Real-time Information Boosts Manufacturing Decision Making

Manufacturers and producers continue to realize gains in productivity, efficiency and profitability by using real-time production data to empower operator and manager decision making.

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Consistency of machine parameters is important for turning out quality aluminum extrusion products. Tom Welle, automation coordinator at Alexandria Extrusion Co., in Alexandria, Minn., says operators need live process data—temperature, pressure, speed—in order to maintain that essential consistency. The machine operation entails loading an aluminum billet, heating it and forcing the hot aluminum through a die to produce the desired shape of aluminum extrusion. Giving operators real-time information helps them make a consistently good product.

A few years ago, managers at Alexandria Extrusion evaluated productivity vs. industry averages as compiled by an independent source. They discovered that their cycle times were high and inconsistent, and that the biggest machine productivity problem was the time between when one billet was processed to the time the next one was beginning to be processed. The company determined that it averaged 29 seconds, which contributed to an overall extrusion rate slower than the industry average. So managers decided to act to improve the process.

It’s hard to correct a problem when you don’t know what factors are causing the losses. Says Welle, “The original data collection was pen, paper and stopwatch. Data were entered into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. In order to improve information, we went to circular time charts for recording downtime. The operator had to mark a code on the chart at each incident. Then a clerk entered the information into Excel. This was a time-consuming and error-prone system.”

Alexandria purchased a personal computer-based data acquisition application to solve the problem, but found it was too limited by data inputs and data storage. A change had to be made in order to improve accuracy, reliability and data storage. Engineers drew up a requirements document and went shopping. Among the requirements for a new system were integration with the current programmable logic controller (PLC) and human-machine interface (HMI) architecture, which were standardized on products from Rockwell Automation Inc., and existing Rockwell Data Highway Plus and Ethernet networks. Further, the software had to support a familiar, non-proprietary database. It was to enable collection and viewing of process data without operator intervention. It had to have the capability to show performance indicators, and it had to be expandable.

Because of the Rockwell infrastructure, managers looked at software from Rockwell Automation. “We discussed the requirements and application with our local distributor specialists and also specialists from Rockwell Software,” says Welle. “They gave us several implementation ideas. Then we brought in our information technology (IT) people both for assistance and for buy-in. We were going to need a server and assistance with the Ethernet network.”

The net result was that Alexandria purchased a suite of products from Rockwell including Factory Talk Historian for the process data, Factory Talk Metrics to analyze performance indicators, Factory Talk View SE for visualization, and Factory Talk Linx (Enterprise and Classic) for connectivity. “When we implemented the system,” Welle says, “we kept the operator screens as close to the old system as possible to reduce the amount of training involved with the new system.”

Improve performance

Information from the new system gave everyone the information needed to begin to improve performance. Over the two plus years since implementation, the dead time was reduced by about 20 percent. Welle adds some advice for implementing an information system to manufacturing. “Bring in IT early. Get input on the business side of the networks and databases. Bringing them in early helped support the program.”

Just as Welle discovered, so have others also discovered that new tools of connectivity and software can be powerful elixirs for boosting productivity, efficiency and manufacturing excellence. These tools are also effective across a broad range of types of manufacturing and production.

Absorption Corp., in Ferndale, Wash., manufactures small animal bedding, sold mostly through pet specialty stores. The company operates two plants located in the states of Washington and Georgia. Each plant’s process equipment consists of pulpers, screens, presses, dryers and packaging equipment. The control systems are built on Allen-Bradley PLCs and PanelView operator interface terminals from Rockwell Automation.

Rollie Raper, process control designer at Absorption, needed to find a way to provide better information to operators so that they could run their equipment more efficiently and with greater uptime. “I spent quite a few years in larger industries, so I was familiar with a variety of applications that would do the data collection and historical trending that we needed,” Raper says. “But management said they didn’t want to spend over $50,000 for an application. Then I searched for very inexpensive software, but those would require more database management expertise than I wanted. I did another Web search and found Inductive Automation (based in Sacramento, Calif.). Its product had a low enough price point for management to gamble on, but I didn’t have to go to school to run it.”

Another factor in convincing the company to implement a new system was the ability to use Inductive Automation’s software in trial mode. Raper was able to work with the program, and show the company’s decision-makers what could be accomplished if the production process was automated. “The final decision to purchase was made easier by the ability to install and work with the software prior to purchasing,” he says. “This enabled us to demonstrate its capabilities to our managers before a purchase was authorized.”

