EACOM dashboard project captures machine centre data in real time
By Maria Church
A pilot project at EACOM’s Elk Lake sawmill in northeastern Ontario has allowed the sawmill to collect and display real-time production and machine centre data for all employees to track daily progress.
With a cloud-based data analytics dashboard platform from Toronto-based B3 Systems, Elk Lake has successfully automated a formerly manual reporting process to track key performance indicators (KPIs) as well as other data gleaned from its machine centres.
“I’m a numbers person,” says Elk Lake general superintendent Travas Hack, one of the team members behind the dashboard project. With a background as a master electrician, and as one of EACOM’s former corporate process control and optimization specialists, Hack was an early champion of automating data collection at the mill. He and the Elk Lake team worked closely with B3 Systems’ president Chris Graham to execute the project over a three-month period last summer.
“We wanted a one-stop shop where we could collect and manage all that data to solve issues and to see where some of our strengths and weaknesses are to allow us to move the company forward,” Hack says.
The mill’s previous data collection system was manual through shift reports and downtime tracking in Excel spreadsheets. With the new dashboard, all production metrics are displayed including each shift’s production, difference in production from one shift to another, board feet per hour, recovery and log volume, to name a few.
“Pretty much any data we want to track gets filtered into B3, and then we can analyze it and we can break it down,” Hack says. “We can see the differences between shifts. We can see what smaller logs or larger logs do to our recovery. And we can start to see if a machine isn’t running properly – for example, an increase in trim loss tells us we may have a problem at one of our scanners.”
Want in-depth details about this project? EACOM’s Travis Hack and B3 Systems’ Vlad Katkov are presenting on this subject at OptiSaw 2020 in Quebec City on April 22. Learn more and sign up today at www.optisaw.com!
B3 Systems’ is a subscription-based solution with a platform that is customized to each customer, Graham says. The company works in several manufacturing industries, including automotive, oil and gas, and food processing.
For sawmills, B3 begins with initial discovery to map out what a solution will look like in terms of report metrics, and then drills down into the data sources from PLCs, vendor systems and optimizers to tie in all the information in real-time.
As with any data-collection system, if you are flooded with information that is not displayed in an easily digestible dashboard, there is minimal value to it. B3’s platform narrows in on exactly what EACOM wanted to measure and track, where and why they need them, Hack says.
“It’s all in real-time, and it is all stored historically. We were able to merge data previously collected into the B3 system,” he says.
EACOM chose to display the dashboard of production metrics on TVs in various common areas of the mill – such as the lunchroom, maintenance office and supervisors’ office – so all employees can take ownership of the daily numbers. The mill has also purchased tablets to link to B3 via Wi-Fi for staff to follow up on quality checks and daily routines.
The platform, being cloud-based, is also accessible outside of the mill. The mill’s metrics can be monitored from computers in EACOM’s head office in Montreal or even on managers’ mobile phones when they are out of office, by logging in to the B3 website.
B3’s subscription process means that the platform can be continuously tweaked to integrate new sources of data, to spit out a new KPI or for system maintenance.
The first step in setting up the B3 platform was for EACOM’s information technology (IT) team to install brand new servers at the mill. Robert Miron, EACOM’s director of IT, says the timing was ideal.
“We needed to make sure we have the infrastructure and the capacity to manage the data that was going to be exchanged. The mill in Elk Lake was due for a server replacement. It was nothing to do with the B3 project; it was more about ever-greening after X number of years. So Elk Lake was chosen for the server upgrade and B3 project,” Miron says.
With larger, faster servers in place to host B3’s software, the process began to link the mill’s machine centres’ PLCs, such as the Comact DDM 12 and DDM 6 saw lines, and any other data input needed. Data is fed in from the machine networks in the sawmill and planer mill, as well as the heat plant that runs the mill’s Cathild and Hemco (USNR) kilns. The system will also record KPI information from the kilns, but Elk Lake has yet to integrate those.
If certain metrics go above or below their normal range – for example, the temperature in the heat plant – the system can trigger an alarm sent to managers. The EACOM team sets the thresholds for those alarms and chooses who receives them.
Certain tweaks were required of B3 in order to cater the information to EACOM’s needs, Hack says. “We are asking for different things that B3 has never been asked to do before, so there was some development on their side to change how they give us reports and managing KPI data, so for instance how we look at trending data. For me, I needed specifics about what we were doing every hour so we can find out what’s changed through the hour. We require a lot of data points to verify results and to get a clear picture from our reports.”
An important component of the platform is the ability for operators and managers to customize how they view and manipulate the data.
The mill has four platform administrators – what B3 calls “super-users” – who set up the system’s reporting, shift hours and other metrics. Hack is one of them. “I’m in there for a good part of the day,” he says.
“It was a big learning curve for all of us, obviously – it’s new software and we are learning where to find stuff and how to ask for the things we need. We are still at the growing and evolving stage with B3 ,” Hack says.
The potential of B3’s platform to incorporate machine learning and other future artificial intelligence solutions was a key factor in EACOM’s decision to move forward with the pilot project.
“We can start putting sensors on machines that can give us feedback. So [for example] if our saw motors are starting to load up – high-amperage – the saws may need to be changed and we can get those metrics sent to us right away. We can get bearing temperatures back as well. The sky’s the limit and we are just scratching the surface right now,” Hack says.
B3’s software already has the ability to collect and crunch metrics from sensors that would enable this predictive maintenance, Graham says.
“Customers come to us all the time with new opportunities of data to collect – they’ve installed news sensors or they are putting in IoT [Internet of Things] devices, things like that. We tap into that data immediately and then we have ways to benchmark that data, produce KPIs to track based on the way they want to look at stuff, or even get into the predictive stuff that we are starting to get into with machine learning and AI,” he says.
It will be some time yet before EACOM is collecting the various data needed to truly take advantage of machine learning – and that involves installing OEM equipment and sensors that are machine learning capable. “We would decide what feedback was needed and we would then integrate it into our system and tie it into the PLC. Then we’d pull that feedback into the B3 system for analysis and utilization,” Hack says.
“It’s all about automation and making our processes more efficient,” he says. “Our group in Elk Lake is going to really push the envelope with this tool. This will help optimize our production and it will also help EACOM modernize its operations and become more competitive in the wood industry.”
EACOM has plans to roll out B3 to all of its operations and is exploring applications for its woodlands team.