Serving up better business performance

Seeking better insight to plant-floor performance, Premier Manufacturing Corp. instigated a system under which employees filled out production cards that administrative personnel then keyed into analysis systems. The logic was simple. “Manufacturers in America face stiff competition from overseas, so we have to get smarter about making ourselves more competitive,” explains Dave Barn...


Seeking better insight to plant-floor performance, Premier Manufacturing Corp. instigated a system under which employees filled out production cards that administrative personnel then keyed into analysis systems.

"SOA is about control every bit as much as it is about communication."

—Hub Vandervoort, CTO,
Progress Software

The logic was simple. “Manufacturers in America face stiff competition from overseas, so we have to get smarter about making ourselves more competitive,” explains Dave Barna, CFO for the Cleveland-based manufacturer of fabricated wire products for the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning industries. “We were making business decisions based on limited information. We wanted better visibility into what was really happening on the shop floor.”

But the card-based system didn't deliver.

“We figured we were spending nearly $3,000 a week just handling the cards—which were only providing us with minimal actionable information,” says Barna. “We needed better ways to gather information about our production operations.”

Premier isn't alone. So-called “top-floor to shop-floor” integration is fast becoming a priority for manufacturers wanting to build better bridges between applications at the enterprise level and the devices and systems on the plant floor. Linking top-level planning and reporting applications with plant automation systems creates an increasingly critical conduit for two-way traffic: “command and control” instructions heading downward from the decision-making level, and event and performance feedback heading upward. Service-oriented architecture (SOA)—until now very much a feature of the enterprise and supply chain landscape—is gaining traction as that conduit.

Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk integrated suite of scalable, modular software applications enables real-time exchange of information between manufacturing and the rest of the company. The result is better business decisions that improve responsiveness, increase productivity, reduce costs, and assure regulatory compliance.

At Premier, for instance, the solution to Barna's dilemma turned out to be an SOA-based plant-floor intelligence and performance management application from Manuvis , built around data capture, storage, and retrieval technology from application infrastructure specialist Progress Software . Conventional operator control station panels attached to production machinery have been adapted to capture information as diverse as temperatures, pressures, voltages, and—of course—production output.

The result is a transformation in Premier's performance on several levels. An estimated 15-percent increase in labor efficiency, for example, is ascribed to the project. And the ability to better predict when production jobs will finish has improved set-up efficiencies, with set-up costs falling by 33 percent, reports Barna. What's more, data-capture costs have plunged.

“We estimate we are saving close to $1 million annually,” says Barna. “What's impressive is that we're not just achieving cost savings in data entry and machine setup: We've created more plant capacity as well.”

The hard sell for SOA

Barna says data captured by the Manuvis FactoryMRI system can be seamlessly integrated with applications as diverse as plant-floor analytics and piecework payment processing—with Premier confident that the data isn't just timely, but accurate as well.

Despite the benefits that the project delivered to Premier's bottom line, plant-floor SOA isn't an easy sell.

“You almost have to sell SOA without saying 'SOA',” says Hub Vandervoort, CTO, Progress Software. “There's a perception that it's just plumbing, which is a mistake. SOA isn't a dumb wire or pipe; it's more like a highly intelligent network.”

In general terms, SOA is an infrastructure in which software applications are broken into modular components—called services—and placed in a repository where they can be easily accessed either by users or other services. When this is done properly, a company can implement new business processes almost at will by writing procedures—referred to as messages—that call for specific sets of services to interact with one another. The platform that carries these messages is typically called a message bus.

Manuvis relies on Progress Software's Sonic ESB (Enterprise Service Bus) as the messaging layer for the Manuvis FactoryMRI suite.

David Scott, Manuvis president and CEO, says Sonic ESB is at work at Premier Manufacturing, extracting data from Premier's ERP applications and passing it to Factory MRI. Typically, Scott says, data includes the next job to be assigned to a given machine, the quantity to be produced, the anticipated run rate, and other planning-level information.

This data is then presented to the operator's screen with other information—e.g., the correct CAD drawing, or the bill of material—about the part being made. “Everything is XML,” says Scott. “When someone clicks on a link, we call one or more services to get the information, and then present it back to the user.”

Barna is delighted.

“When we started out, we had no idea how rich the benefit set was going to be,” he enthuses. “We started by asking for specific things. Manuvis supplied them, and so we responded by asking for more and more. SOA has saved us a ton of time—and cost.”

At one time, Premier searched for an off-the-shelf solution, but couldn't find one that met its requirements. The Manuvis-Progress application—delivered in its original configuration in just nine months—gave Premier a system built to its precise needs, one piece at a time.

It's an approach for which SOA is ideally suited, says Vandervoort.

“SOA gives you the ability to control how things come together in an agile and flexible way,” he says. “It's not just the physical connectivity—it's the virtualization of the data structures and policies that are laid on top of that. It's precisely that layer of events, processes, and policies that SOA speaks to. Through a set of flexible 'switches', it's possible to respond to changes very quickly.”

