Best Practices for Integrating Plant Floor Automation

Looking to achieve your manufacturing plant's goals with automation? Learn what common challenges to expect and best practices to make your system integration a success.

Michael De Boer, Automation Manager, Interstates
Michael De Boer, Automation Manager, Interstates

To stay competitive in today’s fast-paced and sometimes volatile market, businesses must do more with less. While each industry has its particular drivers and solutions, manufacturing plants are reacting to the current climate by pivoting to just-in-time ordering (i.e., no longer stockpiling increasingly expensive commodities) and streamlining processes. Integrating business systems with plant floor automation is proving to be an effective way to achieve these goals.

There are certainly trials ahead for manufacturing plants, but we’ve detailed a few best practices for integration that can help you make better business decisions during turbulent times.

Common Challenges
These pressing problems are making it more and more apparent that integration is the way forward:

  • Supply Chains. In the last few months, shipping strains have impacted supply chains globally. Production can be negatively affected if you don’t know what you have for inventory or how long it will take to secure your vital materials or ingredients. Integrating your plant automation with your business systems gives you a big-picture look at your entire business and how it’s performing, helping you make smarter decisions about ordering and production schedules. Integration provides better insight to the whole business unit – from workers on the plant floor to the sales team. Relatedly, keeping the right quantity of raw materials can be difficult when you’re utilizing just-in-time manufacturing. Instead of filling warehouses with raw materials, just hoping the product will sell, businesses are having to focus on time to market, material arrival times, and supply chain logistics. Analyzing sales cycles and understanding how plants actually work are both crucial to forecasting material needs. Integration links these aspects and makes it easier for plant managers to keep just the right amount of materials on hand.
  • Consistency and Traceability. Tracking orders and production data without integration can create headaches. By linking business and plant floor components, you create a traceable path from production orders coming in from sales/corporate offices, with live production information recorded back to business systems. This process allows for quality control and maximum traceability.
  • Worker Shortage. A more sensitive challenge is the lack of people resources. The difficulty of finding good employees who are available to fill the open seats affects manufacturing plants nationwide. To fill these gaps, companies can pursue more automation. Through integration, increased automation opens the door of connecting business technology with plant manufacturing.

Best Practices That Can Help
Every business is feeling the impact of these challenges, but there are straightforward ways to weather the storm. The following tips can be used to get the most out of integration at your plants.

  • Find the experts. Companies that have found success either have internal experts who understand the technology and how each component ties together, or they go outside the company and find an expert who can help navigate integration for them. Consultants or systems integrators can be knowledgeable partners.
  • Know what you have. To integrate your processes and equipment, you need to map out what you already have in place. Quite often, systems integrators will uncover different systems and tools that a plant has but is unaware of. Performing an internal needs assessment beforehand can make the process of integrating much easier. This can be facilitated by a consultant or automation partner.
  • Have a tangible goal. You need to start with a goal you can achieve. Like the old saying about eating a whole elephant one bite at a time, pick something you can scope well, complete it, and then move on to the next goal. Too often, data initiatives involve too many people and get too big, getting clogged up with competing interests and different directions. Suddenly what could have been a $50k investment to get a proof of concept becomes a $1M project where twenty people are trying to make decisions. Keeping a tight rein on the scope will make your integration goals more achievable.
  • Be ready to adjust. Understand that what you thought was going to be the answer might not be the reality. Often, you uncover hidden problems and inefficiencies through the process of integration. You must be willing to accept whatever comes out of it; being flexible will help keep you on track and moving forward.

Larger companies with multiple production sites or facilities will probably find the most benefit from integration. They’ll be able to leverage efficiencies at one plant to improve processes at all of them. Integrating plant floor automation with business practices eases shipping logistics and helps companies achieve consistency across multiple sites.

If you’re ready to get started, you need to find integration experts versed in your technology platforms. Many companies are using SAP® enterprise resource planning (ERP) or even Microsoft software, which is a good place to start. You should also connect with the people already working for you doing your plant floor automation. Often, they have experience with these larger companies and know the business side and software. There are also many industry user groups out there who can help; in fact, there are so many resources for integration that choosing one can be daunting. Finding a systems integrator you trust is a great first step.

Michael De Boer is Automation Manager at Interstates, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Interstates, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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