Brick and Structural Clay

SPECIAL SECTION/BRICK & CLAY RECORD: CASE STUDY: Going Wireless

November 1, 2011
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New wireless automation options enable technology to meet art in brick manufacturing.

A totally integrated automation (TIA) package enables each phase of the company’s manufacturing process to communicate for overall control and data collection without a network of cables and wires.


As an art, brick making can trace its roots back at least 7000 years. While the process has evolved, the science of brick manufacturing did not receive a major technology boost until recently, when brick manufacturers initiated an investment in automation and robotics to increase efficiency, productivity, and safety while reducing their environmental footprint.

Moreover, it is only in the last two years that one brick manufacturer has turned another technological corner by connecting its processes wirelessly to create a totally integrated automation (TIA) package. This innovation enables each phase of the company’s manufacturing process to communicate for overall control and data collection without the installation of a costly network of cables and wires.

Moving Beyond Manual

Columbus Brick Co. was founded in Columbus, Miss., in 1890 by Willis N. Puckett. At that time, clay was mined with picks and shovels and transported by mules to be formed into bricks via wooden molds and heat from red-hot coals. Finished products were shipped by mule, railcar and steamboat, and all processes were completely manual. Now a business in its fifth generation (with Willis Puckett’s great-grandson Allen Puckett III as owner and president), the company is leading the way for other brick makers to realize cost management and savings by implementing wireless communication throughout its automated processes.

“By the 1970s, Columbus Brick ran certain processes in its plant from PLCs and analog technology that were considered state of the art at the time,” says Nigel Hough, engineering director for the company. “However, many of its processes, such as loading cars, were still done by hand. In the late 1990s to 2000, the brick industry as a whole was about 15 years behind other industries when it came to automated processes. Around that time, a revitalization fueled by the building boom came about in the industry, and some companies felt the need to invest in technology.”

Hough says it was not the large, multinational companies that first paved the way for automation in manufacturing clay brick, but smaller, family-owned companies within the U.S. “There were about eight or 10 independent manufacturers in the United States that first invested in robotics 10 years ago,” he says. “Allen Puckett, as owner of Columbus Brick, had the foresight to invest in technology and build what we now call ‘Plant 2’ in 1999 to 2000. At the time, it was completely state of the art, with robotics and other automation, and it doubled manufacturing capacity for us.”

Manufacturing phases now communicate from the point of weighing the trucks entering the facility through crushing, extrusion, drying, firing and packaging.

Expanding Automation

During Columbus Brick’s expansion, Hough was working for Krumbach, Germany-based machine manufacturer Hans Lingl GmbH & Co. KG, which supplied many of the automated machines for Plant 2-machines that routinely employed controller hardware and software developed by Siemens Industry, Inc. Once the expansion was complete, Hough remained in the U.S. with Columbus Brick as the company worked to continuously improve processes.

“With Plant 2, we went from 1970s push-button PLCs to a facility with the type of robotics that had only really been used in the automotive industry until then,” says Hough. “We reduced the manpower requirements for Plant 2, while the manufacturing capacity remained comparable to that of Plant 1. Overall, our capacity doubled.”

With all of its automated processes, however, Plant 2 still lacked a means of collecting and managing data in some areas. The company’s decision to go wireless two years ago initially came about as a cost-effective, practical means of measuring and recording weights from the truckloads of clay that enter the plant-something Columbus Brick had not been doing up to that point.

Most truck-weighing systems use a PC to record measurements from an adjacent load cell, and the pairing is usually hardwired with a serial connection. Hough says Columbus Brick wanted to be able to weigh trucks of clay so it could more accurately manage production data. To install a weighing system, however, the company would have had to build a scale house, and then wire that zone to the rest of the factory. Because of the layout of existing plant and office buildings, especially the location of the clay hopper to the crusher, the only logical place to install a scale was some distance from the buildings.

“At that point, we decided wireless was the most beneficial way to install a truck scale,” Hough says. “It prompted the decision to connect the entire plant wirelessly.”

At first, Hough started integrating such improvements as managed switches on his own, working with the network to give the company better control. But when Columbus Brick began upgrading to a wireless backbone for a better level of control, Hough contacted Siemens for more direct assistance.

Hans Lingl’s widespread use of Siemens computer automation in its machines had familiarized Hough with the automation company and its TIA capabilities. Plant 2’s robotic machines use Siemens controllers, PLCs, and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA). “I had seen Siemens’ progression of technology throughout my career,” Hough explains, saying it was this familiarity and trust that prompted him to ask Siemens for help as Columbus Brick integrated wireless systems for communication, data storage and project planning into Plant 2.

New Backbone

Plant 2’s automation backbone had been PROFIBUS (fieldbus) for eight years. With the new wireless capabilities, the backbone is now PROFINET (Ethernet) and uses Siemens switches.

