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Batch Processing Meets the Enterprise

Manufacturers can reach new levels of efficiency by automating batch processing and sending control information back and forth to ERP and supply chain systems.

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Automating batch processing and sending accurate data to enterprise resource planning (ERP) and other systems can alter how a plant functions. Before Washington Quality Foods, in Halethrope, Md., automated its batch processing, some of the simplest functions were nightmarishly difficult. The custom flour producer runs a kosher operation. When the rabbi came by to verify ingredients and make sure they were handled correctly, he had to pore over paper printouts with the plant manager. The paper reports never gave the rabbi complete confidence in the data.

A couple of years ago, Washington Quality Foods opened a new plant and automated its data flow from the plant to the company ERP system. Now, when the rabbi comes by, he takes a quick look at the data and knows for certain that everything was done according to kosher rules. “Before we automated our mixers, we worked off paper sheets generated out of [a Microsoft] Excel work sheet. If the ingredients on the sheet weren’t updated, you had a bad batch,” says Tony Murray, director of information technology, Washington Quality Foods. “Now the ingredient changes flow right through the system.”

Murray notes that the batch automation allows the company to turn around a shipment in less time. “The scheduling function allows us to build execution lists that meet our customer demand,” says Murray. “Since we’re custom-order driven, we have to pay attention to our daily output.” With the batch automation, Murray can make a change in the system and see how it will affect all the other orders.

Another area of difficulty solved by sending plant information to other systems is the ability to predict maintenance needs. “Now, we can plan when we shut down for maintenance. We can schedule a cleaning shift,” says Murray. “Before, we waited until our slowest time and people had to put in overtime to catch up. We don’t have to pay any overtime now.”

Murray notes that implementing the automated system was relatively easy because Washington Quality Foods adopted automated batch processing while moving into a new facility. He believes it would have been much more difficult to implement the full automation by retrofitting a plant.

A whole host of evils can be eliminated when data flows directly between the plant floor and other systems, from ERP on through supply chain applications. You can now trust your data—no more operator error when instructions from the ERP are typed into the control system. You can also accurately trace bad ingredients if the plant floor data is going into an ERP application such as those from Walldorf, Germany-based SAP AG. Traceability is growing in importance in both the pharmaceutical industry and the food processing world. And with the plant floor data going into the enterprise system, you can efficiently plan and execute maintenance. Overall, you get a better-run plant.

Error-proof

In the past, manufacturers had to place an operator between the control system and the ERP. One downside was the cost of the operator, but the greater problem was the inevitable human errors that came with the operator-typed data. “The real benefit of integrated plant floor data is that you don’t have to go to different systems when you execute a batch,” says J. Ruhe, batch MES business manager, ABB Inc., Norwalk, Conn. “You’re not copying, pasting or re-entering data.”

Another area where accurate data delivers greater efficiency is with inventory control. “In some cases, you’re automating manual processes such as inventory tracking. Previously, the updating of material inventory was very manual,” says Pamela Mars, product manager for advanced applications at Honeywell Inc., in Morristown, N.J. “Now, you can get the control system to update inventory levels and materials in the enterprise system.”

As well as getting inventory data that’s more accurate, the automated batch processing gives you inventory updates instantly. “In the past, when you updated inventory levels, you would do it by shift, or once daily,” says Mark Albano, Honeywell’s life sciences manager. “Now it goes directly to the MES (manufacturing execution system) as it happens and you’re getting real-time management of materials.”

The difficulty in blending plant floor information with the ERP system is making sure both systems know what the other means. The flow of plant information to enterprise systems has required an understanding between systems. Much of this has been accomplished through ISA-95 data standards promulgated by the Insrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (see sidebar). “When you take the manual step out of the interaction with the ERP, you improve accuracy,” says Bruce Jensen, manager of systems support at Yokogawa Corp. of America, in Newnan, Ga. “But there’s a certain expertise needed, since the plant people work at one level and the corporate people work at another level.”

Bad batch tracking

When your control platform is sending and retrieving information to and from the ERP system, it’s a no-brainer to call up all batches that contain a contaminated ingredient. In the days before the plant floor and enterprise systems shook data hands, manufacturers had to recall two or more weeks’ worth of product to ensure that they captured all of the potentially contaminated product. When the control system and ERP system are connected, you can isolate the exact batches that carry the bad ingredient. “The automation helps isolate a batch, since each batch is absolutely discrete,” says Scott Miller, business manager, Rockwell Software, a division of Rockwell Automation. “You can find out what raw materials went into each batch—you get backward and forward genealogy.”

The trail of data will come in handy as the government gets more interested in the content of products and a company’s ability to produce ingredient genealogy. This requirement is coming soon to the pharmaceutical and food industries. “When you integrate the automation system with the ERP, you get an audit trail and you can see the transaction history. You get exact materials tracking,” says ABB’s Ruhe. “The materials tracking is helpful, now that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is getting more interested in how quickly you can identify a problem with an individual batch.”

Finding bottlenecks

Another big benefit of connecting systems is the ability to plan maintenance efficiently and accurately with reduced chances of missing shipments due to plant shutdowns. The plant information swirling through the ERP system can also be used to examine workflow through the plant, which can reveal previously undetected bottlenecks. The data from disparate plants can also be compared, apples-to-apples, to see what plants are performing most effectively.

The ERP system can effectively analyze plant floor data to identify patterns that may indicate coming problems. “The goal for maintenance is to be preventive and proactive. With automated batch processing, the enterprise system can tell whether the equipment is working well, and you can fix something before it breaks,” says Bob Lenich, business director at Emerson Process Management, in Austin, Texas. “If you can optimize your equipment’s availability, you have a major cost opportunity—you can get an extra week of production if you can avoid a plant shutdown.”

For a company with multiple plants, the data coming from the plant floor can be standardized through ISA-95 to eliminate data discrepancies. Thus, plants can more easily be compared, apples-to-apples. “In a large company there’s value in using the same terminology from plant to plant, line to line,” explains Rockwell’s Miller. “You can compare one asset to another asset, one line to another, even one plant to another. In the past, you couldn’t make these comparisons because the plants were not all talking the same language.”

In addition to improving asset management, the ERP system can analyze plant floor data to find problems related to operators and individual stations in the plant. “The integration also helps to identify bottlenecks,” says Miller. “The ERP system gets very detailed data on how the batch is executed. You can download parameters into the system and measure variations—you get to see if an operator is taking extra time and discover what individual step creates the bottleneck.”

Lastly, the ERP’s analytic capabilities can take plant floor data and examine the exact costs of individual products. “The batch information gives the ERP system yield factors, so you can see exactly what it is costing you to produce the product in manpower, energy and ingredients,” says Paul Myers, InBatch product manager at Wonderware, an Invensys company in Lake Forest, Calif. “The ERP system can then crunch the numbers—almost in real time—over the last day, or the last hour.”

The automation of batch processing and the integration with enterprise and supply chain systems offers manufacturers a number of tangible benefits. Foremost is the elimination of errors on communication between plant automation and ERP systems. Other benefits include exact and accessible traceability of batches, down to the individual ingredients, as well as asset optimization, as maintenance can be more efficiently planned and bottlenecks more easily identified.

"For more information, search keywords "batch processing" at www.automationworld.com."

See sidebar to this article: Why are standards such as ISA-88 and ISA-95 helpful?

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