IIoT / Software / Asset Management

Plan for integration in MES modernization

Fit-for-purpose software applications allow users to begin connecting their plant floor and enterprise systems for a fraction of the cost of an entire MES.

By Khris Kammer, information partner and competency manager, Rockwell Automation

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The Internet of Things (IoT) is turning traditional homes into high-tech havens. The most successful solutions allow consumers to start small. For instance, vendors offer lighting systems controlled remotely via your smartphone. As a separate package, they might offer a smoke detector that integrates with the lighting system, so lights flash to visually alert you of a fire.

When purchased separately, these compatible components can be obtained for only a couple hundred dollars each. Once you start to see value of your initial investment and have more money to spend, you can often easily integrate them into your home’s digital platform.

That same basic principle is now applicable for a manufacturing execution system (MES). New, fit-for-purpose software applications are available that allow users to begin connecting their plant floor or operations technology (OT) with their IT and enterprise systems for less than a fraction of the cost of an entire MES.

Fit-for-purpose solutions can fill a gap for users who do not have large MES infrastructures, but need to improve areas from quality to yield to cost.

But before you begin building an MES system one application at a time, you must have an integration plan in place to ensure all the pieces eventually connect. The benefits increase exponentially once fit-for-purpose systems are talking to each other and utilizing data across systems.

Silos versus betting the farm

The introduction of computers and the ability to deploy a MES and enterprise resource planning system in manufacturing led to new efficiencies in the 1990s. But in the beginning, system designers did not pay heed to the importance of integration. Because of this, many production operations today struggle with legacy applications that cannot talk to each other, creating communications silos.

To topple that barrier, over the last 15 years, companies have implemented single software solutions horizontally across manufacturing lines. While the approach has streamlined production, the upfront cost has proven substantial, especially for smaller manufacturers. Now, truly embracing the essence of the IoT movement, producers can take a modular approach to connecting enterprises.

Step-by-step solutions

Applying MES applications modularly keeps the door open for growth if a company wishes to expand into other solutions. A project that starts small is easier to justify to management. The results are apparent when applied to specific MES functions – leading to concrete evidence to highlight increased efficiency.

Take, for example, a fit-for-purpose, quality-management application. Instead of modeling and applying a proof-of-concept solution thinly across an MES, a modular quality-management application can be rolled out at the machine level for specific, quality data collection and elimination of paper-based reporting.

The software alerts a plant operator if a quality check is needed via laptop, tablet or smartphone. If the check fails, a configurable, escalation work flow drives operations into additional quality sampling and corrective action plans, creating the potential to salvage product still on the line. This also gives plant and operations managers insight into the total number of completed, suspected and wasted batches.

It’s a full, quality-management solution, but future goals need to be kept top of mind because the real benefits lie in integration. Without a plan, future MES integration becomes a challenge.

A key first step in your standardization plan is selecting products and vendors that comply with ISA 95. This will allow you to pick functionality from different vendors while ensuring the products work together. Just know that cross-vendor integration will never be as smooth as single-vendor integration.

The next step to consider is system design. For example, if you add a production management application to a system that already has quality management, you can pull data from several systems to improve operational procedures without the additional cost of data collection. So, start with applications that share similar context for the best insights.

Manufacturing is moving into a new age. Quality and efficiency are improving as a result of capturing and using valuable data. While the task of connecting systems seems daunting, there is now a simple starting point with an application-based approach. Before you jump in, have a plan in place. Your foresight will save you headaches in the future.