Today’s factories generate incredible amounts of raw data -- whether it is the number of parts reworked during a shift or the amount of ingredients used in the most recent batch. That data, when put in the proper format and the appropriate hands, can be turned into useful information to improve manufacturing and business processes.
A convergence of new business drivers -- including mass customization, compressed delivery schedules and ever-pressing regulatory demands -- has intensified the focus on the critical value of information generated from the manufacturing environment.
Manufacturers now realize the need to create an integrated environment where plant floor processes and business priorities are managed in a collaborative, synchronized manner. This integration can help companies achieve new levels of responsiveness and flexibility -- enabling corporate decision makers to make better, faster decisions by providing plant-wide information in a single format appropriate to the function.
For businesses with an aggressive growth strategy, integrating IT and plant floor processes is critical, especially when new facilities become part of the family due to mergers and acquisitions.
Tremendous operational efficiency benefits can be gained by connecting “islands of factories” together into a single integrated manufacturing enterprise. This allows companies to drive operational excellence across and beyond the entire enterprise, including business processes, supply chains and customer networks.
The emergence of open systems and off-the-shelf technology, including common PCs, networks, servers and databases, has helped propel plant-wide integration efforts and has changed how manufacturers think about what they can and can’t connect to the factory floor.
While significant progress has been made over the past few years in the technology arena, many non-technical issues have yet to be tackled.
Bridging the gap
One of the biggest challenges is the extensive knowledge gap that exists between IT and automation teams. While both groups work toward the same overall goal of building the company’s success, they operate in two very different worlds and focus on entirely different business issues. Because their day-to-day goals, timeframes and enabling technologies are not in synch, the two groups often find it difficult to work together in a cooperative, orchestrated manner.
While the emergence of service oriented architectures and industry standards, such as ISA-95, are helping to make the vision of a connected enterprise a reality, the biggest obstacle may be more social than technical.
For example, one key contributor to success is how well team members understand and value each other’s attitudes, perspectives and cultural differences. Success also hinges on mutual respect for the roles, business pressures, work styles and unique contributions of each group.
The lack of effective leadership is often blamed for the ongoing divide between IT and manufacturing teams. While the right leader won’t eliminate all the problems, he or she will prevent the two groups from viewing each other as adversaries.
On the other hand, a leader with preconceived notions about which organization has the better skills or provides the better service will hamper progress. Still, even the best leader will have a difficult time merging cultures that are governed by different goals and speak different languages.
The right mix
Effectively blending IT and manufacturing teams requires the involvement of a wide variety of disciplines, along with the right technology at several levels within the information chain. The technology blueprint must come from a full understanding of past experiences, detailed engineering feasibility analyses, and careful lifecycle planning to ensure that best practices are incorporated into every project.
For best results, companies should create strategic alliances between manufacturing and corporate IT to ensure that each group’s viewpoints are adequately addressed.
An example of skillful teamwork was aptly summarized by an engineer working at a leading ladder manufacturer: “I showed a team of IT people, internal auditors, production people and accounting staff that most of the information they needed already resided in the control system on the plant floor. We discussed how I could take that information and transfer it into existing databases where people were currently hand-keying information. From that point forward the changes were driven by all involved parties. That was the key to making the whole project successful.”
This all-inclusive framework allows teams to work more collaboratively together to assess the current manufacturing and IT systems environment and begin to set standards for integration, data management, and future technology investments. It’s important that companies align every department around a common goal, and find ways to unite IT and automation teams through effective communication, mutual understanding and the willingness to listen to different perspectives.
Also, don’t overlook the importance of involving experienced automation and information technology partners in your integration project. Working in concert with your internal team, these partners can lend incredible amounts of insight into the best strategies for integrated automation solutions and can help your efforts run more smoothly. As an impartial third-party observer who understands IT and automation terminology, these partners also can play a key role in helping to mediate and translate between the two groups.
The specific drivers of each integration effort vary from project-to-project and there is no single ideal model. Sometimes a crisis precipitates change, in which case priorities are usually pretty clear. When it's simply visionary management, the sequence or priorities are a mix of what will have the highest business impact (or most visible one) and what can be done quickly to show progress and gain momentum.
Keep in mind that the convergence of IT with process control is not “an event” that can be mandated by management, but rather a process by which an organization evolves.
TIPS FROM THE FIELD
• Develop guiding principles of design and let these principles drive technology blueprints that are reviewed annually for investment requirements.
• Conduct peer reviews of designs and project plans; don’t assume that because you have a technology blueprint or template it will be followed.
• Realize that convergence is easier with senior management support and with a clear vision of the expected results.
• Develop a method for best practice feedback; conduct post-mortems at the end of each project to see if standards, policies or procedures need to be revised.
• Ensure an equal balance of involvement of IT and plant floor people in the process -- just because the technologies are converging doesn’t mean the functions in the organization will.
• Formalize the change management and change control process for all plant floor modifications (change description, authorization, testing, back-out plan etc.)
• Find a way to make the necessary investments in technology standards.
Integration of control and information systems in manufacturing requires end-to-end understanding of the problems that you’re trying to solve. With the right mindset, you’re halfway there.
The good news is that manufacturers can successfully navigate these challenges with a balance of the right technology, solid leadership, open communications and assistance from experienced partners who can help pave the way.
While a transformation of this magnitude can take an enormous amount of time and effort, the long-term returns will continue to pay year after year.
Rockwell Automation recently commissioned a white paper -- authored by analyst firm Industry Directions and consultant firm Systems Innovation Management -- that outlines the potential benefits of IT/Controls convergence. Rockwell Automation also commissioned a follow-up study, analyzing responses from more than 300 control engineers and IT/IS professionals, to gain insight into convergence trends and identify barriers, as well as best practices that companies are using to accelerate the process. A copy of the white paper and follow-up study results are available at www.rockwellautomation.com/go/converge