Bridging the gap
The great divide between the top floors and plant floors
By Peter Fretty
Manufacturing intelligence is still mostly a vague concept waiting to sprout into reality. Industry players, however, recognize that vital gaps remain, and are actively building a connecting path to help data travel in real-time from the plant floor to the top floor and back again. Our regular contributor Peter Fretty talked to leading analysts and vendors to survey the progress made to date and to find out what the future might hold.
“Seeing solution sets emerge that take control information and aggregate it so that manufacturing executives can make real-time decisions is a great start,” said Dick Slansky, Senior Manufacturing Analyst for the Dedham, Mass.-based ARC Advisory Group. “But, it is all predicated on the fact that you need access to the information on a granulated level for it to be meaningful. To accomplish this we need the correct combination of technology, infrastructure and application sets. Herein lies the problem.”
Slansky adds that manufacturers now recognize the need, and truly want a snapshot of events happening on the factory floor, but this must represent more than simple data gleaned from the operation’s overwhelming sea of information. “What we have is basically four functions of intelligent systems — perception, reasoning, implementation and the HMI function,” he said. “With everything from machine vision to robotics readily available, the marketplace has far more than simple robots programmed offline to make a motion.”
Keys to closing the gap
One step to help close the gap requires software vendors and IT experts to consider that the data needs to have content, context and aggregation to be meaningful and productive. “First and foremost, this means putting the infrastructure on the floor in a manner that it does not exist in most facilities today,” says Slansky.
Interoperability between various levels of equipment and disparate systems enterprise-wide also needs to exist. According to Slansky, even though many of the automation devices work well on a peer-to-peer basis, difficulty arises when it comes to meeting up with other enterprise systems because a lot of the technology is still too proprietary in nature. “The result is that when you try to go vertical the accuracy falls apart,” he said.
There is also a major cultural issue. “The IT world has a unique culture of its own, which creates a profound organizational problem in connecting the office world with the operations world,” says Slansky. “This is one area where both parties have very different views and have difficulty working with one another.”According to Slansky, the IT world wants to retain ownership of all computer systems, but they rarely understand the notion of production and production systems. For instance, bringing a server up within a day or so does not cause much concern. “This just cannot happen in a production capacity,” he said. “Production has always had systems capable of running 24/7 for seven plus years without failure.”
Julie Fraser of Newburyport, Mass.-based Industry Directions Inc., says the issue of how to effectively use real-time data extracted from the production environment should also remain an industry focus. “If the system is based on traditional business intelligence and on-line analytical processing data, the manufacturing detailed data would overwhelm the system and only an aggregation or data extract of the data is saved, not the original information,” she said. “The best approaches to manufacturing intelligence and manufacturing performance management are based on a data historian or other system specifically designed to take in detailed process, product and contextual data from a range of sources — from control I/O to plant floor data entered by operators to ERP and everything in between.”
While this sounds great in theory, Fraser acknowledges that the toughest challenge might be selecting from the abundance of information available. “Far too often, the system is not looking at all of the right information,” she said. One of the biggest challenges is correlating the data streams into useful and accurate pictures of the operation and presenting it in ways that are useful to the front-line employees, says Fraser. “It must be capable of easy re-configuration to match real issues — ideally reconfigured by non-IT staff,” she said. IT staffers must also deal with information that has been within the domain of control hardware and engineering and bring it together with their own data from enterprise systems.
» Antenna Software
Peter Semmelhack, chairman and CTO of Jersey City-based Antenna Software, says his firm’s goal is to provide tools to keep mobile devices in the loop as the business intelligence environment expands. “The top three reasons why people are looking towards these solutions are accuracy, efficiency of business process execution and thoroughness,” he said.
Semmelhack says that a strategic commitment on the part of a firm’s IT department is key for any manufacturing intelligence initiative to work efficiently. “Technology is the answer to profitability and various business process questions,” he said. “Companies need to stop looking at technology as a tactical means of doing a job. It truly can be a competitive advantage for a business.” Semmelhack added that there are some places where mobile technology is not suitable.
» Clear Forest
Randy Clark, vice president of marketing at Waltham, Mass.-based ClearForest Corp., says the company produces a component that helps control warranty claims and associated costs. The system uses its information extraction tool to pull information out of warranty claims. “Existing systems quantify what and how much, and we give the clues to why things are happening. When we extract information systematically we put it into a table or database and allow an analyst to review much more pertinent information than would otherwise be possible,” says Clark. “We realize that while trying to accomplish an intelligent system, companies want to improve quality. So we increase the visibility and show the root causes of the information needed to make those decisions.”
Clark adds that there has been a lot of academic work done with text mining, which has at times made it very difficult to understand or accept. “As a result, text analytics requires a platform, industry modules and a development environment where people can address the needs at each individual level.”
» GHI Technologies
Graham Hislop founder and CEO of Mississauga, Ont.-based GHI Technologies Co. Ltd., says his firm’s product offering aims to eliminate the disconnect and provide the ability to share knowledge across the enterprise. GHI provides a system based on the Microsoft platform that allows everyone rather than a select few users to access pertinent information. “From the standpoint that everyone needs to be accountable in their department, they need to know what is going on in other areas within the company,” says Hislop. “What this does is give fast and accurate insight that is departmentally appropriate and also knowledge for the top floor to make decisions on funding and other operational activities.”
