The Scramble for the Software Middle Ground

April 1, 2004
In the past decade, manufacturers have invested heavily in enterprise resource planning software, as well as automation systems, to trim production costs. Now, the race is on to fill the gap between ERP and automation data.

The data in plant automation used to be isolated. Yet the information swirling around the factory floor is critical to the rest of the enterprise. In days past, John Zak, drive specialist at paper manufacturer, Finch Pruyn & Co. Inc., of Glens Falls, N.Y., used to hand - off plant data to the back-office system manually. “We had a makeshift system made out of baling wire,” says Zak.

That began to change six years ago as Finch Pruyn started to automate the delivery of plant information coming out of its Rockwell Automation system. Plant data is now distributed to offsite maintenance monitoring via the Web. Data about consumed supplies is sent to purchasing. Information on completed orders is sent to invoicing. Plant performance information is also distributed. “Rockwell hands off the data to a SyTech (automated report generation) system that gathers the information and develops reports into spreadsheets,” says Zak. “Plus, we bring up all the plant information from the Allen-Bradley Data Highway system into a controller rack that moves it through an Ethernet network, then up to the high systems.”

The data loop is complete, from plant controls to various other applications ranging from supply chain management, maintenance monitoring, performance analysis and up into the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. For a while, Finch Pruyn ran a redundant manual system to make sure the information was flowing correctly. But even that isn’t necessary in most fully automated plants.

Finch Pruyn is not alone in its effort to close the information loop from plant floor to other areas of the enterprise, be it supply chain applications, ERP or maintenance suppliers. To help complete the information flow, automation and control suppliers have acquired or created enterprise manufacturing intelligence systems to convert real-time plant information into batch data that can tell purchasing what supplies have just been consumed, or tell the ERP system what orders have been completed for invoicing.

ERP and other business system companies are competing with automation vendors to connect plant floor intelligence to business systems. Thus far, the automation vendors have the drop on the middle software ground. Boston-based AMR Research Inc. recently noted that automation vendors are the best equipped entities to solve supply chain management (SCM) issues, far surpassing horizontal SCM providers in delivering accurate real-time information on the flow of materials.

The EMI layer

There is a layer of intelligence between the plant floor data and the rest of the enterprise applications. AMR Research refers to this as the enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) layer, and analysts note that automation vendors tend to dominate this software layer that effectively distributes plant data to various business systems. “You’re aggregating a variety of data from the plant floor and putting it into context, whether you feed the ERP beast or visualize the data locally,” says Bill Swanton, an AMR vice president. “There is a gap between the ERP and control systems, and more and more of that gap is getting absorbed by automation vendors.”

The space between plant data and business systems is a clear market opportunity for the companies that effectively make the leap first. For automation vendors, this new territory is a way to sell additional services to their existing customer base. “The only way control vendors can add higher value to their customers is to take the plant information and make it more like business intelligence,” says Swanton. “These vendors have already improved plant efficiency, now they can translate their information for business intelligence.”

Whichever type of company completes the gap between plant data and business intelligence, the automation vendor will play a big roll in completing the loop. “The owner of the automation system is generally responsible for providing an open, secure connection between the manufacturing floor and the business system environment,” says Bob Nelson, automation marketing manager at Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., in Alpharetta, Ga. “The use of common network infrastructures like Ethernet helps establish a physical connection. By using these tools, the business users can initiate their own ad-hoc queries of the manufacturing system.”

Bridging the gap

ERP vendors such as Germany’s SAP AG and PeopleSoft Inc., of Pleasanton, Calif., have been aggressive in expanding their reach through enterprises. But when it comes to the EMI layer at a manufacturer, the reach across the divide from plant data to enterprise information technology (IT) is typically done by automation vendors with ERP suppliers providing ready connections. The ready connection at SAP is NetWeaver; at PeopleSoft it’s AppConnect. One of the big reasons ERP vendors have not traversed the gap all the way to plant data is because plant data is real-time and ERP is batch, and so far, it’s been easier for automation companies to make their real-time data available for batch than it has been for ERP vendors to reach down into real-time plant data from a batch orientation.

“The co-existence of our non-real-time data with real-time data is a challenge,” says Kaj van de Loo, director of product strategy for SAP’s Global Web Services strategy. “On the real-time side, you need a filter.” Once the real-time data is filtered into events that can be batched, it can be absorbed into SAP via NetWeaver, the company’s open integration and application platform. Van de Loo believes the automation companies are better positioned to build the filter. “It’s unlikely that SAP would build a production machine that would act as a filter.” He notes however, that SAP is doing this filtering work for its radio-frequency identification (RFID) customers, but for other manufacturing applications, the work is being done by automation companies.

A big reason automation vendors integrate more easily into ERP than enterprise vendors integrate into plant data relates to speed. “Plant floors have grown up for decades with real-time information, and real-time usually means really fast,” says Kevin Roach, vice president of Global Solutions at GE Fanuc Automation, in Charlottesville, Va. “ERP transactions may be overnight or end-of-week, and there are different rules.” According to Roach, the logical company to make the data leap from the speedy plant floor to the batched ERP is the plant floor vendor. “It’s easier to get slower than it is to get faster,” says Roach. “So it’s easier for control to get to ERP than it is for ERP to get to real-time EMI.”

That’s not to say that ERP vendors aren’t trying hard to bridge the business system to plant data gap. “The reality is that SAP wants to expand its sphere of influence, and that’s evident by its NetWeaver,” says Eric Austvold, an AMR analyst. “The strategy SAP is employing around infrastructure technology is to collect more and more information and be the go-to technology in manufacturing deployment.” But when it comes to the gap between ERP and the plant floor, the automation vendors tend to be ready to connect right into NetWeaver. SAP won’t have to reach down into real-time plant data.

Bob Mick, vice president for Enterprise Integration and Emerging Technologies at ARC Advisory Group Inc., a Dedham, Mass., research and consulting firm, believes that SAP is eager to dip into the production system market. “There has traditionally been a good division between enterprise and production systems,” says Mick. “That’s been changing. SAP wants to get involved in production management.”

Web Services

Much of the distribution of plant data to other applications is now done over the Internet via eXtensible Markup Language (XML) and other protocols. Rockwell monitors plant performance remotely via the Web as it works to reduce maintenance-related shutdowns. “We connect directly to the plant control system,” says Kevin Oswald, commercial marketing specialist at Rockwell. “The data goes into a warehouse. Then it goes over the Web through a secure line to our engineers in Cleveland.” This monitoring system is designed to catch problems before they happen or just as soon as they happen.

Web Services also provide a non-proprietary format that allows the ERP vendors to translate real-time data into batch data that is easily integrated into ERP systems. “Web Services can be used for batch or real-time data,” says William McKinney, marketing manager at PeopleSoft.

Some companies are using the rich data environment to coordinate quick production changes to market fluctuations. “Companies are evolving from obtaining information to sharing information through Web Services,” says Renee Brandt, product marketing manager at Wonderware Visualization Products, Lake Forest, Calif., which is part of London-based Invensys plc. According to Brandt, this sharing of information can even include market data.

In whatever ways manufacturers use their real-time plant information, it looks as though the automation vendors have a good jump on managing and distributing the data as it integrates into business systems. The automation vendors are adept at handling real-time data in ways that business system vendors are not presently equipped to match.

See sidebar to this article: Automation Vendors vie for EMI