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From spreadsheets to smart manufacturing with real-time data and seamless integration

Nov. 21, 2023
Downeast Cider House implements Plex by Rockwell Automation to optimize operations of fermentation tanks, robot, palletizer, twist-rinse can line, filler and seamer machine at its Boston facility

For more than a decade, Downeast Cider House in Boston was managing its growing production and packaging processes with Google Sheets. Ultimately, the country’s top craft-cider maker’s operations grew too large to manage with a spreadsheet application, so in the spring of 2023, Downeast adopted the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform from Rockwell Automation.

The Plex manufacturing execution suite (MES) allows the Boston cidery to connect, track and analyze data in real time to manage raw materials, optimize production schedules, minimize stockouts, improve warehousing and enhance packaging processes.

Producing around 150,000 hectoliters annually, Downeast currently has distribution in 18 states, as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Colorado.

When it realized it needed to better manage and accommodate its growth, the cidery began looking at enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) systems such as SAP and NetSuite before choosing Plex.

Downeast’s head of production and supply chain, Grainger Flint, set out on a course to track every step of its process from receiving apple juice to shipping packaged and palletized cans of blended cider (Figure 1).

“Plex is tracking all of our production,” explains Flint, who pointed out an operator can use Plex software to run checklists for each individual case as it’s loaded onto each individual pallet, which helps to ensure a quality product each and every time.

Downeast receives tankers of pressed apple juice at its waterfront facility, where it’s fermented for about a week, turning it into a hard cider with approximately 13% alcohol by volume (ABV). The cider is flavored in bright tanks to give it a variety of blends that are then canned and packaged before shipping (Figure 2).

While Downeast has reached its current facility’s capacity, it utilizes Plex and the DemandCaster portion of Plex to not only measure demand, but to know what it needs to have in terms of capacity for ferments. “It has been incredibly enlightening and has allowed us to not have to utilize co-packing as much as we would have,” said Flint. “Co-packing is where we would rely on outside parties to package some of our products. We do all of the brewing and fermenting here in-house. We then have to tanker any finished wine to an outside party. It's incredibly expensive, but it's the only way that we're able to increase our capacity at this moment.”

When Downeast integrated its processes and equipment—a Fanuc robot, TopTier palletizer, twist-rinse can line, filler and seamer machine—with the implementation of the Plex technology, there were a few limitations. “Unfortunately, we haven't been able to really utilize all of what Plex is able to do with integration,” explained Flint. “A lot of our technology is homegrown. We're a small business. We've had to keep this place together with paper clips and rubber bands, and that involves our software, as well.”

A lot of Downeast’s operations were developed by outside parties, but now it’s able to look toward the future and integrate that into Plex. “We can take some of the manual checks out of our operators’ hands,” explained Flint. “We're looking forward to using the million-dollar calculator that Plex is, but the sky's the limit for us through the design phase and then going live. We really focused on the critical aspects of our business. Knowing that after go-live we would then be able to add on to Plex with all of the things that it has to offer.”

With 60 of its 200 employees in-house, the remainder of workers are spread out across the 18 states where the cider blend is sold. Plex implementation required an entirely new skill set, which is why Downeast turned to the Revolution Group (Rev), an IT and ERP integrator. Pat Welsh, director of manufacturing ERP consulting at Rev in Columbus, Ohio, was the point person on Plex implementation. “About a week after go-live, they were able to be hands-off, and we were able to then run Plex by ourselves. Right now, our accounting leader and I are the main admins for Plex, and we don't use outside services to help us with the support.”

Plex has been much more cost-effective than any other ERP solution that Downeast could have used, said Flint. “Weve already seen the dividends of it—the return on investment—within seven months. As soon as we went live, each operator was using Plex every single day. Every pallet that's created, every raw material that comes into the building—one of our operators is going to be in Plex utilizing the systems there to track all the products from start to finish.”

Usability was one of the key features that sold Downeast on Plex. “It's an intuitive system,” said Flint. “It’s very usable for our operators. We wouldn’t be able to use a system that’s more intensive, one that has more-difficult jargon. One other thing that we're very proud of is the fact that Plex also allows for Spanish within the system. We have a lot of operators here that use English as a second language, and they speak Spanish on the floor.”

About the Author

Mike Bacidore | Editor in Chief

Mike Bacidore is chief editor of Control Design and has been an integral part of the Endeavor Business Media editorial team since 2007. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning multiple regional and national awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at [email protected] 

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