Fulfilling orders for thousands of cases of Cheerios and other foods on schedule depends on a steady stream of production data. Streamlining that flow of information is Jim Wetzel’s job, which means that his position as senior principal engineer at Minneapolis-based General Mills Inc. is not an easy one.
The problem has been that industrial control networks and enterprise-wide business systems traditionally have come from different vendors and are not integrated. Companies either must pay big bucks to get them and subsequent upgrades to talk to one another, or they must work in the dark. Because uncertainty is unacceptable at General Mills and most other manufacturers, the food giant is only one of many companies supporting emerging global software standards that promise to tighten the integration of their computer networks.
After years of floundering in a sea of meetings, global standards finally seem to be afloat and sailing toward widespread implementation. They have really broken loose in the last six to eight years, according to Tim Sowell, vice president of product management at Wonderware, the Lake Forrest, Calif.-based business unit of Invensys Systems Inc. that supplies General Mills with its manufacturing management software. “We can get behind standards, not just in committees, but in building our products around them,” he says. The problem in the past was that the standards had not gained acceptance in enough places to encourage software vendors to base products on them.
The situation has changed, however, partly because users are seeing standards as a way to deal with globalization and its ramifications. Not only must a company’s facilities work seamlessly with sister plants and suppliers all over the world in places where regional standards differ greatly, but its engineers also must learn to maintain more systems without a corresponding increase in staff. They need a way of leveraging their talents for a greater number of projects over a larger geographical area.
Standards also give manufacturers the agility necessary to be competitive in a global economy. Because product lifecycles have shrunken dramatically over the last few decades, production engineers find that their projects no longer remain relatively static over five to eight years. Rather, the processes that they design must contain enough flexibility to accommodate variations and new products fairly regularly throughout their lifetimes. These processes need not only the flexibility to make production agile, but also an interface into an enterprise-wide business management system that can keep pace with the dynamics of today’s marketplace.
Although this underlying need is ultimately responsible for the success of global standards, the catalysts for driving their rapid adoption recently have been major software developers. For example, OPC, an open interoperability communications standard, rather quickly became the de facto standard for exchanging information among disparate platforms in real time once Microsoft Corp., of Redmond, Wash., adopted and promoted it. Likewise, the ISA S95 XML (eXtensible markup language) standard has been gathering a head of steam since Walldorf, Germany-based SAP A.G. began using it, even though the standard committee at the Instrumentation, Systems, and Automation Society (ISA), in Research Triangle Park, N.C., is still developing it.
Eager for S95
The S95 standard interests General Mills greatly because it specifies standard interfaces between the plant floor and enterprise-wide business software. “This standard is an exercise in definitions and in mapping information from the real-time arena into business systems,” says Wetzel, General Mills’ representative on the committee. “When all the different layers can start talking the same language, plugging it together becomes much faster and more efficient.” He estimates that, when ISA completes the interoperability standard, General Mills and other manufacturers will be able to slash 70 percent of the time that they currently spend on custom integration.
Wetzel expects that General Mills will profit from the S95 standard much more than it did from the ISA S88 batch standard. Like a number of other large manufacturers, the company had already taken its own steps for standardizing horizontal integration—back in the 1990s, when people were still just talking about global standards and trying to figure out whether they were even possible. It also had invested in internally developed control strategies that followed the spirit of the S88 whenever it made sense.
A key part of its strategy was to limit the number of its equipment suppliers, “so we don’t have one of everything installed in our plants, on our networks, in our headquarters,” explains Wetzel. “We have only one system architecture, and we don’t deviate from it. It has made life quite a bit easier for us than for companies that have one of everything and can’t figure out how to glue it together.” These companies will find more use for the S88 than does General Mills.
Nevertheless, both standards will cut costs and improve agility and customer service as the foods giant continues to integrate its information systems even tighter while absorbing the systems of the companies that it acquires. Custom solutions consume resources that are better spent on making and supplying food. “We’re a food company, not a software company,” notes Wetzel.
