IT's Role in Manufacturing

Manufacturing companies are facing many new challenges today to become more flexible and agile as business models change.

Companies’ ability to adapt quickly to a changing business environment mainly depends on the agility of their corporate cultures, flexibility of their business processes and interoperability of the information technology (IT) systems they employ. Unfortunately, many manufacturing companies today have IT systems that are inflexible, antiquated, and difficult and expensive to enhance, maintain and support.

One driver of business change is the increasing number of regulations that government and other agencies have imposed on manufacturing companies. Life sciences, food and beverage, aerospace and defense, and automotive companies are all required to track, trace and create genealogy in the manufacturing of their products, from so called “cradle to grave,” i.e. from raw materials to finished goods. In some cases, a company must trace not only its main product produced through its entire life cycle with end-customers, but also their secondary or incidental products deriving from the core manufacturing process.
 
Another business shift, or trend, requiring flexibility today is the use of many different suppliers to manufacture the end product. Increasingly, original equipment manufacturers are using more pre-assembled parts from a globally distributed network of suppliers who come and go rather quickly. In order to maintain profitability, companies need to seamlessly and securely integrate their IT systems to suppliers’ in order to track product, supplies and schedules.

SOA for change

One technology or architecture that helps companies with this problem is called Service Oriented Architecture, or SOA. Used in combination with appropriate industry standards and continuous improvement (CI) methods, SOA allows for a plug-and-play type of architecture for IT systems. In essence, the IT system’s functionality can be added, changed or removed quickly as market demands require business changes.

A more recent trend, over the past 10 to 15 years, is the widespread and pervasive deployment of computing technology into plants. With powerful servers and a variety of software packages becoming lower cost to acquire and deploy, manufacturers have implemented many more applications than in the early 1990s. Some plants now use hundreds of different applications, with some running on devices or embedded in manufacturing equipment on the shop floor, and some hosted at the plant’s local internal data center near the plant management offices.

However, the first age of manufacturing IT was based on disparate applications comprised of different data models, application architectures, transactions and messaging constructs. The cost of ownership of these applications is very high due to lack of similarity, flexibility, and integration methods. Consequently, many plants use spreadsheets and Word documents for data collection and analysis, and for other information processing, in addition to the plant applications that are available to them. This makes data warehousing, correlation, analysis and event-driven workflows impossible to do in a cost-effective manner.

Manufacturing IT strategy must be driven by a continuous-improvement business strategy. IT and manufacturing departments must implement a company’s strategy throughout their manufacturing strategies and systems. At the best manufacturers, IT’s focus is on supporting and enabling improvements in work practices. IT architectures and systems need to continue to identify and improve manufacturing metrics to represent the current manufacturing state of change.
To support Lean Manufacturing, the primary IT responsibility is to ensure the right information is available when needed by decision makers to make correct, timely decisions. Some smart, automated devices are beginning to be programmed to identify, analyze and correct workflow as well. Business processes are starting to be embedded in IT systems. SOA accelerates the Lean IT approach. To make an improvement in work practice permanent, changes to the IT systems are needed.

Gary Mintchell, gmintchell@automationworld.com, Editor in Chief of Automation World, adapted this article from the MESA International (www.mesa.org) white paper, “SOA in Manufacturing Guidebook.”
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