Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Piloting a new digital practice

March 25, 2021
By Grant Cameron

A wood products manufacturer tests a digital transformation initiative to improve productivity and increase workflow visibility

Rockwell Automation worked with Norbord to select a pilot mill for its digital transformation project. Photo: Rockwell Automation

Norbord, a Canadian-based manufacturer of wood-based panels for the construction industry, recently embarked on a digital journey to improve efficiency and productivity at its mills across the globe. [Ed. note: On Feb. 1, Norbord was acquired by West Fraser Forest Products. As this interview was conducted before the merger and involves an application implemented by Norbord, the company name remains throughout.]

Norbord teamed up with Rockwell Automation, which uses digital technology to improve industrial automation processes, to identify issues and build out a new game plan to help it remain on top.

The project began about a year and a half ago when the Norbord team decided they wanted to have more control over their processes and platforms and simplify monitoring equipment so smarter decisions could be made faster.

“The way that we see a lot of these kinds of engagements is that they either come about because of an issue or a serious problem somebody is having, or they come about as an opportunity,” says Jessica Korpela, director, analytic solutions for Rockwell.


“There was a vision that they had and there were a number of things they wanted to improve, but I think it was driven by the opportunity to digitally modernize their mills to be more effective producers and to maintain being the world’s top supplier of OSB board.”

Identifying the opportunity

Norbord manufactures oriented strand board (OSB), particleboard, medium-density fireboard and other products at 17 plant locations in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. The company has always been horizontally aligned and operationally focused, facing challenges common to other global manufacturing operations.

Prior to adopting Rockwell’s solutions, Norbord’s homegrown and disconnected plant-floor applications and manual data processing made it time-intensive and difficult to process and capture value from their data.

“There’s a lot of autonomy in all the mills to run independently to a certain extent so there’s a lot of independent knowledge and everybody kind of doing things their own way,” says Korpela. “Everybody had slightly different standardized metrics of things, and then you had a lot of individual operators or managers applying their own particular flavour.

“So, there was a desire to be able to see more effectively into what was going on, and to model off the best operators and how to optimize the process most effectively, and collect that knowledge and do an advanced analysis.”

Selecting the pilot

The team at Rockwell went to work and selected a pilot mill for Norbord’s digital transformation, with an aim to decrease quality-related issues and get a handle on the cost and recipe structure for individual products.

They worked to gain a better understanding of the facility and get more granular data on how the mills actually operate. The company needed to be able to process the information faster, preferably in real-time, and remove a lot of the clerical work that people would traditionally spend time on, like transferring data from one system to another.

Industrial and business professionals from Rockwell were paired with counterparts at Norbord to gather insights on the company and figure out ways to use a “digital thread” to connect siloed sources of data. The idea was to use analytics to get more insight on operations across the company to figure out what improvements could be made.

“Rather than you trying to keep up with your process by looking at 12 screens and waiting for some light to go off, the whole process can tell you if something shifts.”

“We really dug into their general process, their pain points, their opportunities for improvement, their vision for the future and ultimately came up with a recommendation across four to five major streams that hit all the important value levers to them, [which] resulted in that combination of what they were uniquely skilled to deliver,” says Korpela.

In the early days, Rockwell held a lot of open workshops to get a handle on the issues and come up with a blueprint that fit the vision of the company. From there, Internet of Things (IoT) architecture was developed to connect the independent data sources from the output to the supply chain, and advanced analytics were used to optimize and standardize the quality of product.

Making the data talk

An early digital solution rolled out in the pilot mill was the FactoryTalk Analytics for Devices, an industrial information appliance that was integrated into the overall system. This tool takes in information about a device and sends out alerts if there is a subtle shift in the health of the device that a worker might not notice.

The information can help the mill transition from reactive to more predictive or condition-driven maintenance.

Internet of Things (IoT) architecture was developed to connect the independent data sources from the output to the supply chain, and advanced analytics were used to optimize and standardize the quality of product.

“Rather than you trying to keep up with your process by looking at 12 screens and waiting for some light to go off, the whole process can tell you if something shifts,” says Teja Schubert, director, controls, automation and technology at Norbord. “And the system will know who actually needs to have that information, and it will notify the right user group by messages on mobile devices.”

Rockwell also deployed other products, including FactoryTalk Innovation Suite, which brings data together on a single-pane-of-glass for operators and mill managers, and its FactoryTalk ProductionCentre manufacturing execution system, which shares production orders to the plant floor and records cost inputs such as energy and raw materials to provide a more granular view of how the process is running.

Developing a partnership

“We needed a partner to guide us through this journey,” says Schubert. “Everything is under one umbrella. We have deeply integrated our infrastructure, software, hardware and services so we can get the support we need at every stage of this journey.”

Throughout the company’s digital transformation initiative, Rockwell took a human-first approach, gathering input from employees to ensure digital solutions would provide value and offer relatable and reliable output.

Korpela says a benefit of that approach is that when a decision is made, it’s brought to the people who actually use the system and helps to ensure the company is building a process that will work the first time.

“If you go through this wireframe where you’re creating visualizations, you’re visualizing the hypothesis, you’re showing people what it’s actually going to look like, and creating a prototype, that then allows them to touch it and feel it and tell you whether it’s right on or how it needs to look, and whether it makes them more effective.”

Early returns on the pilot mill show there have been significant improvements to overall equipment effectiveness and uptime, fewer quality-related issues, and a better picture of the cost and recipe structure for products. As a result, Norbord has already started rolling out the digital technology in a second mill.

“There’s an element of the team’s dynamic and the relationship that formed in there which is pretty phenomenal and creates this trust and this bond as we move forward and do great things,” says Korpela.

“We’re absolutely realizing that the original vision of where we’re intending to go [has] also changed with us as we learned more in the process, so it’s been a very fun program and a really great company to work with.”


Grant Cameron is an Ontario-based freelance writer.

This article appears in the March/April issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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