Workflow Automation Is Ready To Change Plant Ops.

June 3, 2009
Plants are beginning to use workflow technology to guide production, capture operator knowledge and create templates of best practices.

Hammond’s Candies, in Denver, has implemented automated workflow even though the plant itself is not automated. The company proudly claims the title as the largest handmade candy company. But recently, Macy’s Inc. asked the company to automate its order processing, so Hammond’s turned to Minneapolis-based SPC Commerce to install a workflow system to handle the candy as it comes off the line.

“Typically, the first time a supplier adopts workflow, it’s at the request of a key customer who is pushing them to participate,” says Jim Frome, chief strategy officer and executive vice president at SPS Commerce. “But once they adopt it, they start using the technology with all of their customers.”

Hammond’s followed that pattern. Macy’s prompted the adoption of workflow, but now the non-automated manufacturer uses workflow automation for other large customers such as Bloomingdale’s, Saks and Pier One. “We don’t have to touch an order after it’s finished,” says Lori Schuman, director of marketing at Hammond’s. “The system breaks the order up into hundreds of different stores.”

Previously, the process of sorting finished product into individual shipments was done manually. “It was a long process to determine what products went to what distributor system. Now it goes into our Great Plains [enterprise resource planning, or ERP] system, and the workflow breaks down the order,” says Shuman.

Workflow is mostly new to plants. While workflow is old hat in materials management and back-office business processes, it has just recently been deployed for asset management, as well as for installation and integration. Plants are discovering workflow tools are a handy way to turn operator knowledge into repeatable processes. In doing so, plants are creating best-practice templates that can be fine-tuned for efficiency and implemented from plant to plant.

While workflow tools were originally developed for business processes, they are making their way into plants, first through managing materials, but ultimately into the plant operations themselves. “Workflow can assist in enforcing quality procedures with business logic to guide remediation steps and sign-offs,” says Maryanne Steidinger, product manager for MES and EMI, at manufacturing software supplier Wonderware, in Lake Forest, Calif. “It can also be used to establish process steps in a manufacturing process.”

Last in line

It’s somewhat ironic that the plant is the last part of the company’s operation to get the benefit of workflow tools. The notion of maximum efficiency, after all, was born in the plant. “Manufacturing was ahead of the game in using Lean [Manufacturing] operations, but workflow was developed in the back office,” says Jon Pyke, chief strategy officer for business process automation supplier Cordys R&D, in San Jose, Calif. “Now we’re trying to get the office to bring the Lean stuff to the plant. There is every reason why it should be used in manufacturing.”

Given the appearance of workflow only recently in plants, most control vendors have just started offering the technology for plant operations—in asset management, installation and integration. “Workflow has been used sporadically in industries such as chemical, paper, and food and beverage, but now people are taking a real interest in it,” says Marc Leroux, manager for collaborative production management for the MES, or Manufacturing Execution System, space at automation vendor ABB America Inc., in Columbus, Ohio.

Leroux sees benefits in workflow that go beyond its common use in supply chain operations. “For manufacturing, workflow doesn’t just tell you what to make, it gives you customer-specific instruction,” he relates. “It will start with the raw materials that need to be available, show you how to use them to make the products, and move you through finished goods and warehousing.”

Rather than create workflow tools from scratch, some vendors such as GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms, in Charlottesville, Va., have turned to Redmond, Wash.-based software giant Microsoft Corp. for the basic toolset. “The workflow tools started with .Net (Microsoft’s Web Services platform) and were part of .Net for a few years,” says Sam Youness, technology strategist for the worldwide manufacturing and resources sector at Microsoft. “Basically, this tool has become the workflow for BizTalk (Microsoft’s business process management technology).”

Microsoft’s workflow has become a handy way to adopt workflow to the plant without having to create proprietary workflow tools. “A lot of our partners have opted to use Microsoft workflow because it relieves them from having to build the structure,” says Youness. “For most of our manufacturers, we provide the platform, and they build upon it.”

GE Fanuc opted to use Microsoft’s technology tools as the backbone of its Proficy Workflow tool. “We decided to go with Microsoft because they have created an open work process,” says Greg Millinger, product general manager for Proficy SOA and workflow at GE Fanuc. “Microsoft has opened this application to allow third-parties to add components.” For one thing, GE Fanuc customized the workflow tools to accommodate plants. “Microsoft never thought it would be used in a real-time environment,” says Millinger.

Plants are beginning to use workflow for asset management in order to create a set of processes for maintenance, and rules for responding to alarms. The workflow process determines who gets messages about an asset’s condition and also provides instructions on how to manage any problems. “If there is a degradation on any asset on the control system, our system will inform you there is a degradation,” says Moin Shaikh, process automation manager at Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., Alpharetta, Ga.-based automation provider. “If it has reached 25 percent or 50 percent of its life, you will know what to do proactively.”

Workflow tools are being used for installation and integration at plants. “Based on our experience in executing large projects, we have come up with a preconfigured process for executing projects,” says Shaikh. “We took that whole process and broke it into pieces to help get the project from point A to point B, all the way to installation and integration. It’s been very predictable and risk free.”

Capturing knowledge

Plants across North America are facing a knowledge drain as baby-boom engineers reach retirement age. Workflow tools are showing promise as a way to capture and integrate specialized plant knowledge into the information technology (IT) structure of the plant. “You and I might collaborate and come up with some sort of agreement, and build a process around it that is descriptive,” says Pyke from Cordys. “It’s not ad hoc. It’s within the normal collaboration. You capture it to make sure it’s part of the plant certification.”

Once the workflow is in place at a plant, it can be fine-tuned for optimized efficiency. “Workflow becomes a standard,” says Pyke. “The workflow can be exported and imported from one plant to another as a best practice.”

That best practice can become a template for running the plant. “When you move into templating, you’re moving into an abstract world, and a lot of plant operators can’t get their heads around it. MES is going to completely change because of workflow,” says Millinger from GE Fanuc. “Workflow steps people through what they have to do. With workflow, people are being trained at the same time they do their work. The advances in the training alone are significant.”

Some visionaries believe that years of operator knowledge can be embedded in the control system. That could solve a major challenge facing plants across North America—the coming retirement of highly experienced baby boomers.

Related Sidebar - The Future of Workflow Is Automated KnowledgeTo read the article accompanying this story, go

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