Nine recommendations for building effective manufacturing IT systems

July 11, 2013
Information technologies are giving manufacturers powerful tools for improving their processes, productivity and profitability. Here are some ideas for making manufacturing IT systems more flexible and reliable.
1. Data model. Most of these technologies are dependent upon a rigorous data model. So putting that model in place first, and understanding the source, importance and use of the data, is critical. For manufacturing IT systems, it's setting expectations about what the product can and cannot do, how it can scale, what performance and refresh rates should be, and what data types and databases it can interface with.

2. Common structure. When implementing a multi-site MES system it is very important to identify common business processes and standardize them across all sites (as far as possible!). This will ensure a common data structure and reporting at a central level.

3. Virtual redundancy. Look to redundancy through virtualization. It is not just a concept that holds for office IT; it is very well suited to manufacturing IT. Backup, recovery, simulation, external support (shipping the machine setup to a supplier or specialist support) processes can all be improved with server virtualization.

4. Build a wall. It is imperative to separate production networks from office networks. This is because production systems do not need access to the Internet and the office environment does. If a connection must exist, it should be only through a firewall gateway system.

5. System requirements. It is crucial that developers meet and actually listen to the stakeholders. Depending upon scope and complexity, a number of meetings may be required. You generally cannot expect people to be able to convey all of their thoughts and gain a clear understanding in one sitting. As a requirements document is being developed, keep end user priorities in mind. Too often, functional and design requirements creep into what should be a straightforward requirements document. If the requirements document is developed by the system integrator, make sure you fully understand, "own" and sign off what's in it.

6. Start slow. If you are implementing a manufacturing intelligence product and are able to create customizable reports, don't go out and develop all reports in advance. Implement only a few and start collecting data. Let users get a feel for what is possible and then sit with them to collect report requirements.

7. Cultural barriers. Data is worthless. Information is invaluable. Converting data to actionable information is the goal. When developing an information project, you have to consider the entire scope. IT consulting firms do an awesome job of building the user requirements, but can miss the connections to the plant floor equipment and processes. Automation Integrators understand the plant floor, but can miss the scale and scope of the user requirements and scalability requirements. The issues are typically cultural, not technical.

8. Programming languages. Focus on flexibility, expandability and the opportunity to choose what high level programming language meets your company's needs. The industry has evolved to where manufacturing programming languages are no longer the only solution for automation. High-level languages such as C++, C#, Visual Basic and MatLab, for example, can now accomplish this.

9. Powerful cellular. Many companies don't fully understand the capabilities of Industrial Cellular technology. New cellular routers include standard features such as I/O control, protocol converters, seamless network integration, routing, NAT, firewall and cloud interface, all with LTE speed. The major commercial hurdle is that cellular carriers don't have solid relationships with control engineers, so major decision-makers are just ignorant of the capabilities. Wireless Ethernet or wireless serial radios certainly have their place, but a deeper knowledge of cellular applications could be an industry changer.

Befriend IT

Develop strong relationships with your IT department. When they know where you are coming from and you know where they are coming from, implementation can be considerably easier.

Be patient and explain your production needs in terms IT people can understand. It's often surprising how helpful IT can be once they understand the constraints of a production environment and how e-mail isn't a part of the system or how an isolated control system does not need the same level of virus protection as a desktop in the office.

Without this relationship, you are most likely going to run into brick walls throughout your entire project. Often, having the right relationships can make it easier to use temporary solutions until best practices can be implemented.

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