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.
Graphic courtesy of Rockwell Automation.
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.
Osram Sylvania’s Atanasoff agrees with Williams. “Automation vendors tend to peddle their products and make them fit every application. However, these vendors tend to have experts in the field, and I use them as a sounding board for my projects.”
Automation vendors can have a wealth of expertise, both with their own products and with integration of these products into ERP systems. “Automation vendors know the manufacturing environment – safety, uptime requirements, automation systems and protocols,” says Bob Mick, vice president, emerging technologies at industry analyst firm ARC Advisory Group. “In addition, the right automation vendor will already have existing working relationships with the plant automation group,” adds Mick.
Because automation vendors work in different process plants around the world, they can bring a range of experience to the table. “Automation vendor expertise and experience can improve internal engineering solutions because outside resources are not as susceptible to tunnel vision and are often more aware of current technology trends,” comments David Bynum, principal engineer with Coca-Cola North America, Atlanta.
Another contender for your integration project overcomes many of the limitations of automation vendors, but comes with some issues of its own.
Do System Integrators Know How To Integrate?
As the name implies, a system integrator should know how to integrate hardware and software from various vendors into a coherent whole, and many do. But they must be truly independent, or they will bring the parochial drawbacks of ERP and automation vendors along with them.
“The key word is independent. An integrator not tied to a specific product is the way to go – they are selling solutions, not software. They are more flexible and willing to do customization based on my needs,” says Atanasoff.
“A system integrator with the right experience can be a real plus because you can point them in the right direction for specific tasks,” says Chris Gibbons, an engineering associate with plastic manufacturer, Sasol North America, Westlake, La.
Although automation vendors often compete with system integrators, they also cooperate in some instances and recognize their value. “System integrators are consultants who work with a variety of customers and vendors. They have the knowledge and training to implement a project specific solution and provide advice on best practices,” observes Leroux of ABB.
Although system integrators come highly recommended by many, caution is in order. “A drawback with independent integrators may be the volatility of staff and, in some cases, the ability of the integration firm to survive a very competitive and demanding industry. Integrators may not be around in five years to update or modify the installation,” cautions Cole of Smithfield Foods.
A way around this issue is to closely check the credentials of the system integrator. For example, Maverick Technologies has been around for 20 years, employ 600 people, and have annual revenues of $100 million. It is likely that Maverick and many other integrators will be around for the foreseeable future.
But as Williams of Total System Design says, “only crazy people become consultants or systems integrators for this kind of project work.” This author used to be one of those crazy people, and the work is certainly demanding. This inevitably leads to higher employee turnover than with automation and ERP vendors.
Be cognizant of anticipated longevity of the integrator and of expected tenure of its employees working on your project. Although some integrators frown on it, many end users will hire a key employee from an integrator after a large and important project is finished. That is an excellent way to make sure that project and technology details are fully transferred from the integrator to the end user.
Of course, if retaining project details is crucial, the best method is in-house execution.
In The House
Executing your next plant floor-ERP system integration project with in-house personnel can be the best way to go. “Companies who choose to have internal staff execute their integration projects benefit from technical ownership and clear lines of responsibility,” says Michael Gay, senior business consultant with Rockwell Automation. “In addition, they have an intimate understanding of their own processes,” adds Gay.
If internal staff is on hand, they will be cost-effective. “Plant personnel are readily available if a problem occurs, and overhead is covered, so they are less expensive to use than outside contractors,” notes Doug Rhodes, manager of the electrical power and automation group at system integrator Dayton & Knight, North Vancouver, British Columbia.
HMI vendor Wonderware also sees the value of in-house execution. “In-house personnel know the plant manufacturing and operational practices intimately, so no learning curve is required with respect to plant culture, methods, and goals,” relates Jay R Jeffreys, PE, Wonderware’s marketing manager for solution provider programs.
“Because project costs can often be buried in ongoing manufacturing operations, overruns and surprises are less likely to negatively impact the project. Although internal staff knows the plant manufacturing and operational practices intimately, they may not be open to or even aware of alternate and better ways to get things done,” concludes Jeffrey.
Others second that opinion. “If your plant personnel lack the required technical expertise, which is often the case for newer technologies, you spend a great deal of time and money training these folks to become experts in the particular technology at hand,” says Cole of Smithfield Foods.
Because internal staff is often focused on its particular plant, myopia can set in with respect to other technologies. “Internal staff has intimate knowledge and understanding of process and operational specifics, but this can be a double-edged sword. They are often too close to the problems to address them objectively. Internal staff may also find it hard to rise above day-to-day coping in the trenches in order to create a clear strategic vision,” says Williams of Total System Design.
Coca-Cola’s Bynum also has concerns with in-house execution. “Internal resources often do not possess the skill set with the system being deployed because the applications are not common like Microsoft Windows or Excel. Bringing those resources up to speed adds cost, extends the project time line and often comes with a lot of missteps. Also, many businesses today do not have staff to dedicate to large scale projects.”
We have looked at the pros and cons of executing plant floor to ERP integration projects with ERP vendors, with automation vendors, with system integrators, and with internal staff. What are recommended best practices?
Opinions on best practices obviously vary depending on point-of-view, with each option tending to recommend their own. But some respondents took a more impartial view.
Industry analyst Frost & Sullivan suggests evaluation of integration partners based on this risk versus cost versus complexity versus time matrix.
Graphic courtesy of Frost & Sullivan.
Sath Rao, director of industrial automation and process control at industry analyst firm Frost and Sullivan says, “The single largest disconnect in realizing the benefits of plant floor to top floor integration is the inability to translate business-specific vision to operational plant floor strategies. This disconnect can only be bridged if real-time business metrics are tied to plant level operational metrics. This specific insight can be provided by an independent and objective third-party integration consultant or by a management guru who has the confidence of the C-level in the organization.”
Whatever approach selected, teamwork is a must. “Our approach stresses teamwork among vendors, the integration firm, and the customer during the project,” says Michel Ruel PE, president of system integrator Top Control, Levis, Quebec. “Coaching and support after the project are also crucial, and with many customers we accomplish this via remote access. We encourage our customers to bring in project personnel from different departments including process engineering, control systems and management.”
Cole of Smithfield Foods says, “The biggest challenge in successfully integrating plant data to ERP level systems is defining proper ownership and team participation at the process, technical, and business levels. The ideal makeup of this team includes an ERP integrator, the automation vendor and key internal resources. Getting and keeping a project running smoothly depends on this team as full-time project members in both the short and long term.”
Maverick Technologies is an independent systems integrator with experience at both the plant and business levels. Recently, a large fertilizer manufacturer in Texas put Maverick to the test on an enterprise integration project. The manufacturer’s threefold objective was to develop a method of lot traceability, to better manage plant utilization and to automate data entry for quality assurance and reliable reporting.
Maverick designed an integration solution based on the ISA-95-compliant B2MML transaction schema. To meet the project requirements, Maverick used and expanded upon existing software, including FourthShift Edition for SAP Business One at the ERP system level, Wonderware products at the MES level and Rockwell Automation products at the controller level.
As a result of the systems integration, the plant can now provide forward and backward genealogy of materials as well as metrics regarding plant utilization and potential capacity. Many data processes are now automated, including material consumption transactions and historization of change management. The plant has also reduced the cost of acquiring downtime data and eliminated the inaccuracies and inefficiencies of manual data entry.
Real-time production monitoring and access to production data allow web-based reporting and measure the plant’s overall success through key performance indicators. The enterprise integration project only took nine months to complete and the manufacturer has continued to experience a return on its investment.