Hislop says the advantage of using the Microsoft platform is that it interacts well with legacy systems. “We are going to be able to take the data and analyze it in a matter that will be useful in creating a workable solution,” says Hislop. “It really doesn’t matter what systems are in place. Once we have these systems integrating with Microsoft Office, it is possible to integrate the entire process together in a matter that is both easy to use and understand.”
According to Marlborough, Mass.-based Proficiency spokesperson Ken Klapproth, many companies have recognized the benefits that manufacturing intelligence can bring. This includes digitally developing and verifying products across all disciplines like engineering, analysis, drafting, process planning, manufacturing or purchasing. “Each of these disciplines has applied technologies to maximize their productivity and minimize costs,” he says. “Companies are now trying to leverage this valuable intellectual capital across disciplines and build the knowledge base throughout the product lifecycle.”
Klapproth says that Proficiency recognizes and addresses one of the missing components through its PLC software platform. “We know that the logical breaks in responsibility create hand-off points that are tracked milestones in programs — like release to manufacturing where engineering delivers the approval by focusing on what is needed rather than the how to give it,” he said. “Manufacturing companies can determine the most efficient place in the development process to add a little detail that will greatly benefit the overall development process.”
» Rockwell Automation
Matt Bauer, director of business development for information solutions at Milwaukee, Wis.-based Rockwell Automation, says one factor slowing technology adoption is the conservative nature of many manufacturing firms. “Most manufacturing and production is mission critical, so even those that are trying to change their legacy systems cannot devote the time required in this area,” he said. “As an industry, we talk about digital dashboards, but there is a stratification of various levels, and not everything gives you information across the plant.”
Rockwell says it strives to provide enabling information from the control layer to the execution layer and finally the enterprise layer. “Since many firms have our controls, we have access to a lot of the data sources on the plant floor,” he said. “Now we are building the platform that makes information extraction possible at each level so that we can leverage the information that makes sense for each of the systems running.” Bauer adds that the industry needs to decide what information is important and how to filter it.
SAS’ offerings operate within a platform that provides the capability to expand the concept of business intelligence — which all starts with data access. “Our ability to perform comprehensive data cleansing and enrichment has helped separate us from the pack,” said Jason Mann, manufacturing industry strategist for the Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute Inc. “These often overlooked cycles really need to occur before a business can truly move forward, which has remained our primary focus.”
Companies are moving into this intelligence environment because of customer demands, increased competition and new compliance issues depending on their individual industry, says Mann. “The operational side has realized that most of the low hanging fruit has been picked, but companies need to realize that they cannot ignore the decision support that manufacturing intelligence will ultimately provide,” he said. “There is so much value in updating the enterprise — even if it is slow moving.”
Jim Frider is Wonder ware’s product manager with the Lake Forest, Calif.-based business unit of Invensys Systems Inc. Frider says Wonderware offers the first suite of products to provide a foundation built with redundancy in mind that forces standards and makes business systems more sustainable over time. “This helps eliminate a lot of the costs in the long term,” says Frieder. “We wanted to have reusable objects that could last.”
The biggest challenge is that as businesses downsize, suppliers need productivity boosting software, but do not have the time to review a lot of the tools, explains Frieder. “People still do not understand what manufacturing intelligence is all about. It is too vague of a term and people need to understand what it can actually do for them,” he said. “Managers need to understand that these projects can have a relatively quick payback.”
Wonderware has a web-based portal that allows information deployment across departments. It also has consulting services focusing on manufacturing intelligence. “This is a change in the way things are done in the field today and will definitely improve overall deployment,” said Frieder. “We are also merging many of our MES technologies together with our plant intelligence offerings so that the offering is much more comprehensive.”
» Xerox Corp
Lynne Malone, vice president of MRO at Rochester, N.Y.-based Xerox Global Solutions, says the ideal facility is the one that uses real-time information contained within documents to achieve the highest level of optimization and overall efficiencies. “To reach this level of efficiency, manufacturing facilities must consider smarter ways to work and access information across the entire organization,” says Malone. “Companies that recognize and adapt to this focus on information will be better equipped to identify how and when information is transferred, and determine the most effective way for employees to obtain it.”
Malone says it is often difficult to convince employees that a process must be fixed that may not appear to be broken. Once the company evaluates and understands how employees create, store and transfer information, they can implement a solution to close the information gap between the plant floor and the top floor.
According to Paul Warndorf, vice-president of technology at the McLean, Va.-based Association for Manufacturing Technology, machinery is also making strides in helping firms accomplish the ultimate goal of manufacturing intelligence. In many cases, however, all the required information is still not gathered properly or funneled to the correct people.
“We have to move away from providing instructions to the manufacturing floor that are sequential in nature, and realize that the sophistication of the equipment is relative to its environment,” he said. “For us to truly realize manufacturing intelligence, the equipment needs to be able to think on its own — meaning we need controls that figure out their own instruction sets.”
Warndorf added that this is not going to be an easy step to make, but that many of the needed pieces already exist. The problem is that there needs to be a way to connect everything together. “Some of the information is not in the right code, plus we need to be more cognizant as a group to determine what information is appropriate and useful,” he said. “Once this happens we will be able to make decisions or equipment needs to be able to ask for changes.”
The biggest hurdle facing the equipment side is that the funding is not in place to get everything going. “It used to be that major corporations had a vision and wanted to get some place with their manufacturing. Today these firms no longer make parts. Instead they push this component down to second or third tier suppliers,” he said. “Even so, there needs to be a commitment to provide the funds to reach the future.”
Peter Fretty is a regular contributor to Advanced Manufacturing. You can reach him by email at email@example.com