Power to the people at Pacesetter Steel

Jan. 18, 2018
Operator input key to transforming production operations at rolled steel processor.

By Christine LaFave Grace, Plant Services managing editor

Pacesetter Steel's transformation via the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) into a more-efficient, more-responsive, more finely tuned organization began with shipping, and it began with a simple question: How can we digitize this and improve productivity?

“Part of the process in any of these 4.0 setups is continually speaking to your people and finding out what they want and what they need.” Pacesetter Steel’s Tyler Grahovec on a key ingredient of the company’s digital successes.

So related Tyler Grahovec, VP of operations at the 40-year-old steel processor, in a presentation at Smart Industry 2017. "We started this path to Industry 4.0 years before we even knew what it was," Grahovec said. In 2009, a year after implementing a new enterprise resource planning system, the Pacesetter leadership team realized it wasn't taking full advantage of all of the ERP tools at its disposal.

After sitting down and asking, "What are we not using right?" Grahovec said, the team identified shipping as an area ripe for digital improvement. Until that point, Pacesetter had used a magnet board to keep track of shipments—what went out and when—and it was one person's full responsibility to ensure that that board was up to date.

It was hardly a real-time system. So with the help of Pacesetter's IT team, a digitized shipping board with touchscreen functionality was created. Today, with that tool and with the aid of sensors on production lines and RFID tags on skids, team members can drill down into shipping data and see what's where in the facility, what has shipped, what's ready to ship and what's delayed.

In addition, in 2011, Pacesetter debuted a digital production scheduling tool to help eliminate the burden of trying to track and make sense of production data throughout the day and schedule tasks using a paper-based system. "One of the things operators said was hurting them was they were overwhelmed by paper that it was slowing production," Grahovec said. Moreover, if, in the morning, production and maintenance managers were discussing downtime, "it was yesterday's news," he said.

Real-time visibility

The digital production scheduling system, by contrast, gives visibility into real-time production metrics updated throughout the day. "As we update our production schedule, it tells them exactly what they're supposed to be producing," said Grahovec. The new tools' results speak for themselves: Pacesetter has seen a 30% improvement in productivity since it began its digital transformation, and the company now boasts 97% on-time delivery.

Employees across roles, teams and responsibility levels appreciate the visibility that defines Pacesetter's still-evolving digital manufacturing environment. Plant managers and foremen appreciate being able to track materials use and production throughout the day, he noted. As for operators? "One of our operators said, 'I get it now; you want us to compete against each other,' " Grahovec said. "I said, 'Exactly.' " Previously, shift-vs.-shift production and downtime weren't tracked. Now, teams can tell exactly how they stack up day by day. "(I said), 'Here's your opportunity, show us what you do,' " he said.

The latest step in the digital transformation was the launch this fall of a skid changeover app track skid changeover time and downtime, developed in partnership with Industrial Intelligence, a Pacesetter spin-off formed to bring the company’s digital learnings to other manufacturing organizations. The company "went out and found tools that we can integrate into our lines," he said – and that part is crucial in making continued IIoT investments both cost-effective and quick to implement, Grahovec indicated. "This is all real-time data coming out of PLCs from the '90s," he said. "To replace all of the PLCs would have cost $1 million or $2 million." Pacesetter turned over its skid downtime data to Industrial Intelligence in early September, and a week later, the app was in hand, said Grahovec.

Key to any successful IIoT initiative–one that delivers quantifiable results and becomes thoroughly adopted and integrated as a new way of working–is a too-often-novel concept: Asking team members what they want to know.

"Part of the process in any of these 4.0 setups is continually speaking to your people and finding out what they want and what they need," Grahovec said. "We sit there and really look through what our people need to be able to make these tools usable." When it came to the production scheduling tool, that meant going out to the line and asking operators the metrics that would be most useful for them. "What it was finally decided that everyone really needed to see were the previous order, the current order, and the next order," he said.

Given some software tools' expansive technological capabilities, "you can give (team members) a lot of data that can overwhelm them," Grahovec noted. From an operations standpoint, the point of these tools should be "trying to give guys on the line usable data"–allowing them to make decisions and correct problems quickly.