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BWI’s Industry 4.0 journey yields additional savings

Oct. 12, 2021
Global automotive supplier migrates automation and controls, realizing immediate benefits in costs and time

BWI Group is a global Tier-1 supplier of suspension, brakes and chassis components to many of the automotive manufacturers around the globe. BWI has manufacturing sites in China, the Czech Republic, Poland, the United Kingdom and Mexico and its U.S. production facility in Indiana is expected to create almost 500 new jobs (Figure 1). Rapidly growing customer sales and increasing volumes with existing programs is what drove us to build the new manufacturing facility close to our North American customers. Aggressive program and project schedules combined with pressure to reduce equipment costs created the environment for BWI Group to look for strategic partners.

A thorough analysis of the market leaders concluded with our desire to work closely with Siemens to tailor the latest automation technology to our needs in the BWI facility in Greenfield, Indiana (Figure 2). Our selection process considered costs and usability of hardware and software with an eye toward improved support and training, as well as meeting key metrics in the reduction of costs and downtime.

BWI’s strategic partnership with Siemens Automation for our Greenfield facility reduced the required investment in machine control systems, reduced the cost to support the production floor, and will reduce downtime and lost production, which directly impact the profitability of the facility.

Figure 2: BWI Group’s selection process considered costs and usability of hardware and software with an eye toward improved support and training, as well as meeting key metrics in the reduction of costs and downtime.

BWI Group has added manufacturing capacity quickly and cost-effectively to fulfill large new orders by deploying a wide range of Siemens automation, drives and communications solutions that resulted in cost and time savings, plus responsive support on the BWI 4.0 journey.

Deep roots

With roots going back to the dawn of automobile age, the BWI Group is a top-tier supplier of chassis, suspension and brake products to the automotive industry worldwide. Customers include nearly all large auto manufacturers. With headquarters in Beijing, China, the company has more than 5,000 employees and 16 technical centers and factories worldwide, and annual sales fast approaching $1 billion.

Its rich history started in Dayton, Ohio, where Charles Kettering invented an electric car starter in 1908, eliminating the sometimes-dangerous hand-cranking motors. Kettering’s Dayton Engineering Laboratories became known as Delco. It was eventually bought by General Motors and folded into the Delphi parts company that was spun off in 1999.

In 2009, the BWI Group acquired Delphi’s suspension and brake businesses, adding those to its existing chassis business.

Like many companies around the world, the BWI Group has embraced the Industry 4.0 vision of smart factories. In fact, it launched an internal, transnational initiative called BWI 4.0 to start its journey toward realizing the benefits of smarter factories for customers, as well as its own bottom line.

We want to take greater advantage of digitalization, such as integrated automation, digital twins and Internet of Things, so we can make faster decisions based on real-time or near-real-time data to improve our quality, efficiency and costs, while delivering ever-more value to our customers.

Up to the challenge

Adding manufacturing capacity quickly and cost-effectively to fulfill large new orders can be challenging. The BWI Group is growing fast, thanks to several large new suspension orders from U.S. customers that planned new manufacturing programs. To fulfill those orders, however, the company needed more capacity that was closer to customers in the U.S. market.

Because our North American customers operate lean manufacturing systems, which require just-in-time inbound logistics, it made sense to build a plant closer to their Midwest U.S. factories.

So, management decided to locate the new plant in Greenfield, Indiana, 25 miles east of Indianapolis. With U.S. labor costs higher than its other North American plant, the new plant had to be highly automated and extremely efficient to minimize operating costs. And, to minimize capital construction costs, the mandate was straightforward: reduce machine costs by 25%.

That was a tall order for our manufacturing engineering group. The new plant would have as many as 300 machines, large and small, from as many as 100 different builders. Of course, we’d have to work with each one to drive down our costs, but we also had cut the costs of our control systems. It really forced us to rethink how we do things.

And time was of the essence: Some of the customer programs had their schedules advanced by a year, which compressed our schedules by that much, as well.

Automation range

Having worked nearly 40 years in automation and controls across several different industries, I had extensive experience in the solutions portfolio of a U.S.-based automation provider. In fact, many of its products were installed and operating at our company’s Mexico plant.

But my allegiance to the supplier had waned after it responded poorly to a series of support issues. When a machine or production line goes down in our plants, our delivery commitments to our customers are immediately put at risk. If we don’t deliver when we say we will, their production can stop, potentially costing them lots of money, and that’s a huge mark against us. So, getting slow or ineffective responses to issues with their products was totally unacceptable.

Seeds of understanding

We decided the new plant was an opportunity to evaluate Siemens automation, controls and connectivity solutions, with which I was somewhat familiar. Two years before, my curiosity about the future of automation and controls engineering prompted me to attend a two-day Siemens modernization workshop. I wanted to find out what advancements Siemens had and what benefits they might offer, as well as what it would take to migrate from our current automation supplier.

