Technology Will Drive Business Process Innovations

Feb. 1, 2011
When the subject of new technologies is broached in manufacturing and automation circles, people usually think of changes in control, networking and data. Technological advances also have an impact on the way that work is accomplished in manufacturing—it impacts business processes.

Following up on a survey into the future of technology for manufacturing and control, Automation World asked a number of industry leaders whose jobs entail evaluating new technologies and thinking about their impacts just what could be expected in terms of changing business processes.

Peter Terwiesch, chief technology officer (CTO) of power and automation supplier ABB Ltd., in Zurich, Switzerland, sees a number of business process benefits coming from new technologies. “Integration of systems, energy management, sustainable manufacturing solutions, work team collaboration—all of these positively impact the business by saving time, money, resources, capital and operating expenditures over the lifetime of the plant. Integration of systems, both within the plant and multiple plants, reduces engineering and operator effort, and by providing real-time visibility into what has been ordered and what needs to be made, reduces overhead cost and eliminates excess inventory.”

He continues, “By integrating power and process systems on a common platform, customers optimize the design and performance of their electrical and automation systems and see additional benefits in reduced maintenance, engineering and overall lifecycle costs. Typical savings can result in a 20 percent reduction in CAPEX (capital expenditures) and OPEX (operating expenditures). The creation of a unified environment to monitor and control the process and the electrical systems that provide the energy as an essential input factor to the process allows operations to make decisions based on dollars and cents as opposed to being limited to temperatures and voltages.”

Security and safety concerns continue to make headlines. Terwiesch adds, “More widespread use of system security solutions, as well as more robust solutions for process safety, have the obvious impacts of reducing risk to the business and protecting the process and the people that work on it. The widespread use of these innovations will also impact the business in terms of protecting corporate reputation by preventing an incident from happening.”

Ralph Carter, vice president of the information software and process business, Rockwell Automation Inc., the Milwaukee-based automation giant, offers these pieces of advice: “Depending upon the type of products manufactured and the region of the world in which they are produced and sold, every industry has its own unique challenges, ranging from varying global economic conditions, fluctuating supply and demand, growing competition, expanding regulations and increasing cost structures. Therefore, it will be imperative for companies to align technology investments with business strategies and operational goals. Innovations will provide the opportunity to present actionable information to the right people (throughout the value chain—sales to supply chain to logistics and finally, to customer) at the right time, significantly improving manufacturing agility and profitability.”

Manufacturing companies are increasingly organizing around operational excellence goals. Raja Macha, senior vice president of Research and Development for Plano, Texas-based automation supplier Invensys Operations Management (IOM), says, “The focus in manufacturing is to achieve operational excellence by driving consistent productivity and eliminating waste. Companies have struggled to achieve this objective, even though it seems obvious and simple, because they have been unable to connect core manufacturing and business processes or get these systems to communicate effectively. Typical studies around value stream analysis show that there is a significant opportunity to improve productivity, much of it lying in the interface between manufacturing and business systems.”

Adds Invensys colleague and Vice President, Peter Martin, “Traditionally, industrial operations have been so complex that the only way to effectively manage them involved creating separate organizations within the enterprise, each focusing on different functions. This resulted in a number of organizational islands that do not communicate well together, never mind collaborate. Two of these groups are the operations and maintenance organizations, both of which have significant impact on the profitability of the enterprise. We have applied this approach to fixed industrial assets, but are now working to expand it into mobile assets. That will provide clients an overall asset view that enables better decision-making in real time to drive greater profitability.”

Don’t forget the coming of the mobile worker in manufacturing. Opto 22 Chief Executive Officer and CTO Mark Engman says, “This newfound mobility will impact business processes (and manufacturing and automation professionals) mostly in a positive way, because a mobile workforce equals a more productive workforce. Just like business people today can work from home, on the road or in airports, automation professionals will be able to work on their automation projects and access their server-based plant and facility data anytime, anywhere, without having to be on a fixed workstation hardwired to their enterprise.”

Control and automation also function as information servers from the plant or machine. Gary Marchuck, director of business development at automation, control and electrical supplier AutomationDirect, in Cummin, Ga., says, “We see that business processes require more and more information from the automation world and from factory controllers, and many times, the information is required in real time. We are continually amazed at the innovative ways our customers implement these technologies to give business managers instant information from the factory floor.”

“I see cloud technology having the potential to impact business processes in a unique way,” says Todd Dobberstein, group manager of Industrial Embedded at automation and test supplier National Instruments Corp., in Austin, Texas. “If industrial control and automation companies start connecting their machines and factories to the cloud, they have the potential to use that information to generate an additional revenue stream if they are smart. For instance, one area of focus for expensive pieces of capital equipment is to instrument machines and factories more to try to monitor and predict when mechanical or electrical failures could occur. It turns out that in many cases, performing predictive maintenance and better instrumenting equipment with sensors helps predict when a large failure will occur, and can save companies thousands, and in some cases, millions of dollars.

Automation technologies can have a significant impact upon the corporate bottom line, far beyond process or machine control.

Gary Mintchell, [email protected], is Editor in Chief of Automation World.

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