Standardization of process automation systems helps reduce costs and improve efficiency for an oven and furnace maker.

Although industrial ovens and furnaces operate on a simple concept, it takes considerable engineering and manufacturing expertise - combined with the right automation controls - to optimize the technology and make it viable in a range of applications. It is precisely these capabilities that have helped propel Rochester, N.Y.-based Industrial Furnace Co. (IFCO). The company designs, constructs and upgrades boilers, incinerators, kilns, smelters, multiple hearth furnaces, heat treat furnaces and fluidized bed reactors, but it also offers complete solutions that incorporate electrical, mechanical and process engineering capabilities as well as concept analysis, laboratory testing, field installation, startup and training. Because the company’s technology includes heat processing systems that generate emissions below EPA guidelines, the company’s systems can be used in a range of applications such as tungsten recovery, magnesium production and activated carbon production from coal.

In this age of sustainable manufacturing and production, one furnace application garnering considerable interest is the incineration of bio-solids in wastewater treatment plants. Instead of hauling waste off-site for disposal in a landfill, many treatment plants are using multiple hearth furnaces to convert the cake-like sludge into ash. The ash then is sold to fertilizer or cement manufacturers. In addition, the plant can use heat from the process to generate steam to produce electric power, turning what was previously a financial liability into an asset.

To enable these technological advances, the heat processing equipment maker invested in its design and manufacturing capabilities, establishing engineering teams with specialized mechanical, electrical and integration expertise. Equally important has been the company’s willingness to apply innovative automation and control technology efforts to streamline its engineering, design and startup processes.

Process Automation System

At the center of IFCO’s furnaces is a process automation system, the PlantPAx based on the Rockwell Automation Integrated Architecture platform. A unified process, discrete and information solution, the process control system is built on Allen-Bradley ControlLogix programmable automation controllers (PACs). These devices use a common control engine and development environment for a range of disciplines - from process to safety to motion.

The system controllers are configured using the company’s RSLogix 5000 software, which helped IFCO reduce engineering time and streamline integration and troubleshooting. The software offers a common tag-based structure that uses real names rather than physical addresses. Tag names can be shared between controller programs, human-machine interfaces (HMIs) and other applications, helping reduce configuration and integration costs. In addition to standardizing on the process automation system, IFCO also uses a range of Allen-Bradley industrial control components.

Regardless of the application, most IFCO’s furnaces have a similar design. This allows modular software to deliver significant value to the equipment manufacturer. By using the software’s built-in instruction set and user-defined, add-on instructions (AOIs), IFCO’s designers save engineering time by creating a custom, commonly used library code that can be tested once and used multiple times.

The library maintains logic blocks for each device, so the engineer only needs to determine how the device will work for the particular project. The engineer then can select the correct logic block to import into the program. Because the logic blocks integrate with each other, the engineer only needs to import the proper function for each device, and the software does the rest.

“The modular software code has proven to be a huge time saver,” says Mike Hilton, director of electrical instrumentation and controls with IFCO. “Having faceplates for repeatable processes and functions reduces design time.”

The control platform also supports open networking standards such as EtherNet/IP, ControlNet and DeviceNet. Because these networks share a common application layer, the networks have a seamless flow of information between them. This allows IFCO engineers to configure the furnace from a single point as well as access the system’s information remotely to monitor performance and troubleshoot problems.

Since standardizing on the control technology, IFCO is able to design and implement its systems faster than before. Previously, a typical furnace project would take about 12 to 18 months to complete. The company now can deliver a furnace in about 10 to 12 months.

“To help meet our installation deadlines, it’s critical that we use as much as we can from previous jobs,” says Hilton. “That’s precisely what the software allows us to do. With the standards library we’ve developed using add-on instructions, we’ve been able to cut our engineering time in half.”

Another advantage of the solution is the compatibility and interoperability of all the products, which eases configuration and helps reduce integration and troubleshooting time. As a result, startups are about 30 percent faster, according to Hilton.

“With the added flexibility of the system, we are able to very quickly make design changes on the mechanical and process end,” he says. “Also, the tag-based development environment allows us to do a lot of concurrent engineering design, helping us commission and start up a furnace in a couple of weeks rather than the typical three to six weeks.”

While many companies rely on these same control technologies to achieve cost savings and design efficiencies, the results IFCO has achieved are due to their willingness to maximize their investments. This investment includes not only the automation and control technology, but also encompasses the highly skilled personnel, engineering tools and support resources needed to meet the company’s performance, customer satisfaction and efficiency objectives.

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