Subscribe and listen to AW’s podcast!
Subscribe and listen to the Automation World Gets Your Questions Answered podcast!
Listen Here

SAP looks toward factory links

It was a simple demonstration: a small Kuka industrial robot assembling Lego parts into Lego men of varying colors and configurations.

What was unusual about the demo—performed at Sapphire ‘03, the SAP AG customer conference June 16-18 in Orlando, Fla.—was that the robot was assembling the products into differing configurations based on “customer orders” being entered through a Web site on a nearby personal computer.

In a real-world situation, such a system could make use of a number of standard software modules provided by SAP (www.sap.com), the giant, German-based enterprise software vendor. After accepting a consumer’s online order through the mySAP Enterprise Portal using SAP’s “product configurator,” SAP software could calculate pricing based on the customer-selected product configuration, enter the order in the financial system, assemble a bill of materials and make appropriate inventory adjustments, among other functions linked to SAP databases. What is not standard, however, is the ability to link SAP business and financial applications to a robot or other factory floor equipment to drive the assembly of a customer-selected product configuration.

While some companies currently drive production directly from online orders, their systems are typically based on expensive, custom software development, says Nils Herzberg, senior vice president, manufacturing & distribution, at SAP Labs, Palo Alto, Calif. But SAP recently began working with German-based Kuka (www.kuka-roboter.de)—and intends to work with other automation equipment vendors—in hopes of developing a standardized set of interfaces to link SAP’s enterprise systems to factory automation equipment, says Herzberg.

“You want to be able to interface to various machines on the factory floor,” Herzberg notes. “Once the rules of the road are clear, we intend to provide solutions for that as standard, prepackaged software,” he says.

Herzberg, however, is setting no timetable for when such standards may be achieved. “This has got to be a collaborative process, and we’re not in the driver’s seat,” he observes. “There probably needs to be some pressure from customers [on automation equipment vendors] in order to get this situation resolved.”

Herzberg points out that such enterprise-to-factory interfaces, when achieved, can be used to move data in both directions. “It’s not only about sending data to the machine, but it’s also getting data from the machine about the manufacturing process that it’s performing, or about its own condition,” he says. “The machines of the future will actually tell the system that they are breaking down.”

While that kind of notification is not routine for SAP systems today, it is in the works, confirms Dagmar Fischer-Neeb, who heads up SAP Service Management, a newly formed business unit. Among other things, SAP is working with a company called SmartSignal (www.smartsignal.com) on systems for the aerospace industry in which machine monitoring data can be sent to SAP backend software for use in managing unplanned maintenance activities, says Fischer-Neeb.

SmartSignal, a four-year-old company based in Lisle, Ill., provides software for analyzing large volumes of sensor and equipment data that the company says can be used to reveal problems and predict breakdowns well ahead of the fact. The SmartSignal software is based on technology developed originally at Argonne National Laboratory (www.anl.gov), Argonne, Ill., for use in the nuclear power industry, but is now being extended for use in other asset-intensive industries.

When it comes to managing scheduled machine maintenance, SAP has long offered that functionality as part of its R/3 enterprise resources planning (ERP) system, says Fischer-Neeb. Around 2,000 SAP customers currently use the capability to some extent, she estimates.

With the formation of the Service Management unit, SAP is adding a number of industry specific capabilities, and is also adding components drawn from various systems within its mySAP product suite—including Supply Chain Management (SCM), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) and Supplier Relationship Management (SLM).

Test Your Machine Learning Smarts
Take Automation World's machine learning quiz to prove your knowledge!
Take Quiz
Test Your Machine Learning Smarts
Discover New Content
Access Automation World's free educational content library!
Unlock Learning Here
Discover New Content