IoT upgrade has Service Thread in a spin
IoT upgrade has Service Thread in a spin

IoT upgrade has Service Thread in a spin

With 24 different types of textile-spinning machines to keep track of, industrial thread and yarn manufacturer Service Thread has woven the IoT into its operations to maximize efficiency. 

When operating manufacturing equipment on a big scale, part of the challenge is having a benchmark against which to measure output. Discovering that was the first step towards achieving new efficiencies at Service Thread, which operates out of a 115,000-square-foot warehouse in Laurinburg, North Carolina.

“We wanted to see, of the installed capacity we have, how often is it running and what is the level of utilization for that capacity,” said Jay Todd, chief operating officer at Service Thread. “So, if we have 3,000 spindles and they average 1,500 running at any given time – measuring throughout the week, throughout the month, throughout the year – we would get about 50 percent capacity.”

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Moving from manual to automated

Traditionally, the only way to gauge the number of spindles in operation at any one time was to rely on frequent in-person inspections of the machines.

“A person would go out onto the shop floor and physically count the number of spindles that are in operation,” Todd said.

“This would happen four times per day, every day that we run. They would log the information into a worksheet that tabulates that for the week, and then extrapolate that from the granular – from the certain machine that we are running – all the way to the global scale of the entire plant or department.”

There are several shortcomings with this manual approach. The first is time. Inspectors would typically take 10 hours per week, or 500 hours per year, going through the motions. And the possibility for human error and the limited scope of the data meant estimates could easily be wide of the mark.

Partnering with technology consultancy Logical Advantage, Service Thread was able to harness existing onboard computer systems in each of the 24 types of spinning machine. These disparate programmable logic controller (PLC) systems required a joined-up solution if they were to offer a holistic view of the plant’s operations.

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A Photon-powered retrofit

Instead of replacing the whole system, the key was to combine the old with the new. Logical Advantage suggested using the Photon Wi-Fi development kit from IoT specialist Particle. The Photon range from Particle includes hardware development kits, connectivity modules, and accessories for building WiFi connected products.

In a blog post, Logical Advantage’s IoT leader Dan Thyer writes, “We simply hooked the Photons up to the device’s existing sensors and started gathering all the data that we needed. We then move that data through the Particle device cloud and on to Microsoft’s Azure Hub. We also built a mobile app to make sensor provisioning easier for the end user.”

Each Photon now monitors 16 separate spindles around the clock, giving floor managers real-time information on uptime, downtime and spindle position. 

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Better estimates and smarter investments

With the help of the new system, Service Thread discovered that spindle utilization estimates were 15 percent off. As a result, the company was in a position to make an informed investment in new equipment.

“It’s really important that you get information to help you make these types of very expensive capital budgeting decisions,” said Todd, “because there’s a lot of risk involved when you spend $500,000 to a million dollars in new equipment.”

So far, a pilot program of the Photon sensors has also had benefits to decision making with regards to labor, supply-chain management and maintenance. Service Thread estimates that the application of IoT technology will reduce per-spindle operating costs by at least 50 percent.

The company anticipates annual savings of approximately $117,000 from reduced maintenance overtime and overheads.