Sharing information between systems increases efficiency and maintenance effectiveness

Getting systems to share information supports maintenance operations and adds efficiencies to the overall business process.

By Bradley Smith

No system is an island, not even the maintenance system. Demands for maintenance information are increasing as information about maintenance activities influences financial, production and purchasing decisions. Conversely, maintenance managers are expected to make decisions on the basis of information that resides in other systems. The days of collecting data on clipboards while walking a route and storing pages in a file drawer are long gone. Previously ignored maintenance data are now required to feed internal and external applications. Interfacing getting these systems to share information supports maintenance operations and adds efficiencies to the overall business process.

Interfaces support best-of-breed application decisions. Maintenance installed the software application best suited to its needs with the understanding the IT department could make it share data with other plant systems. In the short-term, cobbling together such interfaces solves most needs and everyone gets what they want. Soon, though, the IT department becomes overloaded with demands to make system A talk to system B and C, and so on. This creates a web of interfaces just so information can be shared. Everything works welluntil it's time to upgrade. Then, an interfacing domino effect takes place when they have to be rewritten. The resulting IT nightmare is a costly effort.

Interfaces support business processes. They allow systems to share financial, purchasing, manufacturing execution, condition monitoring and enterprise resource planning systems, as well as e-commerce, e-procurement, supply chain, and outsourced inventory management systems. The return on investment for interfaces derives from faster data access, reduced double entry of information and better data consistency. Maintenance management systems provide information that drives internal and external systems. The competitive difference is a company's conversion of maintenance data into information.

Automating business processes

It's a challenge to evaluate properly what information to share and how to share it. Technology's greatest value lies in automating a process without getting in its way. However, too many times the process is flawed and the only solution, or so it is believed, is an expensive custom program to support the flawed process. Other times the process itself is fine, but must be changed to accommodate an application. The maintenance and IT departments need to evaluate options and decide issues jointly. Business process mapping tools help facilitate this exercise. Fully understanding an organization's business processes frees valuable resources, removes bottlenecks that impede faster access to information and provides consistent information.

Interface project team formation

Management level support is critical. A project team should have a stake in the interfaces and ownership of the process. Team members should include a project manager as well as experts in functional and technical subjects. These representatives bring value to the mapping process, the stage where data and business processes connect. If new application deployment generates the need for an interface, the team also should include a vendor representative who brings knowledge and experience gained from other interface projects.

The maintenance department representative should be knowledgeable about the department's goals and objectives and be empowered to make decisions. Finally, the maintenance representative should receive some training on the application before getting involved.

The project team determines the required data and its flow and makes decisions about timing, triggers, data formats, security and how far or wide the interface should extend.

Business process modeling

Understanding the way information flows determines the path forward. Go through a business process modeling exercise that defines processes and determines where technical integration adds value. It allows an organization to improve processes and eliminate bottlenecks. In evaluating information to be shared among systems, the following criteria should be considered:

  • Requirements for financial tracking.
  • Requirements for inventory management.
  • Faster information flow between maintenance and operations.
  • Providing decision makers the right information at the right time.

The foundation for future interface activities depends on a well-developed process model and proper documentation (see Figure 1). The methodology should become part of the strategic infrastructure. A lack of infrastructure leads to costs for replacing technology or reworking complex interfaces when changing or upgrading applications.

Figure 1. Proper business process modeling and an interface strategy reduces the number of connections.

Technical solution options

Many technical options support interfaces. The two main choices are point-to-point solutions and either middleware or an enterprise application integration tool. Both require a project team.

Point-to-point solutions are for small, simple, short-term interfaces or projects with a limited budget. These interfaces may be attractive to a maintenance budget but they present drawbacks. They represent a one-to-one relationship between two applications, which often leads to developing many interfaces to support information demands. Upgrading one of the paired applications requires major interface rewriting, as well as upgrading the implementation process (see Figure 2). At some point, management may find it too costly to update the interfaces and decide against further upgrades. This means missing out on features a new release offers. Other downside issues are lack of adequate documentation and the inability to reuse code. This causes IT managers to consume more overtime keeping interfaces functional.

Figure 2. Count the number of interfaces in this point-to-point example. How many connections are broken when one application upgrades?

An effective interface strategy supports leveraging existing applications with new business processes and new systems. Using an enterprise application integration approach allows the IT department to be more adaptable handling information flow requirements. Enterprise application integration also can be described as middleware--an adapter that manages the interface logistics. Using that or standard middleware allows IT to leverage solution reuse and supports standards that reduce the costs of interface activities. Because maintenance systems reside between shop floor and enterprise resource planning systems, this approach provides a long-term, cost-effective answer.

Many software vendors provide adapters that operate on a variety of platforms. These adapters provide out-of-the-box connectivity to a variety of packaged systems and legacy applications. Adapters handle data extraction and transformation, data routing to singly- or multiply-interfaced applications, event monitoring and alerting. Adapters still require the same project team and business process mapping. But adapters take the maintenance requirement off the IT department and place it on the application vendor. As part of the support agreement, vendors keep their adapters upgraded to match enterprise resource planning system releases. Although adapters are not a silver bullet, they offer definite advantages. Because most IT departments must do more with less, adapters help in developing IT standards across multiple departments, divisions and plants.

For the maintenance manager, this cost-effective interface support helps other departments service the maintenance department and helps supply information maintenance needs to manage resources and schedules better. A better means to share information with ERP systems supports faster requisition and purchase order processing. Real-time sharing of machine monitoring information gives maintenance better visibility into machine performance and allows for better resource allocation.

Maintenance systems collect operating data from equipment meters and sensors. Interfaces feed run time data into the maintenance system to trigger preventive maintenance or emergency work orders automatically on the basis of the readings. This eliminates several tasks. One is the often-overlooked task of collecting data and entering it into the maintenance system manually. Another is the failure to enter work order information related to breakdowns that send maintenance departments into emergency mode. Another is forgetting to enter data concerning triggered alarms and adjustments that occur at the end of the shift.

Feeding data directly into the maintenance system and automatically triggering work orders are a reminder that something occurred and information needs to be collected to close the work order. Capturing this information and adding it to the work order and equipment history provides more accurate equipment performance and resource activity reports.

Maintenance managers and their maintenance management applications are in the middle of the information flowing from the shop floor to the enterprise resource planning system. This information flow is part of the manufacturing organization's central nervous system. It's important for maintenance managers to understand the impact maintenance-related information has on the organization. It's also important to determine how this information can give maintenance managers the ability to better serve, and to be better served by the organization.

Bradley Smith is director of services, TabWare Professional Services Group, AssetPoint, in Greenville, S.C.. He can be reached at (864) 679-3416 or bradley.smith@assetpoint.com.

Figures: Integrys AssetPoint, LLC