Manually entering numbers. Stacks of paper in filing cabinets. Workers using clipboards to pass critical information and instructions to one another. These traditional business tools were holding back Hallstar, a Chicago-based chemical manufacturer whose multi-step chemical reactions don’t wait for analog communications. Hallstar leaders knew there were better ways to optimize operations. They also felt that they needed to act. The Hallstar business in sealants and adhesives, shampoo, industrial compounds, and other products was growing. They had to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of their facility as efficiently as possible with the equipment they had. 

The company began to investigate software-based manufacturing execution systems (MES), quickly realizing these solutions could collect data from batch manufacturing processes, help analyze that data to identify recipe priorities in mixing chemicals, and achieve greater efficiency through significant increases in throughput.  

Many companies grapple with how to change time-consuming, inefficient, sometimes painful processes. Some conclude that transition costs and other headaches outweigh the benefits of cutting-edge, software-based manufacturing execution systems. Hallstar, in contrast, found a partner that offered a MES solution that closely matched its workflows. In fact, the MES seemed like the type of system Hallstar would have chosen to custom develop to best fit its needs.  

The new platform offered real-time inventory management, enhanced batch scheduling for recipes, better materials management, and the flexibility to integrate into the facility’s existing distributed control system (DCS), which helped operate and oversee its equipment. “It allowed us to build out what we needed rather than try to adapt our needs to existing software,” said Hallstar IT Director Chuck Redpath. 

Today, Hallstar captures granular-level information from every batch that goes through the plant. That precision is crucial for Hallstar’s business. 

Follow the Recipe  

Making adhesives, sealants, fragrances, and other chemicals requires strictly following a recipe. At Hallstar, operators measure and prepare different chemicals in a pre-mix tank, pour them into a reactor, where the heated mix undergoes a chemical reaction that yields a product. The batch then moves to a finishing tank and then to inventory. 

Optimizing those steps is a difficult task. The company has multiple batches reacting simultaneously. Without proper prioritization, one batch might finish too soon or too late, decreasing throughput. The new MES corrected any human errors or oversights that hinder prioritization. In the first years of implementation, the MES delivered a 15% increase in throughput due to better prioritization and has helped boost production growth annually by 5% per year over the last several years. That’s in addition to ongoing process variation reduction as priorities and improvements became clearer over time.

DCS, Meet MES 

Recently, Hallstar has been focusing on “true automation” via tight integration between its MES and DCS to use the vast amount of data that the MES generates to identify optimizations and upgrades. 

After overhauling a purification process and integrating it into its DCS, for example, the company dramatically accelerated and improved purification, but the new process was much more complicated than the old. The old method used generic “catch all” setpoints, while the new DCS process calculated setpoints based on an array of data about the product, including live and historical information. Personnel simply couldn’t supply this data to the DCS in real time on top of their other responsibilities. The MES, however, automatically pulled in the data, calculated the setpoints, and sent them to the DCS directly. 

The MES technology turned an incredibly complex operation into a task that today requires almost no human intervention. As a result, the company decreased cycle time by 25%, with highly repeatable quality for a suite of products that make up about 10% of Hallstar’s production volume. 


Fringe Benefits 

On top of faster cycle times and consistent quality, Hallstar has captured additional benefits through the new MES. For example, the MES has improved in-process sampling by prompting employees. Rather than relying on handwritten notes, a supervisor gets an alert to obtain a vessel and send it to the lab, and a chemist is notified to run needed tests. The new process can then modify mixing based on the test results and the recipe. 

On the shop floor, operators can use handheld smart devices to receive instructions, standard operating procedures, and other information from the MES workflow system, improving speed and accuracy while reducing errors. The increased efficiency gave operators more time to attend work simulations, safety training, and other programs. 

The MES workflow application helped break down silos at Hallstar so people could work better, function as “connected” workers, and work as agile and responsible teams. The MES reduced complexity and made it easier for more people to perform more duties. 

Hallstar leaders didn’t know for sure that they would realize these benefits. But they were more willing to embrace an advanced MES when they realized that a partner would work with them and understand and target their specific needs rather than impose a new system on them that might disrupt their successful business. The collaboration generated valuable lessons that led to more precise specifications for inbound materials, better direction for capital spending on new equipment and labor, and—vital for a chemicals manufacturer in a competitive industry—better product yields. 

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