Workflow Mapping Sprouts in Manufacturing

Mike Brooks, technology architect with refining company Chevron Corp. and now with Chevron Technology Ventures, Houston, believes that defining and controlling workflow is one of the most important new tasks that should be undertaken in today’s manufacturing.

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He cites Microsoft Workflow Manager as a key enabling technology. Workflow Manager is a graphic environment on a personal computer that allows people to map the steps involved in accomplishing a particular task.

This is, in fact, becoming a core Microsoft technology. Greg Millinger, SOA/Workflow Product General Manager for automation supplier GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms, Charlottesville, Va., says, “Microsoft has embedded workflow into its BizTalk platform. Now, all orchestration is in a graphic environment. Microsoft is discontinuing VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) script, and this graphical workflow engine will take its place. Further, the adoption of SharePoint is becoming rapid. This is all open technology, so a ‘workflow activity industry’ is now poised to spring up.”

Brooks is pushing for adoption of standards and open interfaces. Millinger notes that while previous generations of workflow documentation products were proprietary, making it almost impossible to link them to other applications, building on the Microsoft platform has open interfaces so that data can be ported from one application to another, then back again. Discussing another standard—the International Society for Automation’s ISA95, Millinger adds, “Another cool thing is combining workflows with the ISA95 model. We’ve found everything is a workflow. Once you get your head around that, it changes everything. Production models in ISA95 can drive execution in a plant but the system also drives peripheral areas, such as quality.”

Creating a workflow map can be a powerful tool to not only define the various jobs and tasks that it takes to run a manufacturing operation, but also to capture the knowledge of soon-to-retire workers, and then allow them to improve the processes. GE Fanuc has built a workflow tool based on the Microsoft platform and has some customer experience with it. Says Millinger about implementing the tool, “I’ve seen that whenever you start using a tool, the approach is too often scattered. In creating workflows, you need to involve domain experts, but I often see a lot of duplication in practice. For example, different people may decide to define a workflow from different points of view. I have seen three workflows of the same process because each didn’t know the other was doing one.”

Evaluate first

Sometimes, people jump in too soon before governance of the system is defined. Millinger says the biggest thing people must do is learn to work together collaboratively in order to define just one good workflow. The GE Fanuc tool permits the building of reusable templates to standardize and speed up development. However, sometimes people just jump in and get started when they get the tool. He advises examining and evaluating the systems before getting started. “We’ve seen people jump in and define 150 processes, but after evaluation, discover that they could be consolidated to 30 or so.”

Governance of these systems is also crucial. Because data is exposed to different applications, administrators must define who has access to what data and who can overwrite what data. Steps must also be taken to secure the data and access to the system.

Workflow is an example of information technology professionals working with manufacturing to align the two for the improvement of the whole. Millinger sees much more cooperation between the two areas than would have been seen only a few years ago. Concludes Maryanne Steidinger, MES/EMI marketing program manager with Wonderware, the Lake Forest, Calif., supplier of manufacturing software, “IT is no longer in an ivory tower.” But more to the point of workflows, she adds, “Building workflows requires business rules that inflict consistency in the manufacturing process.”


***Update to this article, 4/8/2009:

Mike Brooks, whose office is in San Ramon, Calif., responds to the quotes in the article that were taken from previous talks. He gave a talk at a conference where the writer was not present to which he refers. Automation World regrets the misunderstanding.

“I am disappointed that your article is a distortion of what I said. I did not and do not endorse any Microsoft product for workflow, and while I support ISA95, I pointed out very clearly that it is not very useful as a reference standard and only becomes pertinent as an implementation standard for example within the OpenO&M initiative. Also, I made it very clear I was not interested in workflow tools… the last thing I said in closing was that ‘it has to be more than a bag of services wired to a workflow tool.’

I believe that the quote you insert from Maryanne (who I how personally very well) clearly shows that some clarification is needed. Business rules are IT’s attempt to codify work processes in specific tools that they understand today… but these can inflict great hardship on the business because of the deep IT experience needed to implement and change work processes, leading to a lack of business agility. What I said is that the solution must not be based on old IT thinking; but a framework that actually executes business processes directly without that intervening ‘IT-geek’ step call the IT business rules engine.”

Gary Mintchell, gmintchell@automationworld.com, is Editor in Chief of Automation World.

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