A 19th Century Rail Manufacturer Gets a 21st Century Makeover

The first railroad in the U.S. was built in 1828: the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  Today, an estimated 140,000 miles of track are used to haul freight across the United States.

An 1880’s steel company making railroad rails sought a system upgrade to its manufacturing plant in the Rockies.  Although in an “old school” industry, the plant needed an automated integration and state-of-the-art control system to modernize its finishing end, where high-quality 80-foot rails weighing 8,000 or more pounds are cut to laser-precise dimensions.

Matrix Technologies was already involved in upgrading the plant’s PLCs, and was ready to tackle the challenge of having all operations on the finishing end communicate seamlessly with the other equipment and the operators.

After the steel mill produces red-hot steel billets that are shaped into rails, hardened, cooled, and straightened, they are ready for the finishing end.

The finishing end consists of several manufacturing stages that required various system upgrades:

  • Eight roll lines that move rails to the finishing beds. The DC motors and drives were replaced with AC motors and PowerFlex 755 VFDs for precision control of speed and torque.
  • Walking beams that pick up the rails from the roll lines and place them on the three finishing beds for further cooling before being sawed. They also were upgraded to AC motors and PowerFlex 755 VFDs with encoders.
  • Six saws in the three finishing beds, with a saw at each end of a rail for precision cutting. All six saws were replaced, and the new system uses Allen-Bradley PowerFlex drives and ControlLogix programmable controllers.

In addition, a new Quality Control building was constructed to provide multiple non-destructive tests (NDT) of each rail before it enters the finishing end. The state-of-the-art facility had to be integrated into the movement of the individual rails, but the handshaking process was simplified with the new Ethernet system.  A vision system aided the proper positioning of each rail, and defective rails were easily removed from the production flow, thanks to the improved speed and accuracy of testing.

The project had an important installation challenge—the workweek production activities couldn’t be interrupted. So over two months of weekends, Matrix had to parallel all the hardwired I/O signals into both the existing and the new equipment so that production wasn’t affected and the new Ethernet and all equipment could be tested.  Both the old and new systems had to use and display the same, correct information in real time.

From the beginning, Matrix Technologies focused on standardizing the process control equipment, and paid close attention to the engineering details. For example, the automation migration from the old PLCs to ControlLogix controllers was simplified because there was no need to drill new holes in the control panel when swapping the equipment.  Also, pre-wired cables eliminated the need to unwire and rewire the field I/O connections.

The Ethernet communication network architecture and IP addressing were well thought out so they could provide additional process control. The number of I/O connections dropped in half by replacing the existing operator stations with HMIs.

Matrix communicated closely with the plant electricians so that they understood the new equipment and how it worked. In addition, operators were well trained in using the PanelView Plus 1250 HMIs, which only needed one wire to the PLC Ethernet instead of being hard wired to everything being controlled or monitored.

Matrix achieved key goals for the client with the system upgrade:

  • Production efficiency improved. Defective rails were no longer sent to the finishing line, and rails moved smoothly and more quickly, with minimal downtime.
  • Quality improved, with rail cut tolerance at plus or minus a quarter inch. The new NDT facility was able to detect flaws more effectively, which increased customer satisfaction
  • Machine safety improved because the chance of rails accidentally hitting each other in their travels was greatly reduced. Also, hard-wired E-Stops were strategically placed to limit stops of the entire production line.
  • Maintenance improved because troubleshooting became easier with new diagnostic tools, and equipment failures were reduced.
  • Production reporting improved, and new ways were available to improve production flexibility and maintenance scheduling.

The project was challenging because the number of hardware and software changes were significant. And the results were everything the client and Matrix had hoped.

Matrix Technologies is one of the largest independent process design, industrial automation engineering, and manufacturing operations management companies in North America. To learn more about our automated integration and manufacturing system capabilities and manufacturing process control solutions, contact Ray Baca, Department Manager in the Industrial Systems Division.

About the Author:

Ray Baca  is a Department Manager for Matrix Technologies in our Industrial Systems Division in Denver, Colorado. He has twenty-five years of experience in automation and control applications in various industries. He joined Matrix Technologies in 2009. He can be reached at rmbaca@matrixti.com or (303) 466-5800 x 624.

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