Plant-to-Business is THE Important Linkage

Dec. 1, 2004
Connecting the factory floor to business levels means having the right application, at the right time, at the right place. Do it wrong and you’ve got a communications problem worse than the Tower of Babel.

Software suppliers and end-users still travail about integrating production and enterprise business systems, observes Bob Mick, vice president of emerging technologies at ARC Advisory Group, Dedham, Mass. Plant-to-business best describes that connectivity between manufacturing execution systems (MES) and manufacturing resource planning (MRP) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, he adds. Another aspect is cross-platform functionality, says Ben Rosenberg, chief architect at Advanced Systems Concepts Inc., a software engineering company based in Parsippany, N.J. That means linking disparate systems, such as multiple ERPs, so jobs can run seamlessly.

Typically, industry views the plant-to-business connection as the MES-ERP marriage. The execution system is a set of tools supporting the management processes around production, says Angelo D’Agostino, a senior process control engineer with Western Australia’s Worsley Alumina Pty Ltd. “It’s also the setting of targets and how well those are met,” he adds. Worsley Alumina’s technology suite includes Honeywell’s data historian, laboratory-information-management system and Data Hiway. These connect to ERP vendor SAP AG’s PP-PI production-execution module; drive runtimes connect to SAP’s R/3 Plant Maintenance system.

MES: What is it?

The ERP’s scheduling and reporting functionality seems straightforward. But what is the MES role? To execute manufacturing and provide meaningful data back to business, explains Pittsburgh-based Steve Briant, solution business development manager for Rockwell Automation.

That role might be changing, though. “MES is dead! Long live MES!” is a story that could’ve been written a year ago, suggests Senior Research Analyst Alison Smith, of AMR Research, in Boston. ARC’s Mick agrees. The term was defined in a way that didn’t address many of today’s functionalities, explains Mick. “Now, what’s happened is that the term ‘MES’ is used to mean everything from the business systems to automation layer.” That includes programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and distributed control systems (DCSs).

Others also avoid the term MES. “If you use ‘MES,’ you spend 10 minutes explaining what it means to somebody,” says Gary Hopkins, president and chief executive officer of Alpharetta, Ga.-headquartered SlipStream Software. “We generally talk about collaborative manufacturing,” says Senior Product Manager Chris Boothroyd, of Honeywell Process Solutions, in Phoenix. He typically talks to end-users about the Purdue Reference Model for Commercial Information Management. Other terms he might use are production management and operations management.

Still, there is the connection of ERP and MES. D’Agostino voiced concern about that connection because of blurred interfaces. “Players on both sides of the fence seem to be moving into the other side,” he says. That may present problems. You don’t want ERP systems controlling reactor shutdowns, valves or proportional-integral-derivative loops, cautions Smith. That’s because cost-based ERPs have little applicability in equipment and process models. Also consider redundancy, says Yves Dufort, corporate director of services in the Montreal office of Wonderware, an Invensys company based in Lake Forest, Calif. “With an ERP system, you can live with a couple of hours of downtime. But from a manufacturing standpoint, you can’t.”

Some end-users employ OSIsoft’s Real-time Performance-Management (RtPM) technology as an execution system, says Technical Strategist Greg LeBlanc, at OSIsoft, a San Leandro, Calif.-based vendor. RtPM can look at totalized information from the plant floor and also look more at the enterprise level. That’s the emphasis, he notes, of two Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA) standards: ISA-88-Batch Systems Standards, commonly known as S88; and ANSI (American National Standards Institute)/ISA-95.00-Enterprise-Control System Integration, commonly known as S95. More end-users now ask if OSI supports those, says LeBlanc.

