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Optimizing Plant Operations Through Digital Innovation

When you picture a construction manufacturing plant, your first impression might be that of heavy-duty industrial machinery without much technological nuance. The reality is that factories are growing smarter and more advanced, especially here at USG where digital innovation has been pushing the boundaries of what is possible and expected in the industry.

According to Lou Stocco, Director of Engineered Technology, our journey towards more significant digital innovation across our plants nationwide has been a “story of continuous improvement and collaboration.” By identifying new technologies and implementing those technologies at the appropriate time, we ensure that USG is on the leading edge of the smart factory evolution.

The Smart Factory Evolution

Through optimization of raw material selection, USG can set itself on a path toward producing the most cost-efficient products, all the time.

In a smart factory, everyone is connected to the data in an easy-to-understand way so they can use it to expedite decision-making and uncover improvement opportunities to accelerate business outcomes. It’s important to understand that smart factories not only improve day-to-day operations, but they also require hardworking individuals to keep things running smoothly.

That means no lights-out manufacturing; people are inherent in driving digital innovation. Pushing for digital innovation in both our factories and company-wide is an effort to make our people more effective and efficient in harmony with digital advancements. And smart manufacturing vision is one way we are making this happen.

Learning Through Machine Vision

As a manufacturer of construction and building materials, it’s imperative to offer consistent product appearance and quality. Through a combination of digital cameras, processing hardware, and software algorithms, machine vision is utilized in smart factories to automate complex or mundane visual inspection tasks, resulting in improved product quality, higher yields, and lower production costs.

The team at our Sperry, IA plant has used machine vision with digital cameras to control the spread of the slurry in our wallboard operations. This process helps reduce energy consumption by minimizing the amount of water used to spread the slurry and eliminates the chance of blistering in our products after application. Not only does the machine learning process of spreading slurry simplify a once tedious process, but it also raises the quality level of our products to meet the high expectations of our customers and the company itself.

While machine vision has been used in our plants over the years for surface inspections and quality checks, USG has reinvigorated the production floor with even newer tech, bringing deep machine learning to this process to classify the characteristics of our board cores automatically.

After finding that the core structure had an influence on product strength or nail pull, USG set out to determine the most optimal core structure at each plant. Prior to optimizing this process, pictures were taken of the core and an operator would then manually compare that picture to a set of 8 standard images to classify the core and adjust as needed. As you can imagine, this can be an entirely subjective process with differences in interpretation from operator to operator and plant to plant. 

To alleviate this, the Rainier, OR team began developing a traditional machine vision project to read core activity. Stocco and his team engaged USG’s resident foam expert at the CIC to determine the specific characteristics they look at to evaluate optimal core structure, thereby allowing the team to classify those characteristics and incorporate them into machine vision learning for greater optimization.

Automating Best Practices

One of the most valuable benefits of the smart factory evolution is its automation of attention-demanding and repetitive manual tasks. This means that our employees are not only free to be more productive, but they also get to involve themselves in more meaningful, impactful work and gain value out of their job responsibilities rather than getting bogged down in the repetition.

When asked about how important digital innovation is for USG plants, Andrew Rowe, Tech Manager of Advanced Analytics, had this to say: “New digital technologies in manufacturing allow us to increase automation… East Chicago’s Doris Ditter put it a good way: ‘We want to engage our employees with their heads, hands, and hearts.’

Increasing automation allows us to focus less on their hands and more on their heads and hearts, so we can engage them more on: ‘How we can run more efficiently? How can we keep more people safe?  How can we continue making high-quality product?’”

What’s Next

USG is committed to the smart factory evolution and continues to see tremendous results with machine vision and learning already implemented in the aforementioned plants and plans to increase digital tech implementation in the future; learn more about USG manufacturing locations here.