Getting the basics right, first

Engineering and IT Insight: Proper infrastructure, policies, and procedures for manufacturing IT are critical groundwork before applying the latest technologies to manufacturing.

07/03/2013


Many new technology gadgets can help manufacturing companies, including smartphones, tablets, near field communication, big data analysis tools, 100 MB wireless networks, and virtual systems. However, using these new technologies requires that a company gets the IT basics right, first. In too many companies there is a rush to apply a new technology when the basic IT infrastructure is broken or incomplete, and there are no effective policies and procedures in place. If it takes months to deploy a simple new server with COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) software and requires the approval and support from dozens of “architects,” then you probably don’t have the basics right.

When you have different architects—without manufacturing IT experience—for servers, Oracle databases, MS-SQL databases, networks, security, virtual system, active directories, master data management, account management, enterprise service buses, and WANs (Wide Area Networks), just doing a simple manufacturing project can become a nightmare of studies and approvals. In the worst case it may take 20 architects to approve one manufacturing server and application. If this is the case in an organization, then the IT organization is no longer an enabler for productivity improvements but rather a roadblock to innovation and improvements.

Nonbusiness attention

Many IT departments are forced into the role of gatekeepers, preventing anything but previously approved applications and systems from being installed. The IT organization must support the entire company, and it needs control to provide timely support. This means that nonbusiness users and systems often have lower priority than financial and customer facing users and systems. R&D, manufacturing, laboratories, warehousing, and plant maintenance are often not considered as critical as e-mail and office applications. This often happens when management considers manufacturing as a distraction to the business, and something that it really wishes could be done somewhere else. In these cases, it is important to educate upper management of the dependency of the nonbusiness systems on information technologies. A good analogy is that manufacturing IT systems are as important to a manufacturing company as financial IT systems are to a bank. Without the proper financial IT basics in place, a bank would have to close, and without the proper manufacturing IT basics in place, a manufacturing site may have to shut down.

It is important to get the basics right first, before trying to use the latest and greatest information technologies. Getting the basics right is different for different size organizations. Small organizations with only a few IT support staff, often three or less, usually have automation engineers handle IT issues. In these cases getting the basics right means keeping track of all manufacturing IT assets in a database (but a spreadsheet can work), providing written policies which define the documentation that must be updated when any change is made to an IT asset, and providing a segmented network to isolate critical control equipment from business systems. When the IT support staff is five or more, most companies find it better to designate one or more manufacturing IT specialists within the IT group. For this size organization, the basics also include development of standards for manufacturing IT assets and training in the HMI, data historians, industrial networks, MES systems, and batch control systems used in the facility.

Support level agreements

For large manufacturing companies, manufacturing specialists in IT support are usually about 10% to 20% of the IT staff. This level of support provides the 24x7 availability needed to support 24x7 production. A company is missing the basics if there are no designated manufacturing IT specialists and no separate support contacts for manufacturing IT. For those companies, first line support doesn’t understand that first response to a manufacturing problem cannot be, “Reboot the system and see if the problem is still there.” The larger the support staff is, the more a manufacturing-specific support level agreement (SLA) is needed. Many IT organizations set a five-day maximum response time SLA for nonproduction related problems and an eight-hour response time for production problems. The same SLA applies if the fix takes minutes or days. Unfortunately, this often turns into a five-day or eight-hour minimum, where the problem is not even looked at until the SLA maximum is reached. This means that a five-minute fix may take a week to get implemented. When defining an SLA for manufacturing, make sure that there is a way to get immediate responses for problems with quick fixes. This will help keep your operations running smoothly with the fewest disruptions.

Getting the basics right is critical. Without the proper infrastructure, policies, and procedures that address the specific requirements of manufacturing IT, it becomes difficult or impossible to apply the latest technologies into manufacturing. Make sure that your company is getting the basics right, first, and then you will be in a position to take advantage of the latest technologies and the improvements that they can bring.

- Dennis Brandl is president of BR&L Consulting in Cary, N.C., www.brlconsulting.com. His firm focuses on manufacturing IT. Contact him at dbrandl(at)brlconsulting.com. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering and Plant Engineering, mhoske(at)cfemedia.com.

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