Business Technologies Boost Engineering

The biggest buzz in the automation industry these days is all about linking the plant floor with front-office business systems—a linkage that will be referred to as automation-to-enterprise in this series of articles. For many, this probably sounds like a manufacturing industry echo of the late 1990s, when enterprise resource planning (ERP) and supply chain planning systems were going to ...




  • Compliance factors

  • Engineering opportunities

  • IT and engineering convergence

  • Survey results

First in a series

The biggest buzz in the automation industry these days is all about linking the plant floor with front-office business systems—a linkage that will be referred to as automation-to-enterprise in this series of articles. For many, this probably sounds like a manufacturing industry echo of the late 1990s, when enterprise resource planning (ERP) and supply chain planning systems were going to link all facets of a business.

But that didn't happen quite the way some had predicted.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see today why the enterprise integration of the late '90s never came to pass. First of all, the business benefit wasn't clear.

One of the most-used phrases during this time was "optimization of operations," or some derivative thereof. This is basically what Jim Collins (author of "Good to Great") refers to as a BHAG—a big, hairy, audacious, goal. BHAGs can be good or bad, and much of the operations optimization referred to in the late '90s didn't always have a great deal of business substance behind the idea.

The most substantive element overlooked in manufacturing at that time was the plant floor.

In the late '90s, the manufacturing system integration arena largely focused on order management, financial accounting, customer management, and shipping and receiving. To the front office manufacturing was basically a black box. Of course, some planning and scheduling handled by enterprise systems was built on manufacturing data. However, much of that data was collected on a weekly or monthly basis, then fed into the business systems—far too infrequent to achieve the agility and flexibility the enterprise system vendors promised.

Getting manufacturing data into these systems on an automated basis was another issue. Plant floor systems operate on a dynamic, at or near-real-time basis—not in the transaction-based flat file construct of enterprise systems. Which brings us to the second reason why most automation-to-enterprise integration didn't quite make it off the ground nearly a decade ago as expected—the technology, in many cases, wasn't ready.

Today, vendors and analysts are largely in agreement that the software and hardware industries involved in this integration arena have learned the hard lessons from failed integrations of years past. New solutions being offered are said to be built on inside knowledge of the factory floor and to demonstrate that, instead of being designed to integrate in a top-down fashion, today's integration is bottom-up—driven by the data and processes "owned" and managed by engineers and operators.

Root causes, results

While many reasons can be cited for this change of direction, two loom largest: regulations and competition.

From Sarbanes-Oxley to 21 CFR Part 11 to the TREAD Act, the continued existence of a manufacturing operation is directly tied to its ability to verify that its production operations are in step with government regulations. Data proving compliance often must be transferred out of the plant environment and logged in a system accessible and understandable to the corporate personnel who deal directly with regulators.

Competitively, manufacturers everywhere are in a fight for existence. Margins are razor thin for many products and most of the larger operations have already reaped the bulk of benefits to be gained from Lean and Six Sigma initiatives. What remains is greater productivity increases enabled through data extraction-enabled innovation. In other words, manufacturers must improve what previously couldn't be improved further without the benefit of proper manufacturing data selected and presented in the most useful manner.

What this means, ultimately, is that engineers and operators are more in the spotlight than ever because they understand and manage data key to the future success and viability of a manufacturing business.

This spotlight is a dichotomy for plant floor personnel. For engineers, it is a Dickens of a development: the best of times and the worst of times.

It's the best of times for engineers ready to seize the opportunities this perfect storm of regulations and competition has brought to the industry.

It's the worst for those who are happy to toil away, largely undetected by the powers-that-be in their particular area of expertise. Engineers of the automation-to-enterprise integration era will, as always, be prized for their technical expertise, but retained and advanced based on their ability to successfully navigate the demands of the business and production entities through cooperation and understanding of information technologies.

Survey says ...

With such a massive shift underway in the engineering profession, Control Engineering wanted to hear from subscribers about how they view the current automation-to-enterprise integration push. How are manufacturing engineering jobs changing? How many manufacturers are linking automation and enterprise systems? Also what:

  • technologies are most used to effect this linkage?

  • role do engineers have in these integrations?

  • are the most difficult challenges in linking automation to enterprise?

  • IT skill level do engineers need? and

  • integration is engineering experiencing with IT?

Key survey findings include:


  • 60% claim that their job function has changed in the past 5 years in relation to:
    — more responsibility in engineering areas outside of expertise: 58%
    — more focus on duties specific to my area of expertise: 21%
    —greater involvement with plant-wide software and IT technologies: 14%

  • Automation-to-enterprise integration is still in the early stages—47% of respondents have been involved in such a project.

  • These integration projects are managed well or poorly on a nearly 50/50 basis; 48% report that their companies either have no central group to organize integration efforts or no documented integration strategy at all, while 52% report that the integration effort is part of the corporate business plan or objectives, or at least managed by a central group.

  • The largest portion of automation-to-enterprise integration (52%) is occurring through PLCs linked to higher level systems; 18.4% report using manufacturing execution systems; 20.4% report using portals (for manufacturing data visibility). The remaining 9% report using a "mixed bag" of systems to achieve this level of integration.