Although the standards will widen its hardware and software options, the company will probably continue its policy of sticking with as few vendors as possible. “Even if you could plug and play anybody’s products together, there are still enough differences that you have to become knowledgeable about all those different products,”
Wetzel observes. “So the fewer products we have, the easier it is to be experts at them.”
Although companies such as General Mills have received only limited benefits from the S88 batch control standard, other companies have benefited tremendously from it during the standard’s first decade. Consider the benefits that a large, global brewer reaped recently after Wonderware helped its engineers to implement S88 at one of its facilities. The standard has given the brewer’s plant the flexibility of adding new products and moving existing recipes without having to reprogram its programmable logic controllers (PLCs). Once the engineers have defined and proved a process, they can deploy it anywhere with little effort.
“They defined a set of standards for the blocks and devices and matched them with the S88 equipment model,” explains Sowell, at Wonderware. “They then took some of our technology and defined sister functionality to match. They were able to structure their PLCs and structure the code in such a way that it allowed them to add a new recipe and manage the process without having to go to the PLC code.”
Brewing up savings
Dividends began to accrue immediately. When the brewer added a new brew at this facility, it needed to configure and tweak only the first batch. Production started with the second batch. “In previous years, startup would have meant changes to their control systems, delays and a lot of waste,” says Sowell. In the first five projects, the company saved between 10 percent and 15 percent of its start-up costs from just reusing the predefined control modules, and between 20 percent and 30 percent from following predetermined process specifications. Overall, the standard is saving the company between 60 percent and 70 percent on development and implementation.
Despite the advantages of global standards, Wetzel, at General Mills, warns that they are no panacea for systems integration. “There’s a strong likelihood that you won’t be able to apply 100 percent of the standard, whatever it is, because of the peculiarities of your business,” he says. Most applications will require some tweaking or bridge building to make it fit. For example, General Mills has not implemented the entire S88 batch standard, even though it appreciates the value of the common terminology and approaches that it promotes. “We used the portions that met our business needs and deviated from those that were in conflict with our business.”
This view is a healthy one for users. After all, “standards, by themselves, don’t necessarily make a company more competitive or more profitable,” observes Marty Zielinski, director of HART and fieldbus technology at Emerson Process Management, in Austin, Tex. He believes that, given today’s global marketplace, standards are a necessary but not sufficient tool for boosting the efficiency of resource utilization. They eliminate redundant activities that add no value. So rather than spending development dollars on designing several variations that conform to the standards in each regional market, manufacturers and suppliers can spend those funds on innovations.
The classic example is the Fieldbus Wars of the early 1990s. Before the competing standards organizations yielded to user pressure and merged into the Fieldbus Foundation, “users often faced the possibility that their favorite supplier of field devices would have a solution that was incompatible with their favorite host system,” says Zielinski. Since the merger, users have been able to choose from a wider variety of options. Moreover, suppliers are freer to innovate and increase their offerings. In Emerson’s case, for example, the wider user base has justified the development of various alarms and diagnostics for their field devices.
This lesson was not lost on industry. Both national and international standards organizations are collaborating to consolidate the vast array of standards to make them more uniform and much easier for global businesses to implement. In the process automation industries, for example, the ISA and the Geneva-based International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) are attempting to bring their standards into harmony with one another. According to Zielinski, the IEC is using S95 for integrating enterprise-wide controls as the basis for its 62264 standards, and the ISA is incorporating the IEC’s zone concept into its ISA 12 series electrical safety standard.
“It’s an ongoing process,” he says of the pending negotiations. “The goal is to have one international standard, independent of the origin.” Once accomplished, standards should be more effective and easier to implement in the global market and, therefore, find even greater use. In turn, those logicians at General Mills will have even more support for ensuring that the orders for Cheerios arrive on schedule.