Rock Hill Mechanical Corporation
RHMC's automated solution

Quickly Filling the Need

May 26, 2021
An HVAC contractor and AutomationDirect partner to deliver automated machines for COVID-19 sanitizing products.

In the summer of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, a manufacturer looked to utilize unused factory space and produce sanitizing wipe pails to help combat COVID-19. They turned to longtime partner Rock Hill Mechanical Corporation (RHMC) to quickly develop a system to fill pails and containers with sanitary wipes and disinfectant solution. Based in St. Louis, RHMC is focused on HVAC, building automation and other related facility projects, executing a variety of design-build work.

Partnering with AutomationDirect, the RHMC team developed an instrumentation and controls solution to get the manufacturing online and get the vital products distributed more quickly.

Integrating Pieces and Parts

The project’s success relied on using available equipment to get the critical COVID-19 products quickly to market. Automation was needed to not only start production but to provide greater production capacity as needed.

The client sourced preowned equipment used for filling water jugs. Their vision was to repurpose this equipment to add disinfectant into pails and tubes containing the wipes. Two machines were available, but both were in disrepair.

The first machine needed extensive rehabilitation. RHMC removed the old PLC and added switches, relays, timers and pneumatics to get a functional but largely manual filling process.

More automation was needed on the second machine. The RHMC team salvaged usage parts and procured additional automation and fittings, including a PLC, from AutomationDirect.

Based on these two successes, RHMC was commissioned to build to build three new filler machines. Taking what had been learned from the first two projects, assemblies were added to each machine for conveyors, box/tub handling, a supply manifold and movable filler heads.

The RHMC team had not previously created a new project specifically using industrial PLCs. Its HVAC knowledge and experience with sensors, electronic logic controllers and input/output devices was a good foundation for understanding that a PLC was needed for this new project.

The team settled on the CLICK controllers, which offered free programming software. It also reviewed many of the YouTube videos produced by AutomationDirect.

It was important to build and fabricate the machines as quickly as possible, so work was done on the plant floor. Mechanical fabrication incorporated all the lessons learned from the first two machines, and the use of all new parts and PLC automation provided much-needed flexibility. Using this approach, the third machine was quickly put into operation, built exactly to meet the client needs.

The first machine was installed in August 2020, and the subsequent four machines each went online about one per month later.

For each machine, RHMC was able to make mechanical and automation improvements while quickly responding to client requests. For example, the initial machines filled pails individually and required operators to load the pails into cases. Later machines were updated to accept cases with the pails already in them and to fill those pails while they were in the case, speeding up throughput and making handling easier for the operators. Another machine filled bulk refill wipe rolls in a bag.

Once the PLC-based machine was in operation, it was easier to revise the automation. Any improvements such as streamlined logic or better safety measures were added back into any of the other machines that had a PLC.

A Clean Path Forward

RHMC taught the client some basic automation skills, such as changing PLC timer settings, so the client could develop a cost-effective training module that doubled as a way to troubleshoot problems.

The client wasn’t the only beneficiary of the partnership. Working with AutomationDirect enabled RHMC to support its customer for this time-critical project, as well as to expand expertise with industrial automation so it can grow its business.

Josh Stefaniak and Blake Young are journeymen service pipefitters at Rock Hill Mechanical Corporation. Stefaniak is a lead technician for automation and electrical tasks required with systems. Young’s specialty is welding and fabrication.

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