The two standards are complementary, says James Sabogal, director of SAP’s industry business unit for pharmaceuticals, located at the company’s U.S. headquarters, in Newtown Square, Pa. “S95 fills a hole,” adds Sudipta Bhattacharya, SAP vice president for manufacturing applications. His company’s NetWeaver, a technology stack that includes a Web portal, is standardized on S95. The technology drills down from the top of the business. One of its functions is mapping: connecting dissimilar terms between systems so there is one vocabulary for all users. On top of the platform sits an ERP system, explains Sabogal. “Plants can have different MES, PLCs and DCSs.”

Information Technology Manager Paul Bloemen, of Belgium-based Martens Brewery, insisted on using S95 in a new brew house system because the standard simplifies communications. “You have different kinds of people involved—operations and business.” The new system’s backbone is Wonderware’s ArchestrA architecture, which bridges the gap between ERP and control systems. It integrates his InBatch, InControl and IndustrialSQL systems from Wonderware with Martens Brewery’s Protean ERP system from Chicago-based SSA Global. The suite went live at the end of March and was fully integrated at the end of July. Since, brew quality improved due to the use of the entire connected suite of SSA Global and Wonderware products. Other benefits include the availability of diagnostics, information and reporting during batches, as well as the brew master being able to directly change recipes. “With S95, we get very fast real-time communications between the shop floor and ERP. Data are more reliable and more accurate,” says Bloemen.

Less tension

Besides S95, more good news is that manufacturing and Information Technology interdepartment tensions of past years have abated. But interoperability is at play, says Rockwell’s Briant. The new buzzword is service-oriented architecture, or SOA. The new competitors are Microsoft’s .Net and Sun Microsystems’ Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition (J2EE), he notes. Regardless of which is used, automation vendors still have to deliver value to the market, he says. And the principal question, Briant believes, is, “Can your MES or operations application provide meaningful data as a Web service?”

Palo Alto, Calif.-based SeeCommerce believes it can. The company facilitates bi-directional connectivity through a dashboard user-interface, explains Parviz Hooman, senior vice president of research and development. “On the other side, it has connectivity to ERP and manufacturing systems to gather information to construct overall equipment efficiency (OEE) down to the individual product line, for each shift.”

BorgWarner Automotive’s Cadillac, Mich., plant uses SeeCommerce technology in producing cooling systems for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. The system went live in March and became fully operational in May. “We’re measuring our efficiencies based on OEE. The initial measure showed we were at 49 percent. After our debug on the floor, which took about four weeks, in the last six months, we’ve gained 11 percent,” says Plant Manager Todd Bennington. The technology offers his division manager at another facility in Auburn Hills, Mich., a daily view of operations, as well as pointing him “right to the source of problems,” Bennington adds.

ARC’s Mick agrees that Web Services will play a role in future plant-to-business strategies and that the long-term vision for such strategies is interoperability.

However, there is a danger in Web Services, LeBlanc believes. They are intended to get higher-level information and then possibly even execute a complex set of events. But the system may execute without actually knowing which systems you are going to be touching, he says.

What on earth?

Touching the factory floor with ERP has been attempted. However, those ERP-based MESs can only work in extremely simplistic manufacturing scenarios, believes AMR’s Smith. “What on earth would a transaction-based ERP system do with a tag (input/output from a PLC) that was alarming on an over-temperature condition for a process?” Leave real-time process execution to real-time systems, she states, and high-level inventory tracking and management to ERP systems.

Plant-to-business connectivity changes the way businesses are operating through applications having hard, identifiable return on investment (ROI), says SlipStream’s Hopkins. “That’s what customers are focusing on,” he says, noting two mindsets exist. One belongs to Fortune 500 companies, which may focus on strategies. The other belongs to mid-market manufacturers, who Hopkins says focus more on tactical solutions. That’s because their resources are thin and their skills sets may not be as extensive as the Fortune 500, though they still have the same pressures, he says. “They can’t spend the time and money to implement a five-year automation plan. But what they can do is implement applications that have that quick ROI.” He defines those as ones with less-than-12-month paybacks.

See sidebar to this article: ISA’s S95 Enterprise Standard is the Golden Benchmark