By Dan Hebert, PE
Management at all levels is breathing down your neck and demanding to know how soon you can get your plant talking to its very expensive ERP system. You know that integration is good, but that making it happen is hard, and you may be at a bit of a loss about where to go for help with your enterprise integration project. Internal staff, your automation vendors, system integrators and your ERP vendor all insist they are best positioned to integrate your plant floor with your ERP system. Who is right?
ERP Vendors Favor Top-Down Approach
Your ERP vendor certainly has upper management’s ear, as they have managed to extract millions from them over the last few years. “ERP vendors know how to deal with top management, and upper management often drives the project,” says Gary Crenshaw, senior electrical engineer in corporate engineering at Beam Global Spirits and Wine, Clermont, Ky.
Your ERP vendor is also friendly with your IT folks. “ERP vendors couple an IT-centric focus with thorough knowledge and experience with their own systems,” notes Robb Dussault, the manager of automation and control services at Schneider Electric.
But ERP vendors seldom know anything about process plant automation. “My concern with an ERP vendor is the process control side – SAP does not play well with PLCs,” says Mark Atanasoff, a senior electrical project engineer with Osram Sylvania, Towanda, Pa. “While they know the business systems better than anyone, their lack of understanding of the process systems leads to integration issues. It’s hard to convince someone that kilowatt hours or standard cubic feet per hour are important when they don’t understand what the terms mean,” adds Atanasoff.
A leading system integrator also questions the process expertise of ERP vendors. “ERP vendors don’t know the data points, and they don’t know how to integrate that information with the ERP system,” says Chris Jones, vice president of business solutions at Maverick Technologies, St. Louis, Mo. “As with the automation vendors, ERP vendors may be biased toward using their own product for a particular application,” adds Jones.
An end user shares similar concerns. “ERP vendors tend to sell the job from the top down filling in all available space with their own product,” observes Mike Cole, IS director IS of plant automated systems and standards at Smithfield Foods, Smithfield, Va.
Plant floor to ERP system integration can link all areas of your process plant to your customers, your other plants, your corporate headquarters, and to your suppliers.
It can get ugly when ERP vendors apply their products in the wrong places. “ERP vendors are highly biased to drive their solution deeper into the organization and act based on their desire for account control,” says Dan Miklovic, vice president at industry analyst Gartner.
“A common result is that corporate leadership often mandates the use of the ERP solution in areas where it is not well suited. This leads to increased training costs, lower adoption rates and minimal benefits,” concludes Miklovic.
Finally, ERP vendors are probably the most expensive option because they cannot do the entire project, because their rates are high and because they tend to work on a cost-plus basis. “ERP vendors are not manufacturing experts, and this often translates to a higher learning curve and more cost,” notes Marc Leroux, manager of collaborative production management marketing at ABB. “ERP vendors often rely on others to provide manufacturing information and write the interface code. This can lead to multiple owners and finger-pointing. ERP vendors also charge higher rates than automation vendors,” adds Leroux.
Is there a better alternative to ERP vendors on the supplier side of the fence?
Automation Vendors Are Better
Automation vendors share some of the drawbacks of ERP vendors, but they bring valuable expertise to the table. Viable options include only large automation vendors that have an integration services group and that sell a full range of automation products from the controller level to the HMI level and MES levels.
Most important, the selected automation vendor must already have lots of its hardware and software in your plant.
Like ERP vendors, automation vendors tend to their flock. “Automation vendors can have intimate understanding of their products and how to apply them, but likely will not be anywhere near as knowledgeable about products that aren’t their own,” says Bryn Williams, MES program manager at systems integrator Total Systems Design, West Chester, Pa.
“Automation firm business drivers create an agenda to develop technical solutions around what they have to offer versus what is needed, available or best in class. Project specifications can be written to match what products can do, instead of being written around operational needs and requirements,” observes Williams.