Gray Solutions Ic Photoshoot 0823 148
Gray Solutions Ic Photoshoot 0823 148
Gray Solutions Ic Photoshoot 0823 148
Gray Solutions Ic Photoshoot 0823 148
Gray Solutions Ic Photoshoot 0823 148

Customer-driven Gray Solutions focuses on creative applications to drive production quality and speed

Oct. 5, 2023
System integrator’s use of technology to aid speed to market has led to innovation in digital twins, artificial intelligence and cobot integration

All 275 team members at Gray Solutions are called “solutioneers,” explains Walker Mattox, CEO. “While many have an engineering background, every solutioneer drives effective and efficient solutions for our customer,” he says. The system integrator, based in Lexington, Kentucky, works primarily with customers in the food and beverage, consumer packaged good (CPG), life sciences and chemical industries, mostly in the United States, but also Canada, Mexico and Ireland. “We work both in the physical and digital environments developing creative solutions that help our customers overcome challenges and make advancements.”

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For customers in those industries, developing systems to manufacture new products faster and more efficiently is a major focus of Gray Solutions’ work. “Speed to market has been and will continue to be a major area of focus for our customers and that is truly end to end, from getting the equipment installed and automated to product on the shelves,” Mattox says.

In addition to automation and controls consulting, design and integration, Gray Solutions consults on technology platforms and implementation, offers procurement services of equipment and control panels, and provides process design services that help customers visualize and lay out their production lines. Gray Solutions is also a member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA).

Bridging protocols: the importance of open communication standards

In the hunt for the best equipment and software, manufacturers are becoming more vendor-agnostic, Mattox says. “From a technology standpoint, there’s an increasing need for open communication standards,” he adds. “The underlying products, while having different control architectures, must be able to seamlessly work together.”

Gray Solutions is witnessing a growing demand for non-traditional modes of intercommunication, says Matt Meiser, manager of digital transformation at the system integrator. Customers with robotics systems from various vendors have asked Gray Solutions to seamlessly integrate the systems with each other, along with control and management systems (Figure 1). Other customers are exploring integration of conventional control systems with cloud solutions, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platforms. While open platform communications (OPC) has historically facilitated open communication on the plant floor, it has become increasingly vital for these systems to communicate using modern, secure and open methods, including application programming interfaces (APIs) that conform to message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT) and representational state transfer (REST), Meiser says.

Sometimes the system integrator does find projects locked into a certain brand when expanding on an existing system, which may require third-party translation devices, says Paul Ericksen, senior automation engineer at Gray Solutions. “Utilizing third-party solutions in itself introduces problems such as increased complexity, additional points of failure, requiring maintenance and engineering staff to learn a different system, and keeping additional spare parts in inventory,” he adds.

Third-party applications can be used to bridge between protocols, or a middleware or custom application can be used to bridge or translate messages, explains Brent Humphreys, principal, digital strategist at Gray Solutions. “We need open communication standards that are fast and secure,” he says. “The important part is to carefully plan the handshake between systems and meaning of each field to ensure that both sides of the integration have a clear view of the communication status.”

Gray Solutions was named as a System Integrator of the Year by Rockwell Automation and maintains a strong relationship in the partner network. “However, we believe it’s vitally important to be brand-agnostic when it comes to our customers. We collaborate with our customers to determine what is best for their needs on a project-by-project basis,” Mattox says.

Digital-twin tools for spatial planning, live modeling and facility layout

Solutioneers at Gray Solutions have been “obsessed” with the potential of digital twins, Mattox says. The team evaluated a number of tools and locked in on Emulate3D, which it uses as its primary simulation tool.

“Emulating solutions for our customers prior to producing them in real life allows us to proactively catch design issues before implementation, increasing the project's overall efficiency and ultimately delivering a better result for our customer,” Mattox says.

Rick Graff, senior application engineer at Gray Solutions, has used Emulate3D on many customer projects:

• To retrofit existing designs—Space is a finite resource, especially when adding on to existing operations. Gray Solutions performs to-scale spatial planning upfront to ensure all the pieces of the production puzzle fit snuggly in the space available.

• For emulation modeling—By modeling live processes, such as packing bags of fresh produce, it can pre-determine equipment needs and throughput rates, optimize design and virtually test sequential controls long before large capital investments are made.

• To maximize resources for a greenfield plant—By creating a 3D digital twin of a customer’s new facility, Gray Solutions analyzed travel paths of autonomous mobile robot (AMR) and automated guided vehicle (AGV) early in the process to minimize interference and optimize traffic flow, cutting the number of AMRs needed in half (Figure 2). This saved more than $500,000 in equipment cost plus another approximately $1 million in programing and commissioning expenses, according to Graff.

Data to power artificial intelligence

At the center of its customers’ operations lies data, and Gray Solutions views data as an essential utility for manufacturers, like electricity or compressed air. “Gray Solutions is helping companies organize their data by providing data assessments for structure, data collection/integration and data quality,” says Greg Powers, vice president of cool stuff at Gray Solutions.

Data is also critical to employing artificial intelligence (AI) (Figure 3). “With respect to AI, Gray Solutions’ focus has mostly been on advanced vision systems, in the area of quality inspections,” Mattox says. Visual-inspection-automation (VIA) software goes beyond the capabilities of traditional machine vision in detecting anomalies and defects, working with products that have natural variations.

“Using proven vision AI technology, manufacturers can scale production, reduce waste and adapt to workforce changes, while achieving even higher levels of quality control,” Powers adds.

“It’s also important to understand that, while AI will absolutely transform this industry, leveraging any kind of AI or machine learning (ML) without a robust data library is impossible,” explains Mattox. “Most manufacturers need to focus on data collection and robust security to lay the foundation for the inevitable adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

Cobot innovation for production quality

Some of the most innovative work being done at Gray Solutions right now is focused on quality improvement using collaborative robots (cobots) to sample products during the production process (Figure 4). The results can be fed back to the control system for real-time adjustments. “This not only can help improve quality but is also being used by customers to make an impact on their energy consumption when placed properly,” Mattox says.

One Gray Solutions’ customer, a pet-food manufacturer, deploys cobots as part of its food-inspection process. “Inspecting variables like moisture content ensures less scrap as product is being produced,” says Dean Elkins, senior director of advanced automation at Gray Solutions. “With less scrap comes less energy required for rework. The cobots themselves can run on 110-V power with significantly lower kiloVolt Amp (kVA) requirements than larger industrial robots, which equates to using less power.” Remote capability to monitor cobots via cellphone or personal computer (PC) means plant personnel does not need to travel on-site to monitor equipment or production rates, he adds.

“When you get a solutioneer focused on your problem, they’re guaranteed to bring one thing to the table—curiosity,” Mattox says. “Our innate curiosity as a team allows us to uncover innovative solutions to complex problems every day.”

About the Author

Anna Townshend | Managing Editor

Anna Townshend has been a writer and journalist for 20 years. Previously, she was the editor of Marina Dock Age and International Dredging Review, until she joined Endeavor Business Media in June 2020. She is the managing editor of Control Design and Plant Services.