Plastics Company Prevents Errors With RFID

Aurora Plastics has adopted a system from Quest Integrated Solutions, using Janam hardware, that not only helps prevent costly mistakes in the process of off-loading plastic resin, but also improves rail-yard management.
Published: November 2, 2018

Thermoplastic compounds company Aurora Plastics has boosted its resin-unloading and yard-management efficiency, while also preventing unloading errors, by deploying a radio frequency identification solution provided by Quest Integrated Solutions, a division of Technology Recovery Group (TRG). The system employs RFID reader hardware supplied by Janam Technologies.

Founded in 1997 and based in Streetsboro, Ohio, Aurora Plastics develops and manufactures polymer compounds customized for a variety of applications, such as building and construction, recreational, automotive, wire and cable, hose and tube, batteries and footwear. The firm manufactures rigid and flexible PVC compounds, thermoplastic elastomers, custom thermoplastic olefins, CPE alloys, PVC-acrylic alloys, low-smoke zero-halogenated compounds, flame-retardant concentrates, SBS and SEBS compounds, and PVC and TPE cellular foam compounds.

A screenshot of the software running on FactoryTalk Studio

Aurora Plastics operates five compound manufacturing sites, including the Streetsboro facility and three others in Welcome, N.C, Lunenburg, Mass., and Marieville, Quebec. The company, which has grown since its founding, now sells its plastic compounds across the United States and Canada, as well as in export markets. Its largest facility is in Streetsboro, where it makes products using different types of PVC resins that come in daily via rail, to be loaded into onsite dedicated resin silos. Each year, the firm unloads more than 100 million pounds of PVC resin from railcars at its Streetsboro plant.

The process of unloading resin into the proper silo has the potential for error, however, says Seth Scott, Aurora Plastics’ assistant plant manager, and a single mistake could be costly. If even a small amount of resin were transferred to the wrong silo, all product in that silo—up to 200,000 pounds—would be rendered unusable. Therefore, historically, a great deal of manual effort was required to ensure the right product was stored in the proper silo, including cross-referencing a railcar’s ID number and the product it should be carrying.

To bring visibility into the railcars and the products they carry as they enter and leave the yard, the company began searching for an automated solution. It started working with Quest Integrated Solutions in 2016 to develop a solution, says Jack Brower, Quest’s director. The companies had previously partnered to develop a custom bar-code-based solution for another operation at the plant, he notes.

Each railcar comes with an automatic equipment identification (AEI) UHF RFID tag attached on both sides, which helps freight companies identify those cars. Aurora wanted to take advantage of those tags already attached to the railcars. Scott recalls, “We thought, ‘Why not utilize that technology so that it has a dual purpose?'” Quest recommended using Janam’s XM2-RFID handheld reader to interrogate each railcar’s tag, and to forward that ID to Quest’s software (hosted on a local server), so it could then be linked to data about the car, along with the product contained within.

When the company first receives a railcar, an operator uses the Janam reader to link the RFID tag to the car’s serial number in the Quest software, according to Doug Lloyd, Janam’s VP of global sales. Aurora Plastics can thus document that railcar’s history, thanks to integration with the company’s manufacturing management software.

The plant operates two rail spurs on which railcars come in daily, loaded with a variety of resins. The railcars are parked at a specific location (there are up to eight on each spur) and are hooked up to a pipe connected to particular silos, into which the product is unloaded. When a railcar is scheduled to arrive with resin, Aurora Plastics receives a notice indicating the car’s ID number and the product loaded within it. The railcar’s serial number is linked to the ID number of the RFID tag on the side of the car.

Seth Scott

Once a railcar arrives, workers use the Janam handheld to read its tag ID and view data from the Quest software regarding what product is stored inside the car. They can confirm that the railcar is in the proper spot, then connect the offloading pipe to the car dedicated to a specific silo of resin. In addition, the Quest software is connected to the PLC system for the offloading equipment. If the railcar is not loaded with the expected resin, or if it has not yet been inspected, the offloading system will not function.

However, Scott notes, the technology is being used to do more than prevent errors during offloading. The railcars may remain onsite for hours or days before leaving the site, and yard managers traditionally had to walk the spurs and visually identify when each car was at a given location, as well as its status as either loaded or unloaded.

With the RFID system, employees now carry the handheld reader while walking through the yard, identifying each railcar and automatically updating the software on a daily basis. That data can then be shared with supplier companies so that they can better dispatch the movements of those railcars. “This was an extensive project that took many months of collaboration,” Brower states.

The system was taken live approximately 14 months ago. Since then, Scott reports, “We’ve had zero problems with it.” He speculates that the yard-management system pays for itself merely by preventing a single error, but adds that the solution also provides efficiency gains. “When we did the project, I wanted to do more than eliminate human error in unloading,” he recalls, noting that the technology has improved the scheduling of railcars into and out of the facility. In the future, he says, the company may opt to launch the technology at a new site in Pasadena, Texas.