermal label printers, and IBM i interfaces–it seemed like a recipe for trouble.
“I was nervous,” Dittberner admits. “I thought this was a huge risk, putting a whole new shop floor reporting system in there. I was anticipating a drop in production based the system not functioning properly, not being able to print labels out of the system–all those things could definitely bring down a machine. We really did not have a backup to production reporting other than moving everything to paper.”
Fortunately, the company didn’t have to. “When we weighed all of our products, Crossroads pretty much convinced us their product was plug and play and their integration back to LX was solid as a rock, and they were right,” he says.
Crossroads RMC solution executive Anthony Etzel helped implement the solution at Hoffmaster, as well as train the first batch of users. “There wasn’t a whole lot of work that my development team had to do out of the box,” Dittberner said. “It was pretty much plug and play with the base LX shop-floor reporting functionality, and the integration back to LX is very solid and works very good.”
Even the integration with Hoffmaster’s label printers was pulled off without a hitch, thanks to integration with the company’s IBM i-based label software from TL Ashford. “We upgraded to latest and greatest version of TL Ashford, then we converted all the label formats and hooked that right into Crossroads MES system,” he says. “So it’s running off the iSeries with the iSeries driving it through our queues in a separate partition, so it works very slick.”
There has been no drop in productivity at the Clintonville facility, where 85 machine operators interface with the Crossroads MES touchscreen systems powered by Viewsonic thin clients. (The company had hoped to implement a virtual desktop infrastructure [VDI] architecture, but VMware‘s hypervisor couldn’t support touch-screen displays.)
The flow of material on Hoffmaster’s factory floor is much smoother today. Raw material flows in from forklifts, operators feed it into machines, and finished product and excess material flows out. Everything is barcoded for the operators–even clocking in and out–so aside from some interaction with the touch-screen, operators rarely feel like their working with an IBM i server on the backend. Function keys are a remnant of the past.
“Just tracking the material [with barcodes] has really helped us as far as inventory tracking and inventory management,” Dittberner says. “We’ve seen an immediate decrease in errors.”
The company plans to implement Crossroads at its other facilities, including one with about 25 workstations and at the Oshkosh facility, which has about 85 workstations.
At the end of the day, the Crossroads RMC shop floor system stood up to the test. “It was the shining star of the migration,” says Dittberner.