Analyst Bill Swanton calls it “feeding the beast.” There’s a growing need in manufacturing to collect plant floor data, transform it into a useful business context, and feed the data in real time to upper-level Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, as an aid to better decision making, says Swanton, a vice president at AMR Research, in Boston.
At PolyOne Corp., a major, Cleveland-based polymer products manufacturer, Roger McKinney agrees. “An ERP system is going to let you make better decisions. But you have to feed it the appropriate data, and you have to get the data there in a reasonable time,” says McKinney, a senior manufacturing systems analyst in PolyOne’s Information Technology (IT) department. “The closer you can get to real time, the better that ERP system is going to work for you,” McKinney advises.
In the case of PolyOne, the ERP “beast” to be fed is the R/3 enterprise system from SAP A.G., of Walldorf, Germany. PolyOne was formed in September 2000 by the merger of The Geon Co. and M.A. Hanna Co. McKinney, a veteran of Geon, had been involved for several years in developing custom manufacturing execution systems (MESs) for Geon production tracking, as well as custom interfaces to feed data between the company’s factories and its corporate ERP system in Cleveland.
The custom interfaces moved data in both directions via T1 network lines, sending process instructions downstream from the ERP to factory control systems, and sending material consumption and production data back upstream to the ERP. But the custom interfaces required heavy levels of technical support, says McKinney. In the late 1990s, when Geon transitioned its ERP to the SAP R/3 system, “we realized that it would be a good time to see if there was an off-the-shelf tool that we could use to simplify the interface support,” McKinney relates.
Geon had earlier replaced its plant data historians with PI System historian modules supplied by OSIsoft Inc., of San Leandro, Calif. So as Geon searched for the best way to link its plant floor systems to R/3, it was natural for the company to look at OSIsoft’s Rlink product—an SAP-certified interface for passing real-time data between factory level systems and R/3. And the Rlink product passed muster.
Plug and play
“Although we had also evaluated other methodologies, such as data mapping tools, we felt that OSIsoft’s off-the-shelf interface would be ideal for our needs because it could plug-and-play at both ends of our system solution,” says McKinney. Alternative interface solutions would have required extensive testing by Geon prior to the upgrade to SAP.
Geon started out with a pilot project to convert a vinyl compound production plant in Farmingdale, N.J., to use Rlink as a PI-to-R/3 interface. “It worked out really well, so we jumped in with both feet and converted all of our automated vinyl compound plants over to Rlink,” says McKinney. “And while we were doing that, the merger happened with M.A. Hanna.”
In addition to a total of six Geon vinyl plants that the company was already converting, the merger brought an additional eight automated M.A. Hanna elastomer plants under the new PolyOne umbrella, along with a new management program to standardize on corporate-wide solutions, McKinney says. M.A. Hanna had been using its own custom interfaces to move data between the elastomer plants and its SAP R/3 system. So once the vinyl plant conversions were completed, PolyOne moved to convert the elastomer plants from custom to Rlink interfaces as well—a task completed during 2002.
Since the Rlink interfaces were put in place, the bidirectional data traffic between PolyOne plant level systems and the corporate R/3 system has consistently increased. Recent statistics show that an average of more than 350 control recipes are downloaded each day to the 14 plants, which together are running more than 20 vinyl production lines and 50 elastomer lines. Materials consumption messages sent back up to the SAP system average more than 8,800 per day, while production messages total more than 1,700 daily.
The production floor data is fed to the R/3 system on what McKinney calls “a near real-time basis.” Production messages, which carry finished goods information, are automatically transferred to the SAP system every 20 minutes, while material consumption messages move upstream every 60 minutes.
“Everybody seemed to be most concerned about getting the finished goods data up to SAP quickly so they could make shipments, so that’s why we chose to run the production interface every 20 minutes,” McKinney notes. The hourly schedule for materials consumption data, on the other hand, provides sufficient immediacy for use by corporate decision makers, and also provides time for some data summarization at the MES level, he adds. “The consumption data amounts to a boatload, believe me, and if you send up all of the individual transactions to SAP, it will tend to bog down the system a little bit,” McKinney observes. “When you’re trying to run reports, you’d rather have a partially summarized set of data.”
McKinney cites a number of benefits from the conversion to Rlink interfaces. “From a support standpoint alone, it’s been a blessing,” he says. For just the automated vinyl plants, staffing requirements have dropped from around four full-time people to support the earlier custom interfaces to the equivalent of one person spending half time on Rlink interface support, he notes.
On the corporate side, the delivery of near-real time factory data to the R/3 system has enabled better decision making. Materials management, for example, has been significantly improved. “The ERP system is really all about looking at inventory levels, setting reorder points and figuring out the best time to have your next shipment ordered,” says McKinney. “And the better the data in the SAP system, the better that system is going to work for you. You’re actually able to reduce some of your raw material levels.”
The system has also helped the company create best-of-breed external connectivity to both its materials suppliers and its customers, McKinney adds. Customers can now place orders and check their order fulfillment progress over the Internet via PolyOne Web pages, e-mail or business- to-business applications. Suppliers can do the same from their enterprise applications, checking raw material inventories online and preparing replenishment transactions online. In all, notes McKinney, the improved timeliness of process data in the R/3 system has resulted in “vastly improved inventory management, better customer order management and more timely response to customer needs.”