Converging software systems offer a competitive edge

Source: PlantServices.com

By Russ Kratowicz

Aug 20, 2007

MES is starting to overtake ERP systems in relevance to daily operations because it gives the corporate financial people the tools they need to connect savings with a specific initiative taken on the plant floor. This could prove valuable to maintenance departments, which always have a difficult time proving that its effective asset care efforts saved money by preventing downtime or catastrophic failure.

Such was the thread running through the Rockwell Software Technical Education conference held June 17 through June 19 in Orlando, Fla. No less than 1,600 attendees representing 47 countries attended this user’s group event on its 10th anniversary.

Rockwell's software suite, FactoryTalk, the centerpiece of the event, is intended to provide plant-wide integration through its basic modules, which include design and configuration, production management, data management, quality and compliance, asset management as well as performance and visibility.

These are integrated into a seamless, paperless, real-time whole. The overriding goal is to capture real-time plant-floor data and process it into useful information that can be delivered to the people and systems that need it, said Kevin Roach, vice president of software, Rockwell Software, in his keynote speech (http://powerhost.powerstream.net/008/00100/Linked/RStech2007.wmv).

Roach argued that in a global economy, effective information processing is going to be a big part of the manufacturing revolution, a movement having a business impact as large as that of the industrial revolution. Manufacturers are focusing increasing amounts of IT investment on the plant floor because that's where the plant management sees the greatest probability for significant improvement in financial performance. But integrating with existing ERP packages and trying to overlay databases of all sorts to identify connections, linear or otherwise, can be problematic. One roadblock that prevents management from making rapid, effective decisions is an insufficient degree of integration between plant-floor technology operating in one sphere and the business system software serving the executive suite.

The two corporate entities with the greatest interest in plant data are the production and maintenance departments on one hand with the IT department and front office on the other. While each side might have separate agendas, both systems use common technologies. You'll find a personal computer at nearly every workstation in the office area and on the plant floor, all of which are probably running the same operating system. The PCs in both business arenas are likely connected to a facility-wide Ethernet system, arguably the de facto industrial communication standard. Thus, the hardware and infrastructure needed to underpin the convergence already is in place.

Employees in the plant are being pressured to produce more with less. The front office is being pressured to meet budgets and exceed forecasts. Management wants to see real-time manufacturing and production data. With so much riding on the outcomes of dozens of daily decisions, knowledge is power. Without the ability to communicate data and information to where it's needed, when it's needed, knowledge loses much of its commercial value. Both plant and IT have a vested interest in connecting to a more functional facility-wide communication system. Both sides have something to offer, technological and philosophical, and the time is ripe for them to demonstrate a complementary approach to boosting the value of the overall communication system that empowers them.

Because achieving this common goal provides mutual benefits, collaboration between the IT department and the plant team can, in theory, make this convergence – facility-wide integration – possible. But the plant-floor team and the IT department must focus on what's really important, avoid turf wars and invest in cross-training the instrument technicians and IT personnel.

Four panel discussions seated Rockwell's customers at the front of the room to provide their individual perspectives on the production and performance software suite. The key point several people made was that a big barrier to integration is bringing standardization to existing standalone legacy and mainframe systems. Standardization in a global economy is necessary because it allows a plant to incorporate a recipe or process developed elsewhere. Standardization also simplifies new product validation.

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