“Parts of the manufacturing process had been linked with a PROFIBUS network, from PLC to PLC,” Hough explains. “It was a hardwired fieldbus system. For more flexibility, we leveraged the PROFIBUS but added the Ethernet network to overcome the limitations of the PROFIBUS.” Scalance then brings all of the information back to the control room and office for viewing and control via HMI.

The next stage of the upgrade was incorporating wireless radios to overcome the distance between processes. Areas of the plant that had not been included in the PROFIBUS network because of the cost associated with distance and wires now could be made accessible to the network through wireless communication.

Columbus Brick’s old SCADA was upgraded to enable the control room and main office to view data on an HMI. While Columbus Brick’s Plant 2 had ASi safety zones installed in places, Hough wanted to incorporate safety PLCs on conveyors for the material preparation phase. Siemens’ Smart motor control centers (MCC) were installed using Siemens Simocode modules to provide greater control of the motors. “We wanted to be able to extract operating conditions for the motors, such as tracking increases in torque, which can indicate mechanical wear,” Hough says.

Starting with the truck scale in late 2007, Columbus Brick has upgraded Plant 2 so that all processes can communicate within the TIA package. Manufacturing phases now communicate from the point of weighing the trucks entering the facility through crushing, extrusion, drying, firing and packaging.

Hough says Columbus Brick is using a modular approach with its Smart MCCs and wireless communications, which will enable the company to continue to upgrade the plant for enhanced safety. Areas such as the drying room in Plant 2 that currently have wired I/O through buttons and switches are being converted to the wireless system. This change will provide additional options for controlling the cars stacked with brick as they move through that area. Wireless communication will also improve the kiln area, which sustains increased wear on its wired communications as a result of the high temperatures produced by the kiln.

“Our most recent project was to tie in the electrical utility so that we can monitor our consumption,” Hough says. A Siemens PLC measures the pulses from a smart meter with a modem. The utility and Columbus Brick can both read the meter from the modem, which currently runs over a telephone line.

“We could have connected this wirelessly, but the utility couldn’t use that technology. However, as a result of our new monitoring capability, the Simicode module in the Smart MCC at the compressors allows us to pull up a report on energy consumption, which enables us to track not only costs, but also how well the motors are working over time. We are currently in the process of expanding that philosophy to other MCCs for larger motors in the plant. It is going to mean a difference between theoretical consumption and real consumption,” Hough says.

Maintaining Its Art

While its manufacturing processes have taken advantage of robotics and the latest in wireless automation, Columbus Brick has continued the traditional art of manufacturing brick in the “papercut” method, in which paper covering the clay is cut along with the brick, leaving a softer, more rounded edge. The practice of putting the paper back into the brick (i.e., burning off the paper during the firing process) is more environmentally sound than trying to recycle it in other ways.

Today, the process is rare, but papercut brick are valued for their unique aesthetics. “The characteristics of the brick are essentially the same whether they are made in Plant 1 or Plant 2, but getting there is different,” Hough says. “Plant 2 is more efficient. It is safer, and there is not as much physical labor involved.”

In Plant 1, seven employees are required for packaging because the brick have to be manually stacked. However, as a result of the automation in Plant 2, only two employees are required for packaging. While some aesthetic differences to the brick result from the different packaging processes (physically stacking the brick in Plant 1 creates more chippage, which is a physical characteristic sought by some builders), forming a pack of stacked brick through an automated process creates less waste material because there is less chippage.

Overall Improvement

“Adding wireless capabilities to the plant has been very cost effective,” says Hough. “Without the wireless, it would be a huge task to upgrade with wired stages. In addition, the groundwork that was laid with Plant 2 will allow us to upgrade Plant 1 more easily. For instance, it will be easy to add the Siemens Safe I/O to the conveyors in Plant 1.”

Hough says the next planned upgrade is to start introducing wireless safety features to the PLCs in Plant 1. “From a preventative maintenance aspect, we are adding intelligence to Plant 2 to control the number of starts per hour, for example,” he says. “We can also bring in the aspects of monitoring bearings and temperature, which will require sensors. Wireless opens it up. We no longer have to use wires for every aspect of an upgrade or expansion in intelligence, which has given us the flexibility to add technology and cross boundaries that were restrictive before.”

For more information, contact Siemens Industry, Inc. at (800) 241-4453; email helpline.sii@siemens.com; or visit www.usa.siemens.com/automation. Columbus Brick’s website is located at http://columbusbrick.com.

SIDEBAR: Columbus Brick Technology Investment at a Glance*

• Wireless radios (six): SCALANCE® W <

• Motor control centers (three): Siemens Smart MCCs

• Networks: ASi® (low level), PROFIBUS (mid level), PROFINET Ethernet (high level)

• Unmanaged switches: Scalance® X005 (upgrading to managed switches throughout)

• Truck scale controller: Simatic® ET200

• Modular I/O: ET200S

• Mid-range controllers: Simatic S7-300F

• Upper-range controllers: Simatic S7-400

• SCADA software: WinCC® Simatic HMI

* Siemens technology throughout.

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