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In the past, best practices included lots of technical items, as this was where complexity was greatest. Now best practices are more focused on up-front justification and planning, because without justification there is no project. “For anything we do there has to be a return on the investment or some other reason to do it such as legal requirements,” says Gary Crenshaw, electrical engineer with Beam Global Spirits and Wine, Cleremont, Ky. “If there is no return on investment, there will be no integration from SAP to the plant floor.”
The best way to justify return on investment for integration projects is to make the business case first (See “Make the Business Case First”). Once a business case has been made, there is a compelling reason for upper management to get behind the project. Upper management backing then convinces all departments to give integration projects the support they need.
Since standards have made integration much easier, one best practice is to use standards for communication whenever possible. The alternative of custom coding is not only more expensive initially, it is also harder to maintain.
One technique employed by many for control/ERP system integration is to use a manufacturing execution system (MES)-level product as a transfer point for communication. “Our engineers and programmers have found that using SQL Server as the transfer point provides more flexibility to work with legacy systems,” says Jerry Leuthold, senior software engineer at system integrator Bachelor Controls. (See the “Let SQL Serve” for more details on how Bachelor leverages middleware to east integration.)
A technical best practice that may work for some is to just bypass IT. Alan Cannon is a process/automation SCADA engineer for Plastic Omnium, Duncan, S.C. Like most automation pros, he had no direct experience with SAP.
“ERP integration in its simplest form is probably pretty easy for someone who lives in that environment,” observes Cannon. “But it was challenging for me because I had no knowledge to pull from, as I usually work with real world I/O and PLC logic.”
“So I read the 75-page manual on integration with SAP, and I was able to create every tool necessary to make connections between our InduSoft HMI and SAP via Microsoft SQL in less than an hour. But without the STD.net framework, the interfaces and the output windows contained within InduSoft, my debugging time would have been increased tenfold,” cautions Cannon. Bypassing IT saves lots of time in meetings and negotiations. Reading manuals is no fun, but it can be easier than establishing and maintaining relationships with other departments.
But even if it’s impossible to bypass your company’s IT department, it certainly helps to know as much as possible about your company’s IT platforms, especially those that interface to manufacturing.
Standards make the interfaces among control systems, MES platforms and ERP systems easier to understand for process automation pros. This can expedite learning and result in a deeper knowledge of the entire integration process. This knowledge makes meetings and negotiations with the IT department much easier, and it also results in better solutions.
|Check out our Integration Guide for more online resources on this subject. Also, read "Middleware Melds Manufacturing Info."
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