By David P. Tryling
July, 2006

Not all automation projects can be big. Not all projects can break ground with new technology. Not all projects can add percentage points to the plant floor productivity. Sometimes there is not enough money in the budget, not enough time (or maybe not the desire) to launch a significant automation venture. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t projects that electrical personnel can undertake. Whether you are a technician, a programmer, engineer or leader, you know that there are always lots of “little” things that never seem to get done. So here are five project suggestions that might interest those of us in this fast-paced world. In fact, like the current trend toward cooking fast meals, these projects should be achievable in about one day each. That’s fast!

Project 1

How many times have you gone to do maintenance on something and found that you didn’t have the appropriate addressing information about a PLC or drive system? Further, what happens if you are the second or third person to work on the system and the previous people did not leave updated information? So turn your pain into a good one-day project.

First, establish a spreadsheet that records all PLC’s and drives by machine. If there are other electronic components such as process controllers, temperature controllers, or displays that require programming, add these to the spreadsheet as well. Once you have recorded all of the devices, make a trip to each machine and record or copy the appropriate programming information. For PLC’s, this requires ensuring a completely annotated PLC program that is up-to-date with the existing processor memory. For drives and controllers, this includes recording the parameter settings. In order for this project to be truly effective, every electronic component must be recorded and the information about that component organized. Likely, this will lead to questions about equipment for which you have never had the full information, so you may see some additional research projects spawned from this particular one-day project. Now take this little project one step further and make a laminated copy of the recorded settings and information and attach this to the inside of the door of the control cabinet.

Project 2

One of the largest sources of equipment failure, control cabinet fires or other intermittent problems is the simple loose wire. That’s why a great one-day project is to organize a group to proceed through the facility in an organized manner, checking and tightening all electrical connections. It is true that many machines are subject to significant amounts of vibration, causing connections to loosen up. A structured method of proceeding through the control panels and machine may be helpful. Starting with the main power connections and proceeding through the control panel connections down to the control circuit terminals. Where motor leads are exiting the control panel to motors or other loads, be sure those connections have not become worn with a risk of possible grounding.

Many end users are now learning the benefits of thermal scanning. A thermal scan is a process using infrared cameras to “view” electrical circuits in control panels and switchgear, as well as on machines, looking for “hot spots”. This scanning process can really be accomplished while the machine is operating. In fact, this may be preferable in order to get the maximum loading. Many thermal scanning companies will provide a detailed report as to the results of the imaging scan and statistically one catastrophic failure from a bad connection my more than pay for the thermal scanning effort. These thermal scanning results can be organized and kept on an ongoing basis, giving maintenance a historical view of the electrical connections on the machine or switchgear. This fits in with Project 2 – the “loose wire” project – because a thermoscan often identifies power wires that are loose and causing excessive heat.

Project 3

One of the biggest causes of electronic and automation equipment failure on the plant floor is heat. Even a power supply or a PLC when not even fully loaded, let alone overloaded, still generates heat. It is normal for these electronic devices to dissipate this heat throughout the control cabinet and depending on the cabinet and the designer’s requirements, additional cooling capabilities may have been added to the enclosure. Most industrial enclosures now have good sealing for dust and other environmental particles, however the buildup of dirt on heat generating devices limits the cooling capacity and then will cause premature failure. Even though it shouldn’t happen, enclosure doors get left open, fans and filters get plugged up. This one-day project asks you to define a list of your plant equipment and electrical controls and then make a structured attack toward cleaning them and the cooling equipment of the devices.

First generate an equipment list. Next, define a cleaning process. This may be as simple as vacuuming or it may be as complex as removing components and cleaning with special solvents. If there is cabinet cooling, be sure that the filtering is intact and clean. This project seems like an extremely simple one, but most field service agencies that will attest to the fact that it is rarely done. Take this project also one step further and generate a laminated checklist to be installed on the inside of the control cabinet door. Define when the cleaning was done and by whom, then identify the next scheduled cleaning date. Also, if doors or covers are being left open, figure out why and resolve the issue to eliminate future headaches for yourself.

Project 4

When a service technician is called to a customer’s facility to work on a machine, the most important thing they will need is to know exactly what the devices are on the machine and their electrical connections. This means that the electrical schematics need to be in good shape. For this one-day project, another survey of all the machines on the production floor should be developed and a review of the status of the electrical schematics should be undertaken. Several steps will probably be required. First, a review of any changes or revisions performed on a particular piece of equipment. Sometimes controllers get changed out with different parts, modifications are made for different types of sensors, and thirdly changes to the function or operation of the machine may have been made to accommodate changing production needs. The final part of this process is the review of all manuals for electronic components. Even if the schematic is up to date, sometimes there is a subcomponent that requires some understanding. This is when operations and applications manuals become important. Look at this as an opportunity to also get rid of manuals that are out of date or that no longer belong to any of the components or devices on the equipment. As the final step to this one-day project, establish a method of storing all of the appropriate documents and schematics together in one place and organized by machine. Make sure that this location is central so that anyone who needs to service the machine (day or night) will have access to information they may need.

Project 5

This is the last of our one-day projects and as with the other four, it also revolves around maintenance servicing for machinery. Assuming a machine breaks down and the service technician has determined the problem, more than likely, parts will be required. So this project asks you again to summarize and quantify the machines on the production floor and generate a specific list of spare parts that need to be maintained for each machine. Hopefully in your plant specification there are good guides to using common parts from machine to machine. This will help to reduce the spare parts inventory, although there will always be parts that are unique to a process. These will need to be inventoried as well. After you’ve made your list of parts you think you need for all of the machines, this project is still not complete. If there are parts that are not kept in inventory at your facility, then a source and contact for those parts need to be identified. Sometimes the process of discussing spare parts with vendors will lead to further information such as discontinued parts or even better and more effective parts to be used. And finally for this project, get the parts organized in a central location, making sure that their documentation gets stored with the machine schematics.

These have been five simple projects that you can do in a day – projects you can do for more effective maintenance on your equipment and make your life easier. One-day projects can be enjoyable because they can be completed quickly, generating an immediate sense of accomplishment. All of the projects ensure that some of the basic information and groundwork has been completed so that when a machine does require maintenance, you can concentrate on the problem directly and get back up and running as quickly as possible.