  • 53% of respondents say that management views those in charge of automation as being strategic, trusted advisors when it comes to these integration projects. The remainder feel as if they're just "the techies who keep equipment running" or non-existent in management's view.

  • 78% said that, to properly execute their integration projects, both IT and engineering needed to obtain new skills; 7% said IT needed new skills training, while 14% said engineers required such training.

  • 70% see manufacturing engineering becoming a more IT-focused profession; 30% report that personnel from engineering have moved into IT positions, while 15% claim that IT personnel have moved into engineering jobs.

  • More than 60% of respondents say their current integration projects have not yet delivered a positive ROI. Of those who do report a positive ROI, benefits include:
    — increased visibility into operations for engineers: 22%
    — real-time improvements to production: 25%
    — increased visibility into production for management: 19%
    — faster time to market: 14%
    — more agile supply chain/make-to-order capability: 15%

Huge impact pending

Survey results definitely show that automation-to-enterprise integration projects are poised to have a big impact on engineers across the board.

Over 100 respondents at manufacturing companies of all sizes completed the Control Engineering survey. Respondents were well represented across company-size spectrum—with 51% being from companies with $100 million or less in revenues; 19% from companies with $100 million to $1 billion in revenues; and 30% from companies with more than $1 billion in revenues.

Small to mid-sized companies garner their share of integration projects. According to survey responses, 51% of those who claimed to have been involved in such integration projects are employed at companies with $500 million or less in revenues.

Automation-to-enterprise integration projects are also broadly performed across industries. Interestingly, manufacturers of instrumentation, measurement, and control system devices, as well as utilities, seem to be at the forefront of integration activities. Some 61% of instrumentation/measurement manufacturers reported such integration activities, while 100% of utilities respondents indicated the same.

It's also clear that a disconnect exists in engineering involvement on these projects. Though nearly 70% of respondents claim that engineering, or a combined engineering/IT department, played a part in overall management of decisions on these projects, 60% of engineers reported little or no involvement in specific technology selection and implementation decisions.

This is an area where engineering really needs to step up to ensure that the correct applications are deployed since these applications will be directly interfacing with plant floor devices and systems. This is not only to ensure that the corporate level will get the information needed when and how its needed, but also to ensure that the chosen application does not adversely impact production operations. Left to their own devices, corporate- and IT-decision-makers will not always make such decisions correctly. You, as an engineer, understand the plant floor systems best. That's why it's imperative that you take part in these decisions. Securing this level of input for engineering may require you to speak up to management if you're among companies where engineering isn't viewed as "trusted advisor" on such matters.

Survey results show that one of the biggest challenges to the success of automation-to-enterprise integration is the interfacing of disparate control systems, further underscoring the need for greater engineering involvement in this process.

Another factor practically begging the larger involvement of engineers in these integration projects is how poorly defined the middle layer between production and the enterprise remains despite years of product positioning in this space. According to the survey, no one technology scored more than a 22% response rate as being the technology that defines that middle layer in respondents' companies (see "Applications that define integration/MES layer" graphic). In other words, not many minds have been made up about technologies that best fit this space, thereby highlighting the opportunity for engineers to step up and help steer these projects.

Possibly the most troubling survey result relates to return on investment. These integration technologies were developed solely to improve business insight, flexibility, capabilities, and returns. When less than half of those using the technologies can report success, a definite problem exits.

One answer may lie in the training following implementation. An interesting correlation can be inferred when comparing the percentage of respondents who did not report positive ROI with those who received training through in-house or "other" means, rather than directly from vendors or industry organizations (see "How were skills/training obtained" graphic). "Other" responses noted personal-study and trial-and-error as the means of training.

Most interesting of the survey's results is the broad-based agreement among respondents that engineering is increasingly becoming more of an IT-focused profession. Vendors of software-based automation solutions have long held this opinion, as have many industry analysts. But until recently, most engineers have been of the opinion that IT and engineering were two very distinct professions. Certainly, knowledge of software and computing has long been a critical component of manufacturing engineering, but few engineers would likely have believed that their profession would soon have more in common with IT professionals than with their manufacturing engineering predecessors.

With so many core-engineering functions now automated via software, the next step for engineers lies in the greater mastery of information technologies that will make clear the strategic nature of manufacturing processes.

As the "black box" of manufacturing processes—understood only by engineers—is illuminated by automation-to-enterprise integrations, it does not mark the end of the manufacturing engineering profession—at least for those engineers savvy enough to recognize the change underway. Rather, it indicates a fundamental shift from engineering being a profession largely seen as the "techies that keep equipment running" to one more commonly viewed as being trusted, strategic advisors to the business.

First in a series

This article is the first in a series of four articles exploring the automation-to-enterprise topic based on results of the Control Engineering survey conducted in October 2005. Upcoming articles will explore the following topics raised by the survey results:

Plant floor devices and applications most involved in integrating with enterprise-level systems will be examined, highlighting correlations between manufacturing industries and integration strategies (May 2006 issue).

Where does the power lie in the merger of IT and engineering departments? How decisions are increasingly being made about automation-to-enterprise integration and who is making those decisions (August 2006 issue).

Career advice from engineers who have been involved in high-level integration projects (November issue).

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