System Integration & Control Systems Design

Hybrid Automation: Simplicity is the greatest sophistication pays dividends at Unilever

November 2014 System Integration & Control Systems Design

It is well known that a one size fits all approach does not work for most industrial systems, because it does not cater for the nuances of each and every business process or model. Since human error accounts for a large portion of the problems that manifest in daily production, which is amplified by a poor user experience, Unilever began phasing out its old systems in search of more customisable and cost effective management solutions. This was due to the previous system requiring extensive operator training as it was neither user friendly nor intuitive. At this point, Hybrid Automation was approached to provide a cost effective warehouse management solution for Unilever’s Indonsa plant in Durban.

After extensive discussions with the Unilever technical and production teams, Hybrid Automation proposed a simple yet effective user-centric solution to the problem. “In the advanced technology age we live in, requiring an operator to interact with the system through text-based input is simply archaic,” says lead software developer Suvan Singh.

Project overview

The new system was designed with two platforms in mind, one being for fixed Windows 7-based clients and the other to handle the mobile Windows CE smart scanners. To provide reliable communication between clients and the database server, industrial-grade Siemens Scalance access points were used to handle all wireless communication. The wired portion of the network is based on Weidmüller network switches located all around the factory and a state-of-the-art server running Windows server 2012 was also installed. All wired communication is done over an industrial grade Ethernet network, which forms the backbone of the system with the server used to host the databases and critical systems services required to provide the required functionality.

The client applications were designed and developed completely in-house in conjunction with the Unilever technical team. Both applications were developed in C#, since this language is the accepted industrial norm throughout Europe. The system essentially tracks a pallet of material products through the various life-cycle stages from delivery up until consumption. Unilever has various locations where specific pallets arrive and this system manages all transactions between the various areas. To facilitate this, the responsible employees were all given Motorola C3190 mobile barcode scanners to be used to scan the pallets at the various transaction points.

All transactions are viewed on desktop clients at the various locations from where requests are made for material to meet the current production requirements. The applications were all designed according to the principle of ‘simplicity is the greatest sophistication’ – the company ethos of Hybrid Automation. Extensive reporting systems were also included to allow the production and management teams to track a pallet through its entire life-cycle. This information proved to be invaluable to the business analysts as it gave a true estimation of the production trends at Indonsa.

Benefits of the system include:

* Extensive reporting and reduced product wastage.

* Minimal production delays due to the correct products being available at the appropriate time.

* Fewer human errors as the system is more user-friendly.

* Less training required to operate the system saves time and expenditure.

* Significant increase in stock-keeping accuracy.

Hybrid Automation’s unique mix of experience allowed it to deliver exceptional work in a timely fashion and at an affordable price. Its reputation as a premier industrial automation and control firm is founded on this.


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