Slower plant uptake

Despite Premier's successes, other manufacturers have been relatively slow to undertake plant-level SOA projects.

“SOA on the plant floor isn't as prevalent as it is at the enterprise level,” says Darren Riley, applications and software segment business lead at Rockwell Automation .

There are, reckons Riley, two distinct yet related reasons for this.

First, he notes, there's far more awareness of SOA's potential benefits at the enterprise level considering the diversity of applications—and vendors—found there. Integrating those applications has always been expensive and time-consuming, and the arrival of SOA has slashed both the time and cost of integration.

Second, SOA hit the enterprise level first, ahead of the plant floor, and so has benefited from what Riley describes as “an eight-year maturation process.”

The relative lack of SOA uptake on the plant floor today, then, need not be a lasting phenomenon—and signs of change are evident.

“It's our more sophisticated users who are asking for plant-floor SOA,” says Riley. “They're integrating a wide set of applications—either globally or functionally—and can see the benefits of extending that process to the plant floor.”

Rockwell's response: building a set of callable services within its FactoryTalk application set aimed squarely at meeting that need. One example: the provision of SOA-based alarm and event communication—taking information out of the control and process layer and making it available to HMI, data historian, or tracking applications. And from here, of course, the information is callable by enterprise-level applications, reaching down to the plant floor from above.

“It's about providing a consistent and repeatable level of performance,” says Riley.

Talking two-way

While Rockwell provides callable services, it's up to manufacturers if they want to make use of them. The evidence for that so far, concludes Riley, is patchy.

“The uptake is variable—not just by user, but by function,” Riley notes. “Some are undoubtedly more popular than others, but it's not something that we, as Rockwell, can readily track. It's up to the customer to say if they want to make use of them or not.”

What's more, adds Riley, what evidence that is available about the uptake of these built-in SOA services suggests that manufacturers see integrating enterprise applications with the plant floor as very much a one-way affair.

“The driver is much more 'top-down' than it is 'bottom-up',” he says. “It seems to be about taking functionality, and carefully extending it to the plant floor. 'Bottom-up' isn't an issue.”

But while broadly in agreement with this characterization, automation vendor Emerson sees some signs of movement, with bottom-up communication inching its way to greater prominence.

According to Bob Lenich, Emerson director of data management services and solutions, while the traditional “top-down” approach remains important, “Bottom-up is where the gains are right now,” he says. “Getting more information up from the shop floor into the enterprise layer is going to transform manufacturing performance.”

It's an opportunity that manufacturers are awakening to industry by-industry, Lenich adds. In fact, the process industries—traditionally much more conservative than other manufacturing industries when it comes to adopting new technology—offer some particularly innovative applications of bottom-up, SOA-based communication.

“The batch guys want to integrate orders and recipes, passing information up to the plant scheduling system about what was produced and consumed,” explains Lenich. “With life sciences, the issue is asset management: calibration, for example, identifying what equipment is failing, or about to fail. In beverages and the petrochemical sector, quality is the driver, with companies wanting to connect data from vastly different sources.”

Moreover, Emerson's response to the emergence of SOA on the plant floor echoes a point made by Progress Software's Vandervoort.

“The term Web services often gets used interchangeably with SOA as though they're synonymous—but it's not that simple,” he says. “SOA is about control every bit as much as it is about communication.”

That's why Emerson has been upgrading its Web services-based integration offerings to make them truly SOA-compliant.

"Getting more information up from the shop floor into the enterprise layer is going to transform manufacturing performance."

—Bob Lenich,
director of data management services and solutions, Emerson

Web services got its name because services typically are accessed via the Internet. But a Web service can be any application—or application component—that can be accessed from a remote server. Stock tickers or calendar applications from sites like Google or Yahoo! are examples of widely known Web services.

Web services that are SOA-compliant are built to certain industry standards, making them easier to use in processes that involving linking different types of applications—such as enterprise and plant-level systems.

Neil Peterson, Emerson's Delta V product marketing manager for enterprise integration, says Emerson's strategy of making services SOA-compliant is simply the continuation of an evolution that began with Dynamic Data Exchange and Object Access Protocol—approaches that delivered on the promise of connectivity, but lacked standardization and reusability.

“To integrate [plant-level applications], everyone pretty much had to 'roll their own',” says Peterson. “It worked, but it was ad hoc. Now I can write an application, create a service, and be confident that people can consume it. We've been writing Web services for some time. Now we're making them SOA-compliant.”

Back at Premier, Barna is certain that two-way communication—top-down and bottom-up—is where the future lies. The very ease with which new services can be added is spawning applications undreamt of when the project first started.

Customer service representatives, for example, can drill down to see the exact status of jobs out on the plant floor. And from a quality perspective, better insight to shop-floor processes yielded a 50-percent reduction in product defects, while the first pass yield has increased 10 percent.

“From any perspective, the benefits set exceeds anything we ever anticipated,” says Barna. “And the story just keeps getting better. The impact on our competitive edge is undoubted.”

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