MES: Powering up maintenance and quality control

In this Big Picture Interview, learn how manufacturing execution systems can lift cross-plant consistency to new heights.

Lisa Sobkow is an executive director at Plymouth, MI-based RedViking Engineering, a manufacturing systems designer and integrator, and member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). In that role, she manages a team of controls and software engineers in the design, development, and implementation of MES projects. Sobkow has worked at RedViking for 25 years and has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan. She spoke with Plant Services recently about how plants are using MES to be more proactive about maintenance and ensure production quality across multiple facilities.

PS: What are some of the ways you’ve seen plants evolving their maintenance of control systems to improve efficiency?

LS: Ten to 20 years ago, everybody had stickers on their PLC batteries. Someone walked around every week and figured out which ones were going to die and when we should replace them and back them up. Today we put those PLCs on networks and log that data as a warning. When “battery low” comes up, we automatically generate through the system a work order for maintenance. That would be one example of efficiency.

PS: Do you see a lot of case management work being integrated into these systems?

LS: For sure. We’ve done systems where if we have a certain fault occur so many times in an hour, then they’ll create an emergency work order and send someone out immediately. We’ll create a whole paging scheme where we’ll build up a shift schedule of the day-shift guys versus the night-shift guys, and we’ll page immediately on a production fault to the production people. After two minutes, we’ll page the boss. After five minutes, we’ll page the boss’s boss. You can get data distributed quickly, right this minute, through email, pagers, or even process control boards or TVs on the plant floor, from the PLCs.

Plus, now that you have all this data in a database, you can open it up to the world, not just the local plant. We open it up to corporate and outside access if you have credentials.

PS: That brings up a good point. In your opinion, are these systems helping plant teams get more on the executive suite’s radar and helping them with reporting?

LS: Yes. I think it’s a wonderful thing to be able to share those numbers. Let’s say a company has a sister plant. They make the same product on two different sides of the world. And this one’s having a lot of quality issues, and the other one’s not. What are they doing differently?

I think (this data sharing) is great for us as integrators. We can do support on weekends and nights across the world, because (these plants) entrusted us and we have tokens to allow us to log on to their networks and support their systems. It’s a great thing that they let us help them with their maintenance. And if they say, “OK, we’re going into shutdown; we need you to do the server upgrade,” we don’t have to travel to Mexico to do that.

PS: So you’re seeing people using manufacturing execution systems to effectively benchmark their performance either from plant to plant or machine to machine?

LS: Definitely. Some of my customers are big companies, and they have the corporate standard that gets implemented and applied for their specific equipment. And they expect a certain amount of first-run data, and (data on) performance or mean time to repair and mean time between failures has to be at a certain level; otherwise, they’re going to have to report to executives on their strategy to get back in line. Like I said, if two plants are building the same widget and they’re not making the same numbers, what are they doing differently? They should be able to work together to figure it out.

We’re a tool to help you get better. Most of my customers are trying to (look at), “OK, we’re not making times – do we need to train you? Do we need to move the workload?”

PS: Do you get the sense that MES systems enable manufacturers to more easily meet government regulations, too?

LS: I think MES (are) a great way for customers to collect the data they need to comply with government standards. You time-stamp everything; you log it into a database, and then you can pull that data out and keep it for whatever time frame the government mandates.

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