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We have Siemens PLCs and other components in our other plants in Europe and Asia, so it was a chance for me to learn more. The workshop was led by former employees of our then-current automation supplier, so they spoke my language, knew my concerns and helped me understand how Siemens could help me address them.

With that basic understanding, and now with a chance to explore actually converting to Siemens, we called Siemens and its local automation distributor, C&E Sales, to find out more information and discuss options.

Big savings surprise

We discovered a welcome surprise, especially given the cost mandate. Siemens hardware was as much as 40% less expensive than our other automation products supplier, and software was less than half the cost. But as much as I liked the cost savings, the engineering and technical support was just outstanding, leading us to execute a global partnership with Siemens.

As the Indiana plant was built out, we found that support invaluable in planning automation, controls and connectivity. Among the Siemens components selected:

  • Simatic S7 PLCs, including S7-1500 and S7-1200 safety- integrated models, plus ET 200SP for distributed I/O
  • Simatic HMI Comfort Panels, including TP1200 and TP1500 color touch models
  • Simatic IPC industrial PCs, including IPC277, IPC477 and IPC677 models
  • Sinamics G120 and S120 drives for vector and servo motion-control duties
  • Scalance S615 managed switches with built-in firewalls for secure yet fast, prioritized packet traffic.

One feature of the Scalance switch that especially impressed us was its high-speed, highly deterministic isochronous real-time (IRT) Profinet with data-exchange cycles ranging from a few hundred microseconds up to a few milliseconds. With this protocol, the switch divides the bandwidth into two intervals: one is used for ultra-fast, deterministic data transfer; the other is used for standard Ethernet data that are not time-essential. This is extremely useful in robot applications, where motion control is critical. Our new plant needed this kind of flexibility that’s native to the Scalance switch.

All of the Siemens components are part of the Siemens Totally Integration Automation (TIA) portfolio. Modularly designed, many are self-configurable, which makes them effectively plug-and-play. Many have built-in web servers for remote diagnostics. All are programmable via the user-friendly, drag-and-drop capabilities of the Siemens TIA Portal. The TIA Portal is a common software engineering framework that can save as much as 30% or more of programming time, especially given its libraries of proven code.

Extraordinary migration support

In converting the code from the previous automation supplier to what can be used in the Siemens TIA components, we found the support by Siemens and C&E Sales to be unheard of in this day and age. We took a Siemens class specifically for migrating existing code, again taught by former employees of that supplier. The instructors know both programming environments, so they could guide us in every conversion requirement. Even more, Siemens was willing to help our machine builders with their programming issues, too.

One machine builder had spent the better part of a week trying to get IRT Profinet to work with a two-port Simatic S7-1500 PLC model. When I found out his problem, I called my contact at C&E Sales, as I didn’t know anything about isochronous real-time communications. He explained it to me in just a few minutes and how to use one PLC port for the IRT and the other for regular Profinet. I shared that with the machine builder and it worked. It took just 10 minutes. I’ve never seen anyone happier.

The need for speed

The application was high-speed data collection of dual force versus displacement data sets on the left and right resistance weld wheels of a reservoir tube seam welder. The seam welder welds a base cup to a reservoir tube to close one end of the tube for automotive suspension damper products.  The machine builder had finished design and construction of a reservoir tube seam welder.  The machine design included two resistance weld wheels with each utilizing high-speed force and distance measurement transducers on Siemens ET 200 I/O modules communicating to the Siemens S7-1500 PLC through a Siemens Ethernet switch. The goal was to capture and display an X-Y scatterplot of weld wheel force versus displacement data sets for the two resistance weld wheels in the PLC and display the data on the Siemens TP1200 HMI. The controls engineer configured the high-speed analog I/O modules connected to the load cells and the position transducers for isochronous-real-time (IRT) communications.

Figure 3: The combination of very high speed, low latency and a high degree of determinism with Profinet IRT allows the PLC to perform very high-speed data collection that is not possible using Ethernet protocols developed for the office environment.

Profinet RT is high-speed Ethernet communications with a typical latency of 1 ms to 10 ms and is used for communication between the PLC and the HMI and general analog and digital I/O. Profinet IRT is very high-speed Ethernet communications with a latency of 1 ms or less with 250 microseconds possible.  The combination of very high speed, low latency and a high degree of determinism with Profinet IRT allows the PLC to perform very high-speed data collection that is not possible using Ethernet protocols developed for the office environment (Figure 3).

The BWI 4.0 journey

The new BWI Group plant opened with the most modern and cost-effective automation and control systems of all its plants worldwide. Not only were Siemens component and software prices much lower than those of the previous supplier, but features such as the PLC’s integrated safety eliminated the need for adding safety relays throughout the plant.

We saved about 10% of our overall automation and control costs by using the safety-integrated Simatic PLCs. That alone helped us avoid capital investments that we’d otherwise have to spend to ensure the safety of our production floor.

