Accomplishing a Remote Startup In the Face of COVID: How We Did It

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Damaged equipment, inoperable safety features, improperly installed logic sequences -- these are all nightmare situations that a bulk ingredient handling equipment manufacturer would be concerned with facing after completing a new startup remotely

In a situation where specialists are physically far away from a site, it’s hard to tell what could go wrong during a system startup. Perhaps electrical terminals won’t be connected right or vent valves will be put in backward (so that instead of releasing vacuum air, it keeps it locked up and causes problems). 

None of these fears stopped the AZO team or a committed and capable plastics client of ours during a recent endeavor to press forward and complete this unorthodox feat in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. 

We would like to take a moment to reflect on a recent triumph of ours in the hopes that others can learn from this dedicated team. We believe that the myriad possible mistakes we avoided can also be avoided by other manufacturers, so here are the ins and outs to how we accomplished a successful remote startup

When did this startup begin?

The first commissioning date for the project was previously scheduled for June 25, but global travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic started in March. The work for pulling off the remote startup then began in May. 

azo pneumatic convey system automation controls

As global travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic kept German specialists from AZO landlocked from an American plastics client, both the operators and engineers in the plant, as well as the solutions company involved received special training instructing how the PLC program was set up, how they could check functions in the program, how the graphics in the program worked and how the safety features of the PLC system operated.

How immediate was the requirement to finish the job?

Part of this particular customer’s business model required to have this plant running in a certain time frame - pandemic or no pandemic. The simple truth of the matter is that deadlines are deadlines and we had to get it done.   

What equipment did the startup specifically entail? 

These plastics had to meet certain strength requirements and all the downstream equipment was already in place. When the new extruder came online, product had to be revalidated. The client’s vendors wanted to make sure that the new process was producing quality product equal to the old machine. 

What specific challenges were faced?

Installing an extruder line and all the equipment that brings ingredients to that extruder is a complicated enough process to achieve when a company’s specialists have their eyes and ears on the ground. Since COVID lockdown restrictions prevented our German technicians from physically being onsite with this plastics client, alternative plans had to be made. The customer had to understand their new non-traditional role in the commissioning process. They had to take on more responsibility, not only because they were hosts and operators to the system but because they themselves had to be the eyes that were physically onsite

Technology has come far enough that a remote set-up wasn’t beyond attainable, but special coordination efforts had to be put into place to ensure the safety of the plant’s workers and equipment. Unique training sessions were held since a third-party was handling the pre-commissioning. Both the operators and engineers in the plant, as well as the solutions company involved had to receive this training instructing how the PLC program was set up, how they could check functions in the program, how the graphics in the program worked and how the safety features of the PLC system operated as well. 

pneumatic convey control system for automation

Dedicated stations also had to be set up to establish a safe, reliable, secure and fast data connection from external sources into the plant. This was put into place so that changes (required to be made during commissioning) were able to be implemented in real-time. Those who were not there physically could then make real-time updates as they would in any other commissioning scenario. Log-in information was required for all involved in this remote support. 

The programming for the PLC was done in advance, and work schedules had to be reset so that all involved could work on a common time. Still, all parties involved found ways to face these challenges and pull this off. The customer played a critical role in driving the success of this startup.

How successful was the startup in comparison to the status quo? 

In fact, the project was completed for a lower cost than was estimated previously. Even with extra training sessions, the process ended up being less expensive for the client to handle remotely than the status quo of having technicians on-site.

Reservations about safety, functionality and the time-frame seemingly stood in the way of this unique startup, but a more than competent team (composed of AZO officials as well as the solutions company and the plastics client) made this startup not just possible, but ultimately successful. The success was dependent on a focused team of technicians, remotely-contacted specialists from Germany, engineers, electricians and more.

What does this mean for bulk ingredient handling moving forward? 

The odds were stacked against these successful teams, but that is also why accomplishing a remote startup is still somewhat of a last resort. Missing the in-person assistance of specialists shouldn’t be taken lightly, but this story should give other manufacturers some confidence in tackling a challenge like this as long as the proper precautions and attention to detail are taken.

This remote startup was one of many stories representative to how, as a whole, people on different sides of ingredient automation have had to adapt their businesses in the face of a worldwide pandemic. Blogs, podcasts and news stories have chronicled how those that manufacture products have had to shift their plans to accommodate changing consumer demands, but those of us who are tasked with providing those manufacturers with the tools to handle their products in bulk have also had to face a few challenges of our own.

At AZO, we’ll bend over backward to satisfy the needs of our customers. If we all put our heads together and consider the solutions that are possible, chances are that we’ll find creative ways to solve problems or concerns. If you have problems or concerns that you’d like us to take a look at, please contact our dedicated sales representatives. If you have questions about bulk ingredient handling, free to download any of our guides on screening, conveying, bulk bag unloading or handling micro/minor ingredients. They won’t cost you a cent to read, and we’d appreciate any questions or feedback you have for us.  

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