Trends and analysis

The Inductive system grabs data from the PLCs and, because it is based on MySQL, can send the data to the company’s SQL server. From the central server, clients are connected wherever needed in each of the plants running Inductive Automation’s FactoryPMI reporting product. Operators can now see trends and can analyze data for more efficient operation, while managers can compare trends and pick best practices from each plant to share so that all can improve.

Raper notes that by improving workers’ access to system data, they are better equipped to make decisions that increase the company’s productivity. “Overall, the software has been a great tool for bringing our company into the ‘Information Age,’ ” he observes. “It has resulted in a change in perception by many as to how good data can be used to improve various areas of our operation and to quickly make a difference in our production rates, product quality and bottom line profits. In fact, the system is now part of the culture. When the network goes down, I get calls. They wonder what they ever did before the system was installed.”

Improving decision support is actually a two-step process—gathering data and displaying it in a usable form for each user. David Reed, automation and process improvement manager from Global Harvest Foods Ltd., a Seattle, Wash., provider of specialty seed products that include wild and caged bird food, small animal food, and lawn and garden products, notes that he had the data stored in various Microsoft SQL Server databases, a recently implemented enterprise resources planning (ERP) system and a variety of other databases. He needed to get better visibility into all the data geared to each user’s needs.

 “The ERP had basic dashboard abilities, but it is limited in how to structure information and in how to drill down from general information to more specific,” Reed relates. “We wanted to account for anomalies in production and also wanted more real-time monitoring on the plant floor. So actually, we chose a product called NetCharts from Visual Mining for this function. While still in an implementation phase that will go on for another year, it’s already allowing us to look at all aspects of the business. We use it for real-time feedback for production, shipping and receiving, and then all the way up to corporate dashboards used for weekly executive meetings to give updates on all three of our plants.”

Breed healthy competition

The process of entering data into the system still has many manual components, but Reed says that eventually, managers plan to tie the system into the automation of the equipment so that they can go from slightly old data to up-to-the-minute information for use by operators. The system lets operators know actual performance vs. planned performance. “We find that by having information about each line’s efficiency on the plant floor breeds a healthy competition among the various production teams. Since they can access information from the other plants, there’s additional competition there, as well.”

Noting that it’s too early in the system’s implementation to quantify all of the benefits, Reed says, “We’ve seen some increases in efficiencies, but it’s hard to specify why just yet. We have definitely seen a decrease in really poor numbers on individual runs, though. And by tying into other corporate systems, we can shift blends in our mixes, reflecting variations of bulk ingredient prices. The goal is to more fully automate that system as the system implementation continues.”

Anyone who has ever implemented an automation project knows that you have to make the system easy to use and relevant to the user for it to be actually used. Recognizing that fact of life, Reed’s team is in the process of interviewing everyone, from executives to plant managers and production managers, to discover what information is critical to them. They ask questions such as what types of flags they might want to see if conditions get to a certain point. They then design dashboards as tools structured to the individual users. “The intent is to have it as something they look at and use on a daily basis, so that after a few months, they can’t figure out what they ever did without it,” adds Reed.

Reed offers some advice for both suppliers and other users. The NetCharts product, from Visual Mining Inc., a Rockville, Md.-based supplier, has a feature that allows mid-level users to create their own dashboards and play with them until they see what they need to see. Sharing ideas is his advice to other developers. “We have certain people who have the ability to go in and formulate their own information. Once they get to a point where it’s in a format they like, then it goes back to the core group and we put it out as a standard dashboard on the system.”

Beyond pretty HMIs

“We take two different technologies and marry them together.” That’s how Bob Meads, president of IQuest Inc., describes the work of a systems integrator—especially in the world of databases and visualization. Meads and his partner Pat Meere run the Alpharetta, Ga., firm that started in 1998. “We’re experts in things that normal integrators can’t do,” says Meads. “We’re software developers who take different technologies and plug together, for example, Web and databases, to scale an application. We get the jobs no one wants.”

IQuest builds on the WinCC human-machine interface/supervisory control and data acquisition (HMI/SCADA) application from automation supplier Siemens Industry Inc., also of Alpharetta. “It’s powerful,” Meads says. “It’s got everything in there. The challenge is in understanding everything and the way it’s built. We go beyond pretty HMIs in our applications.”

