1660318086408 Herotruck

Modernization brings Navistar facility forward 30 years

Dec. 4, 2020
The project enables new levels of productivity, quality and efficiency.

By Keith Larson, Smart Industry editor at large

When, in 1987, Navistar first opened its $77-million robotic paint facility in Springfield, Ohio, few would have taken the bet that the original, then-state-of-the-art controls would still be plugging away more than 30 years later. But as with many other operational technology (OT) systems commissioned even decades ago, a dramatically compelling business opportunity or precipitating event often is needed to justify modernizing systems that are still doing the jobs they were designed to do.

In the case of the Springfield paint shop, which today produces painted cabs for several models of International Truck and GM vehicles assembled nearby, the aging and obsolete systems were growing increasingly difficult to maintain, troubleshoot and procure replacement parts for, according to Justin Schlater, information systems director associate, Navistar, and DX Champion finalist in Smart Industry’s 2020 Transformational Leadership Awards.

Navistar’s paint shop in Springfield, Ohio, prepares cabs for several models of International Truck and GM vehicles en route to nearby final assembly operations.

For starters, the original system relied on software running on a long-outdated VAX—for those who still remember Digital Equipment Corp. and its popular line of minicomputers. “All supporting hardware and technology for the legacy system was obsolete and no longer supported,” Schlater says. “Its age also limited integration with modern systems and human-machine interface applications, significantly hampering the paint shop’s ability to drive continuous improvements in quality, production capacity and cost.”

The last straw came in March 2018 when the legacy system’s database vendor notified Navistar of their intent to discontinue support for the version that ran the facilities two parallel production lines. “We worked out a two-year contract to allow enough time to either upgrade the database to a supported version or execute a complete system replacement,” Schlater recalls.

The clock starts

With a hard deadline suddenly looming, Navistar assembled a core, cross-functional team of specialists in controls engineering, operations, quality, IT and project management as well as contracted an external project manager with extensive experience in paint operations and manufacturing execution systems (MES).

“It was important to ensure that we had a strong team and firm grasp on the scope that was required to keep operations running,” says Schlater. “I worked directly with the paint-facility manager to select a strong, versatile and cross-functional team to drive the project forward.”

Given the loss of operations that would ensue upon expiration of the legacy system software, the return-on-investment for a thorough modernization of the paint shop systems was suddenly clear. Further, the team estimated a savings of $500,000 annually in efficiency gains related to improvements in first-time quality, warranty costs, data handling and downtime achievable with a full modernization.

Navistar turned to Rockwell Automation, which had supplied the original Allen-Bradley programmable logic controllers when the paint shop was first commissioned. “We worked with Rockwell to assess requirements, create blueprints and estimate a timeline for a complete replacement of the hardware and software, leveraging commercial MES capabilities in lieu of upgrading the legacy database and continuing to support the Navistar’s in-house, custom-developed application.” The functional requirements were used to develop a comprehensive bid package, define the benefits of the new solution and acquire needed approvals to fund the project.

Nine months, no downtime

So it was that Navistar aspired to leap 30 years forward in technology, process and capabilities—in only nine months from first purchase order, and without incurring any incremental downtime. “We were able to install a completely new fiber-optic automation network, convert the legacy controllers to ControlLogix, implement a new automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), upgrade all Smarteye auto-ID readers, upgrade motion controllers in pre-treat, and successfully implement an MES that now controls the facility,” says Schlater.

Improved auto-ID tracking systems plus large, touchscreen dashboards allow Navistar to closely monitor cabs as they move through the facility’s parallel pre-treat and curing-oven lines.

The new system was brought fully online during the weeklong holiday shutdown at the end of 2019, and then it was off to the races. “Even with technology and the culture change that comes with all the new technology at once, the operations and project teams were able to ramp up and meet production volume within the first week of operations.”

The new system has effectively transformed paint shop operations. For example, it enables quality analysis in a variety of categories such as by model, color, shift, time and paint line. Standard reports, dashboards and alerts enable employees to quickly assess performance, react to issues and implement process improvements. The MES also captures and stores a great amount of historical product data for problem-solving, including paint usage and process parameters such as oven temperatures, residence time, booth temperature and humidity.

“The paint shop operates with extensive process control plans, or quality checks,” says Schlater. “Currently, most of the checks are documented in paper logs. But the new system enables data entry for the process checks, which assists in auditing the execution of process controls as well as reacting faster to out-of-compliance conditions.”

The new system has also led to throughput improvements. “We implemented a new generation of auto-ID readers, which resulted in more robust product tracking and less downtime. We replaced the obsolete, unsupported ASRS software with MES logic, resulting in faster recovery from issues. The MES also includes alarm annunciation, resulting in improved maintenance response and less downtime. Finally, downtime data collection has greatly improved, allowing for better determination of bottlenecks as well as the ability to establish throughput baselines, track improvements and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).”

Planning to scale

“We have used this implementation to showcase how, with the right vision, focus and support, digital transformation of even 30-year-systems is possible, usable and affordable,” Schlater says. He and the rest of the team have had little time to rest on their laurels, however, and are currently in the requirements planning phase for a full campus MES deployment at a new Navistar manufacturing facility in San Antonio.

“And we’re developing a roadmap to deploy to all other manufacturing facilities subsequently,” Schlater says. “We are now looking for internal partners to pilot use cases in general assembly with the possibility of rationalizing more than 50 disparate shop-floor systems into a single MES. This will significantly reduce complexity and costs while increasing efficiency and data sharing.”

Operations has truly adapted and embraced the culture change enabled and empowered by the transformed system. “They now look to the system to request help and respond to help calls, capture and search for data, and use the new dashboards to drive timelier decision-making,” Schlater says.

“Instead of meeting at the end of a shift to review manually gathered data and make decisions for tomorrow, they can now leverage real-time, data-driven dashboards throughout the day to make quicker decisions—driving reductions in overtime, downtime, and quality defects.”