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Technology: Computing on the Floor and Out the Door

April 1, 2009
A packaging manufacturer needed a universal platform to manage information.

Innovative Packaging Corp., based in Milwaukee, is a successful manufacturer of packaging materials. It produces a range of sheet stocks and specialty products that serve the finished packaging and converter industries in the North Central U.S.

The company occupies a 150,000-square foot facility with inside rail access and 13 active shipping and receiving docks.

Over its 12 years of operations, the manufacturer has supported its growth with a mix of technologies designed to meet material management needs. However, these technologies were sourced from a number of hardware and software vendors and ran under multiple operating systems, requiring support for both in-house and third-party software applications. Moreover, some of the older hardware platforms were not only becoming obsolete, they were also beginning to fail with greater frequency. These deployments included system installations at fixed locations as well as on Innovative’s fleet of propane-powered lift trucks.

“We needed a platform fast enough and versatile enough to deal with tomorrow’s software solutions as well as yesterday’s legacy systems,” observes Joe Sexton, electrical engineer. “The platform had to be rugged and able to stand up to 250 trips per shift in and out of trailers and rail cars in our dusty and cold Wisconsin environment.”

“To add another layer of complexity to our challenge,” continues Sexton, “we were looking for a new, more rugged universal platform priced so we could eventually replace all of our older manufacturing floor units with the same system. Our overall goal was to have a single hardware solution that met all our needs for both fixed and mobile systems. Doing so would help simplify support and service issues and minimize our spares inventory.”

A three-month market search involving extensive hands-on evaluation led Innovative Packaging to select Citadel Computer Corp.’s NetFORCE industrial computers combined with barcode scanners. Sexton explains, “Citadel’s NetFORCE systems matched with the scanners…along with the responsiveness of the company’s customer service and technical support, met or exceeded every requirement we had established at the outset of our evaluation process.”

Job and scheduling information is moved from front-office order processing directly to lift truck operators.

Innovative’s management system tracks material flow of raw roll stock, job scheduling and finished goods. The Milwaukee facility is capable of running more than 1 million linear feet a day. Depending on customer demand, production is scheduled by the square foot and runs between 7.2 and 8.2 million square feet per day. In a good economic environment, with orders running normally, this means the company may consume 340 rolls of raw stock per day—with each roll having an average weight of three tons.

The end product mix includes a wide variety of sheet stocks and specialty products. There are standard grades of corrugated as well as premium grades of white-topped liner board and clay-coated material for flex and offset printing applications. Innovative also produces specialty materials used for high-end packaging and point-of-purchase displays.

Typically, roll stock is moved by clamp trucks to feed corrugator operations. Finished goods in sheet form are transported off the line using lift trucks. Each material transport vehicle is outfitted with a NetFORCE computer running Innovative’s management application in real time on the facility’s 802.11 wireless network. Barcode scanners tethered to the computers permit lift truck operators to capture job data on the fly, minimizing the need for keyboard data entry.

NetFORCE computers are also installed at fixed locations on the manufacturing floor. They are used by machine operators as HMIs (human machine interfaces), providing realtime updates for monitoring manufacturing quality and raw material consumption.

While some floor functions overlap those of the mobile lift truck-mounted systems, there are important operational differences. A key advantage, however, is that the same hardware platform meets the needs of both fixed and mobile applications. Systems may be easily moved and reassigned to accommodate shifts in growth and demand without requiring significant hardware or software configuration changes.

The rugged computers offer a PC-compatible software environment with high-resolution color displays and integrated touchscreens. They are designed for direct installation on industrial vehicles with DC electrical systems.

With computing intelligence deployed across its manufacturing operation, Innovative Packaging can now move job and scheduling information through front-office order processing directly to lift truck operators responsible for hands-on material flow.

Quick, efficient production moves are key, explains Sexton. “We are a just-in-time vendor, which makes our ability to react to our customers’ needs the top priority. In most cases, if we receive an order by 5 p.m. tonight, and the production facility is within 300 miles of our plant, the shipment will be on the customer’s dock by 7 a.m. the next morning."

Gregory J. Walker is president of Manchester, N.H.-based Citadel Computer Corp. Visit the company's Web site at www.citadelcomputer.com.

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