One customer makes mold powder for the iron and steel industry. It’s a flux powder so that when operators pour steel into a mold, it doesn’t stick. They were noticing that the WinNavigator application—part of WinCC—said they were running out of a certain material even though their ERP system said there was inventory. “What we found, upon investigation, was that they wrote down things in the shop and then carried the paper up to IT for entry. A lot of data was getting lost. So we wrote interfaces for WinCC to the ERP. They’re both databases, so we just wrote the code. The customer doesn’t want extra inventory, but they don’t want to learn they’re out when it’s needed. So this application got them out of a bind. Databases are an empowering technology when you put them in a plant.”

One noticeable aspect of these stories is the role of one person to effect change. Arves Stolpe, industrial product manager at the Austin, Texas, automation and data acquisition supplier National Instruments Corp. (NI), says, “In a broader sense, the big challenge of the tech industry in crossing the chasm of adopting the next technology is that it takes a believer—someone willing to do the work to implement. I have a friend who, when he was doing control units for gas flow, found they weren’t networked. He had to send a technician out to read the units manually. There was significant pushback from management for even a pilot project to get remote data automatically. Getting the technical solution wasn’t as hard as the corporate, cultural pushback to adopting.”

As Stolpe surveys some of the technologies that NI champions, he reasons, “Real-time decision making is ready to cross the chasm. The battles for adoption are not as strong now as just a few years ago. On the other hand, mechatronics seems to be in a more intense struggle for adoption—especially in larger companies. Smaller, fast-moving companies seem to be able to leverage the technology and be successful. You’ve got to be sold on the idea if you’re going to invest your time in learning new technology.”

Fred Woolfrey, productivity solutions consultant at process automation supplier Yokogawa Corp. of America, in Sugar Land, Texas, provides a bit of context. In the mid 1980’s, he observes, MIT developed the X Window System, a client-server technology that computer manufacturers by the late 1980s were beginning to supply in their own versions. “One idea behind the X Window System was a more open standard that would allow multiple system platforms to more readily work together.”
“I worked for a small software company (less than $10 million in annual sales) at the time, and a large pulp-and-paper manufacturer that I was visiting was very interested in using the X Window System to provide an upper level graphic view into their process with key performance indicators (KPI’s).” The company also wanted to be able to “drill down” into the process graphics and trends for more detailed information. “This customer did not use the word ‘dashboard,’ but the solution that they described is what we call dashboards today, the point being that manufacturers have been asking for ‘dashboard’ type capabilities for more than 20 years,” Woolfrey observes. “As an end to this story, the company that I worked for was able to meet some of our customers needs, but today, of course, we have much greater capabilities.”

People in all levels of an enterprise have readily available access to their KPI’s on a near real-time basis and can “drill down” to get more information when they need it. Woolfrey notes that there is some adoption of dashboard-like technologies, and some are still developing and extending their solutions. As for what has helped implementations to be successful, he says, “First is the obvious one. The layout and information in a particular dashboard must be relevant to the role of the user.”  A second success factor relates to the ability of an individual user be able to customize the dashboard as often as he or she wants to change it.

Qualify information

Some requirements are less obvious, but may actually be equally or more important to the ultimate return on investment. Woolfrey continues, “Most enterprises that exist today have not been organized with standardized, sustainable work processes that collect information and verify its completeness and accuracy in real-time or near real-time. To have dashboards that present truly useful information, those dashboards must qualify the information that they present. Users need to know if the information is complete and if information is accurate. Providing this level of quality and completeness in dashboard information frequently requires major reorganization of work processes to insure accepted and successful dashboard implementations.”

More advice about the topic comes from Randy Tatlock, senior applications specialist at enterprise manufacturing intelligence application supplier Aegis Analytical Corp., in Lafayette, Colo. “Having real-time data doesn’t do anything for you if you don’t have context. If you just apply to historical process, you’re destined to repeat history. I have experience as a user before joining Aegis Analytical plus talking with a lot of our customers since, and I see that users struggle with having these powerful systems to collect data in silos. And they are analyzed in silos. They need a broader context in order to take the data, make it actionable and broadcast it over the enterprise for broad use in decision making.”

Rob MacGreevy, Invensys Operations Management vice president, platform and applications, in Lake Forest, Calif., concludes, “Nearly every industry for over the last 10 years has been shoring up connectivity, visualization, Lean, Six Sigma and forcing productivity improvements.” He reports that customers have diverse applications such as real-time production planning and scheduling so that they can reschedule work orders on the fly to keep shipping on time if there are changes in orders, inventories or raw materials.

There is no doubt that technology is helping manufacturers become more efficient, productive and profitable in this highly competitive age.

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