Plant to enterprise – Putting the pieces together

While improved technology has narrowed the gap, the pressure now is on to complete the plant-floor-to-top-floor link. But the path is a twisty one dogged by complex technical and cultural issues.

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By Nancy Bartels, Managing Editor

Plant to EnterpriseWE'VE BEEN talking about the seamless flow of information between the plant and the “top floor” of the enterprise since God was an apprentice. That almost mythical connection has been the golden promise, the Holy Grail that led companies to spend big on enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution systems (MES), and their subsequent systems integrators and consultants, often to discover that the executive suite, back-office and operations still might just as well be living in different countries, if not on different planets.

Now the convergence of business need, improved technology and a couple of decades of experience has narrowed the gap. The Holy Grail is visible on the horizon, but most companies are still a long way from integration Nirvana. The way forward is getting easier, but it’s still fraught with complexity and the perils of wrong paths taken. Culture wars and internecine squabbles over turf issues can still derail plans.
So why bother? Because the plant floor contains vital information executives need.

Bob Mick, vice president of emerging technology at ARC Advisory Group, pegs visibility and the need to synchronize operations and business activity as the drivers. Manufacturers need “to get ops more closely linked with demand, and get suppliers more coupled with operations as well,” he says.

Yves Dufor, director of production and performance management at Wonderware, says, “Globalization has rather tipped the balance and made plant-floor/enterprise integration a necessity.”

Vivek Bapat, senior director of solutions marketing at ERP giant SAP adds, “The typical manufacturer has to deal with 20 or 40 plants, some of which they own and some of which they don’t. They have to coordinate all those activities. They need to synchronize orders with execution. They need to coordinate effectively across distributed manufacturing plants.”

Finally, the relentless pressure on executives to cut costs and turn a profit is driving the need for plant data. Peter Martin, vice president of Performance Management for Invensys concludes, based on interviews Invensys has done with more than 1,400 executives over the last 15 years, “Almost universally one of [executives’] top issues is that they don’t know where they are making or losing money in manufacturing operations on a minute-to-minute basis. They know at the end of the month, but by then it’s too late.”

But simple need alone isn’t enough to make plant-floor/integration happen. Technological and cultural barriers remain.


Cost, pricing and competitive pressures all are driving executives to seek key production data from the factory floor, resulting in the big push to integrate plant-floor and enterprise systems. Courtesy: The Aberdeen Group.


Shop-floor visibility and improved product quality are the top reasons why manufacturers are integrating plant-floor and enterprise systems. Courtesy: The Aberdeen Group.

Why Is This So Hard?
One reason may be that, in the past, manufacturers were asking the wrong questions. “For the last 30 years, we’ve been focused on integration without solving business problems,” says Martin. “Now we’re transitioning to solving business problems.”

The actual integration, while not a trivial exercise, has been doable for decades, he adds. “We’ve been able to connect this stuff since 1975. It’s easier and cheaper now, but if all you’re doing is connecting IT to automation and not solving problems differently or better, it adds no value.”

Martin Michael, vice president of business solutions for systems integrator Advanced Automation, agrees that many companies have put the cart before the horse. “To be successful at this kind of integration, you should never answer the technology question first. The business goals should come first; then approach integration and technology issues. Any data that doesn’t advance business goals is useless.” 

Having that clear business case creates another advantage—beyond the obvious one of making the project easier to sell to the bean counters. It may cut the project down to a manageable size.

Michael counsels, “Break the project up into the business modules needed to solve a specific project. Build a road map. Get some early wins.”

That’s been the strategy at Coca-Cola Amatil (CCA), the largest Coke bottler in Australia. CCA began with connecting Activplant’s Insight for Microsoft Excel manufacturing intelligence system to the bottling lines across several plants to get information about bottling rates and line capacity—by no means a full-blown enterprise to plant floor connection. The project began in 2003 with a pilot project on one bottling line at the Sydney facility, says Wayne Luxford, a CCA manufacturing analyst (See Figure 2).

The reason for the implementation was simple: “We have a convoluted [bottling] line, and it was hard to spot issues,” explains Luxford. “It runs 24/7, and the engineering support works mostly during the day. It was a matter of just not knowing what was going on. Often there would be arguments about what the problem was. Now, once we have the data, we can prove where the problem is. We can smooth out all the starts and stops.”

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