Like its home city of Pittsburgh, PPG has seen many changes over its 135-year history. Originally a glass manufacturer, PPG transitioned the core of its business to paints and specialty coatings that are used on everything from driverless cars to the posts on NHL goals. But the latest change may be the most drastic. 

PPG has undergone a digital transformation in tandem with Pittsburgh, which has become a leading research and innovation hub. By digitizing its polymer making processes, the company has seen up to 30 percent productivity gains along with increased efficiency and worker satisfaction. And the most significant benefits of digital are still to come. 

“As a company, it’s been a road,” said Bill Schillinger, the company’s global director of manufacturing technology. “We’re closer to the beginning than we are to the end.”

A revival built on innovation

Pittsburgh is best known as a steel town. By the 1980’s, though, the steel mills were shutting down and the city’s population dwindled. But as steel fell, the tech industry, led by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, rose on the strength of its innovative research. PPG now has access to a wider talent pool. “Ten years ago we were interviewing PhDs from MIT or Stanford, and they were less willing to move here,” Schillinger said. “Now they know about what’s happening here.”

PPG rode the innovation wave and used its research and development and pilot facility to digitize and automate the production of polymers, which form the basis for nearly everything the company makes. Previously, mixing the polymer recipes had been left to operators working from instructions on paper. The manual process inevitably resulted in mistakes and occasional lost batches. “When we automate a recipe, it takes the variability out of the manufacturing process,” Schillinger said. 

PPG implemented iFIX from GE Digital, part of its HMI/SCADA suite of solutions, which reduces mistakes while providing a streamlined platform for analysis and workplace management. The results were immediate. For example, in one plant with four reactors, each reactor will make at least two more batches a month. With each batch producing at least $50,000 in product, that amounts to an increase of $400,000 dollars per month at just one plant. 

They’re finding hidden capacity by optimizing existing systems, reducing the need to buy a new $30 million reactor.

Happy workers and a deep talent pool

The increase in plant productivity has meant fewer peaks and valleys in the production cycle, which translates to more predictable schedules for workers. “They get to watch their kids play baseball,” Schillinger said. “They like the salaries from overtime but they really need the time off to spend time with their families and balance work and life.” Schillinger points out the nature of work has also changed as workers have upskilled to work with the new digital processes.

The company has also seen a noticeable improvement in safety, which is core to PPG’s values. The worker injury and illness rate has decreased by 6.5 percent. “Digitization reduces risks, and when risks go down, so do incidents,” Schillinger said. 

The next wave

Next up for PPG is digitizing the rest of the manufacturing  processes, which have historically been more challenging because they’re semi-continuous and require more product movement. That will likely bring lower defect rates and higher quality product.

Early returns have been promising–the process is using less water and electricity and natural gas. “Once we’re moving forward on that road, the automation and the benefits to the company will really start to roll in,” Schillinger said.

Those innovations start in Pittsburgh, but they’ll ripple through PPG’s plants around the world. “We’ve basically got a cookie cutter process,” Schillinger said. “If you go into anyone of our plants globally the operators would recognize what’s on the screen.” 

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About the author

Co-founder and CEO, GrayMatter

A 30-year veteran of the automation business, Jim has significant experience deploying innovation solutions to connect people to their critical assets in various markets, including but not limited to, manufacturing, water/wastewater, power and oil and gas markets.

A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University (Engineering) and Duquesne University (MBA), Jim has deep knowledge of return on investment cases, process control, analytics, MES, data collection as well as trends in operations technology (OT).

Since GrayMatter’s inception in 1991, Jim and co-founder Carson Drake have worked to connect, collect, analyze and visualize critical assets for Fortune 500 companies all the way to rural municipalities — with the real-time and historical information and the conclusions that they need to make their operations better.

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