PowerPlex 2017 - Trojan Battery puts industry analysts through the lead acid battery test

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 10, 2017
Every event brings surprises. At PowerPlex 2017, Plex customer Trojan Battery took a group of analysts, including yours truly, into their high-volume shop floor for an up close look at the intensity of lead acid battery production. It's a story of a company in growth mode, taking a cloud-first approach to modern manufacturing.

plex - analyst tour
Touring with Trojan Battery's Frank Fusaro.

It's always an event high point when you get a chance to dig into a customer story. It gets better when you get up close to 900 degree Fahrenheit factory operations. At PowerPlex 2017, a lucky group of analysts donned white coats, and got a tour of Trojan Battery's Lithonia facility.

If you've ever been on a golf cart, chances are good your cart was powered by one of the batteries made by a Trojan Battery facility.

Prior to the tour, Trojan Battery's Director of Information Technology Matt Irey gave us the view behind his push to cloud-based IT services, including the Plex Manufacturing Cloud.

On lead acid batteries and growing pains

Rechargeable lead acid batteries require expertise in handling two sensitive ingredients - the lead and the acid. Demand for such batteries is only growing - think, for example, of backup power supplies at cell phone towers in countries like India that are building out infrastructure. Renewable energy also has battery requirements.

Trojan Battery specializes in the production of deep-cycle batteries; business is surging for the 83 year old company. Trojan Battery is adding a new distribution facility every six months. Growth is good, but it also pushes systems to their limits. As Irey told us:

We're having growing pains right now as we're realizing double-digit growth over the last few years. Just our planning process, culture, and demand for more batteries. It's tough to build batteries in the US, especially California.

Handling the logistics of that growth is where Plex comes in. By the time Irey joined Trojan Battery, he was already a cloud proponent. His experience using cloud and hosted systems in manufacturing companies was convincing. Pushing Trojan Battery into cloud while modernizing systems became his mission.

Irey talking shop

Manufacturing ERP evaluation - cloud was not negotiable

Two years ago, Irey launched an ERP evaluation. The goal? Get Trojan Battery's multiple ERP systems onto one cloud platform. Irey's team kicked tires on NetSuite, Epicor, QAD and more. But Plex stood out:

When we finally got around to ERP, there's very few true SaaS ERP solutions out there... Plex is probably the number one SaaS manufacturing ERP system. My thing is: I want to be on the current version all the time. I don't want my guys patching servers; I want them doing value-add training, looking at new ways of doing things, process improvements.

Irey's past cloud experience taught him to stay away from hosted solutions that aren't really SaaS:

I try to stay away from hosted, it still gives you that opportunity to say, "Hey, we're not ready for an upgrade. We're busy right now." And then before you know it, you can't upgrade because you're seven versions behind. So that's the powerful piece of Plex and other true SaaS providers.

Overcoming cloud resistance - and gaining user adoption

I asked Irey if there was any executive-level resistance to moving mission-critical manufacturing systems in the cloud. Only one - security:

With ERP, the biggest pushback I saw was security. "Well, our data's out in the cloud." My pushback is,, "I guarantee Plex is spending a lot more on security and infrastructure than I could afford."

The Plex implementation was completed in ten months. Trojan Battery is live on Plex manufacturing and distribution across two divisions, replacing multiple ERP and quality control systems. And how did users respond?

The thing with Plex is once you get it implemented, it's an unlimited user license. So Plex really pushes that everyone in the company should have a login. That sounds great - after you get it implemented. Day one, it's like "Holy crap, this isn't gonna work."

Irey pulled in his most influential users:

I put together an implementation team, 25 strong, all the department heads. And they were in charge of learning their module, documenting it, and training their people. So again, we had a ten-month goal for two divisions, and we never missed a battery shipment. So it went pretty well.

After go-live, it was bumpy getting users up to speed, but only for a short time:

It's just like any ERP change. The first day's a nightmare, first two weeks are a bad dream, and by the end of the first month, "All right, we can go home at 6 pm."

The lead acid test - tour impressions

Frank Fusaro, Materials Manager at Trojan Battery, drew the short straw and took a bunch of white-coated analysts onto the plant floor. We got the full tour of each step in the construction of the lead acid battery. I won't take you through each phase, but this photo from one of the first steps shows the intensity of the process.

These workers are managing machines heating to the 900 Fahrenheit range as they output the "grids" that will hold the positive and negative "plates." After the workers get a set of grids out, they inspect them, pull out rejects, and load the grids onto the palettes you can see in the foreground. Like most workers in this facility, they use Plex in some form, in this case to report when a palette has been completed and moved.

Eight years ago, Trojan Battery automated some of the phases in battery manufacturing in the Lithonia facility, so this plant is a mix of workers, machines, and automated steps. I was struck by the nuances of each step. There are precise and exacting rules for how long different parts need to cool, how materials are kept safe, and how workers manage the machines and also rotate in, especially in hot months.

I was also struck by the dedication of the workers I saw, doing a number of difficult jobs I could never do, with a grace/efficiency of movement honed over time. Some of these folks can drive forklifts better than I can drive a car, maneuvering in tight spaces at a pace that would result in an industrial mishap if I was behind the wheel.

Analyst Vinnie Mirchandani on the shop floor

The feature photo you see above is much later in the process, as finished goods are getting closer to truck loading. Every product that gets moved is tagged into the Plex system, so there is visibility into all goods as they move their way towards truck loading. Nothing gets onto a truck-bound palette unless it matches the outgoing sales order. That's all automated now in Plex, but Fusaro spoke of the days when all of that product tracking was done manually.

Trojan Battery has a fully automated, "state of the art" facility two hours away in Sandersville, Georgia, but this facility had plenty of tech underpinnings as well, with lots of iPads and scanners - and an interesting mix of workers and automated steps. Five of Trojan Battery's twenty SKUs are produced in Lithonia.

The wrap - IoT and smart batteries ahead?

It's full speed ahead for Irey and team. They have five HR systems on Irey's cloud hitlist. With Plex's DemandCaster acquisition, Irey is also talking to Plex about demand requirements planning (DRP). Of their 1,000 employees, 250 are heavy Plex users - another 150 are light users.

On the battery tech front, Trojan is expanding into AGM, deep-cycle batteries that are sealed - no service or water level checking required. The analysts, always buzzword/trend curious, asked Irey about IoT. Though the Internet of Things is not Irey's immediate priority, they will be enhancing their machine communications, leveraging Plex for automated data collection at the PLC level.

That will help with assessing machine downtime: "We'll take that step first, and then maybe move to IOT with automated inventory tracking." Smart battery design is another project that's not on the front burner today, but will get a close look down the line.

Irey's team can take these forward steps because he's left on-premise IT headaches behind. With a new Dropbox contract, Irey says he's up to about 98 percent cloud-based IT services. That helps Trojan Battery keep pace:

It's pretty cool that I don't have to have anything on-premise anymore. I can turn up a new distribution center quickly - really, I'm waiting on Internet connectivity. Our switches, our hardware infrastructure is all cloud-based. So they plug the switch in at their new location, and it auto-configures itself, goes out to the cloud, and pulls everything down. It's a pretty exciting time for IT.

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