BWI adopts new and emerging technologies based on several factors:

  • cost savings: lower investment in capital equipment
  • additional features: reduce equipment downtime, improve efficiency or reduce maintenance costs
  • connectivity: increased integration and communications that simplifies collecting data and turning it into information.

Integrating safety and control simplifies the control-system design and is less expensive in most cases. Safety programming and control programming are performed within one common integrated development environment.  Most importantly integrated safety and control has been proven to be robust, reliable and secure from unauthorized modifications.

Of course, we appreciated how the size of the cost savings on Siemens components and software, plus the cost avoidance their features offer, helped us to meet the 25% cost-reduction goal. We also valued the support from both Siemens and its distributor C&E Sales every step of the way.

I just can’t speak highly enough of the support we get. For example, I wanted to implement the message-queuing-telemetry-transport (MQTT) protocol on the Simatic PLCs. I went to the Siemens website, quickly found a white paper on the topic and then was asked if I wanted to download the code, which I did. This saved me at least 80 hours and probably more like 160 hours had I coded it myself.

MQTT is a publisher/subscriber protocol used within the edge-computing portion of Industry 4.0 to gather data from various remote processes not requiring high rates of data transfer, such as the temperature of a 350-gallon fluid tank. Since the temperature of the tank changes very slowly, capturing the temperature 1,000 times a second is not necessary, and once a minute is sufficient.  Using a transducer with Wi-Fi and MQTT capabilities allows us to capture the necessary data wirelessly from a remote tank without long cable runs.

New directions

This experience was different from the former supplier’s wanting a $200,000 contract to access the documentation needed to resolve PLC support issues. Another time, I was headed to our Poland factory where our machine builder was having problems getting IRT data from Siemens S7-1500 PLCs to display an X-Y scatterplot on the Siemens HMI TP1200.

Also read: PLC vs. Arduino for industrial control

Before takeoff, I rang up my Siemens distributor contact, who pointed me to a Siemens white paper, plus links to the TIA Portal and sample code. I forwarded those to our controls engineer in Poland. By the time I arrived many hours later, they had the configuration done except for some communication issues, which we resolved quickly with another call back to our Siemens distributor. We solved our problem with two quick phone calls, one from 4,755 miles away, and both at no cost.

Direct support worldwide

Siemens and its distributors stand 100% behind their products before, during and after the sale. And they get back to us in minutes or hours, whereas our previous supplier would take days or weeks, if ever.

Moving forward, we’re counting on the Siemens partnership to help us to realize our BWI 4.0 vision with all new equipment standardizing on Siemens components and software, while using the TIA Portal as a common engineering framework. We’re already planning on implementing that policy in the Mexico plant, and we expect the standardization to help reduce parts inventory costs.

BWI is taking advantage of the variety of Siemens PLC processors to fit the best solution to the automation application.  For example, using a safety PLC processor on small or simple standalone production machines eliminates one safety relay and provides some savings, but the most savings are realized on complex multi-station power and free pallet production lines, where 30 to 50 safety relays can be replaced by one safety PLC processor.

Roadmap to the cloud

Eventually, the BWI 4.0 team expects to interconnect the company’s plants and tech centers worldwide to take advantage of digital-twin concepts, advanced analytics using artificial intelligence and machine learning, among other technologies.

The team knows a cloud approach is the best, most cost-effective way to achieve these capabilities, so they are seriously evaluating the cloud-based Siemens MindSphere IoT operating system as a platform of choice. While we haven’t ruled out other cloud platforms at this point, we are giving serious weight in our selection criteria to the extraordinary support we’ve come to expect from Siemens and its long-established, global network of highly qualified distributors such as C&E Sales.

The fact is, we don’t think their support was a one-time act to win our business; we think it’s truly how they do business by putting the customer first. It’s clearly part of their culture.

About the author

F.W.B. (Bill) Taylor III is controls engineering supervisor at BWI Group. He is based at the company’s Dayton Technical Center in Dayton, Ohio, but supervises machine control system designs for all of North America. He earned a BSEET degree from the University of Tennessee in 1980 and MSECT from Indiana State University in 2004. His career spans more than 30 years working with industrial automation in multiple industries including food processing, automotive subassemblies and appliance manufacturing. He is familiar with many industrial processes: parts assembly, laser, MIG and TIG welding, fluid dispensing, precision machining and component performance testing. Equipment ranges go from small standalone lean machines to large power and free palletized assembly lines. His current role includes supervising the machine control system designs for all new equipment destined for the Greenfield, Indiana, facility and the existing Chihuahua, Mexico, plant. Taylor leads teams for implementing traceability, total predictive maintenance (TPM), strategic planning and BWI 4.0 (Industry 4.0), concentrating on the digitalization of production throughput. Contact him at [email protected].

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