Building an integration strategy

Few technical barriers stand in the way of plant-to-enterprise integration today. It promises real-time data for making better decisions and optimizing production. But without a comprehensive corporate plan that sets goals and outlines results, mere connectivity is doomed to disappoint.
By Jeanine Katzel November 8, 2013

At one point in the classic film Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm says, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Malcolm may or may not have been right about the dinosaurs, but he most certainly would have been right had he been referring to plant-to-enterprise integration. A technology whose time has come, integration systems undoubtedly are finding their way into manufacturing facilities at an ever increasing rate. The question that remains, however, is just what are they doing for today’s industrial operations?

Jim Christian, product manager at Honeywell, puts it more directly: “The question that applies across integration systems is not ‘can I integrate?’ It is ‘should I integrate?’ The tools to integrate are there. The key is in making sense of all that information and drawing value from it.”

It is not an easy job. And it requires a lot more effort than many companies may once have thought. Manufacturers are at all different places with plant-to-enterprise integration, observed Peter Martin, vice president and fellow at Invensys. “In many cases, the primary approach has been to place a plant historian between automation systems and the ERP system, collect as much data as possible, and make it available,” he said. “And that’s it! My facility is integrated.”

Martin smiled as he spoke, adding that too often manufacturers think merely connecting systems will make something good happen. Few stop to ask why they are integrating. As a result, many companies are exceedingly disappointed with the results of their integration efforts. Plant-to-enterprise integration is complicated. From the start, it requires cooperation and communication between disparate organizations. Often it demands a cultural shift in the way a company operates. Beyond applying the technology, facilities must develop a corporate strategy, outline anticipated results, and establish realistic goals and expectations. And first and foremost, they must understand their own systems and the systems that have come to be known as plant-to-enterprise integration.

Embracing the integration challenge

Plant-to-enterprise integration today helps manufacturers remain competitive by processing and analyzing real-time data for better decision making. It requires cooperation and communication between disparate organizations and a corporate strategy that outSo what then is plant-to-enterprise integration? Sloan Zupan, senior product manager at Mitsubishi Electric, calls it highly integrated manufacturing where control architecture converses with business applications. “Input from many areas, such as inventory availability, production scheduling, quality assurance, and maintenance operations, ensures that all disciplines know what the others are doing,” he said. “It helps pinpoint areas in need of improvement and optimizes operations. Integrating energy use from the plant floor to the enterprise, for instance—actually a relatively new concept—lets management tie production to energy costs to gain a competitive edge. Once burdened by middleware, integration technology has evolved markedly. The need for software between the controls architecture and the enterprise applications is being eliminated, streamlining the capabilities for exchanging information between the IT systems and the plant floor. The resulting environment is more secure, more reliable, and more transparent.” 

Two major, interrelated factors drive plant-to-enterprise integration today: rapid technological advancements and a changing global economy. Advancements in integration technology in the last several decades have been nothing short of incredible, said Ming Ng, industrial networking product manager, Siemens Industry, calling them a perfect storm of factors driving companies to obtain data through connectivity. “We’ve reached critical mass. Companies integrate today because they must react faster to remain competitive. Integration gives them the capacity to bring functions together from multiple applications in real-time data for better decision making. And Ethernet gives them a common universal platform to enable it, allowing machines from different vendors using different technologies to operate on a common network.”

Manufacturers need real-time information for decision making. Integration systems help consolidate KPIs [key performance indicators] such as these from the plant floor and the business systems onto one dashboard so that everyone who needs to can see whatHoneywell’s Christian voiced a similar view. “Manufacturers need real-time information for decision making. We’re involved in a multi-site project at a chemical and refining operation in India where the company wants to bring KPIs [key performance indicators] together on dashboards so that everyone, from corporate executives to site managers to operators, can see what is happening in their areas of control. A lot of those KPIs come up from the plant, but some come down from the business system. We are likely to see more of that, more bringing business information down to the plant level for decision making about safety, reliability levels, energy costs, and more. The thinking here is that if you bring everything together in one dashboard, those responsible for a unit can see everything and operate it better.”

Overall, U.S. manufacturing facilities face aging infrastructure. Too many still use outdated technology, and the time is coming when modernization can no longer be avoided if plant-to-enterprise integration is to become a reality. Optimum enterprise connectivity involves horizontal as well as vertical integration that older technology cannot provide, pointed out Siemens’ Ng. “Users faced with modernizing an aging infrastructure want to create an infrastructure that will take them through the next 10 or 20 years. That investment not only will enable integration, it will drive industrial manufacturing.”

Making a cultural change

Plant-to-enterprise integration frequently demands doing things differently. Tying together silos of information that once operated independently is not what is needed. To make integration productive, facilities need to determine why and how getting inforExperts agree, however, the biggest barrier to drawing value from integration isn’t technology or even its cost, but how it is applied. When done for a purpose, integration becomes incredibly beneficial. Plant-to-enterprise integration demands a facility do things differently. “For example, management needs to trust front-line operators enough to give them the information they need to make better business decisions,” said Invensys’ Martin. “That is a cultural change. Connecting silos of information together is not what is needed. Management needs to figure out why and how getting information from point A to point B will add value.”

Perhaps the most difficult challenge of integrating is that of simply getting started. Most companies struggle with building an integration strategy. “Facilities must develop a plant-to-enterprise connectivity strategy,” insisted Mitsubishi’s Zupan. “That will uncover the need for systems that provide the solutions and the capabilities that ensure data reliability. Among these are Gigabit Industrial Ethernet to enable efficient network use, security measures that keep personnel from indiscriminately accessing confidential or proprietary information, and standardized methods for moving information among multiple IT applications and a large variety of manufacturing assets.”

Security vs. accessibility

A major goal of any plant-to-enterprise integration strategy is balancing accessible, free-flowing data with maintaining data security and integrity, stressed Ng. “Manufacturers must develop a security plan and apply the security measures inherent in integration products,” he noted. “Everything can be used for good or for bad. The key with security is staying ahead of the bad. Security is a lifestyle, not a checkbox. Security cannot be achieved using a single device or software package. A comprehensive security approach has to be established. Security is only as good as its weakest link. Security measures are ineffective if personnel aren’t trained correctly or if they bypass the measures. Security strategies require continuous attention and must evolve along with other integration strategies.”

The technology of plant-to-enterprise integration is only an enabler, added Martin, providing business and operational insights in real time to those who need them so that they can optimize what they do relative to the business. “Without a comprehensive understanding of why, integration is worthless,” he said. “If a facility has taken the time to understand what integration is for and why it is doing it, then it becomes one of the most powerful and profitable tools a company can use.”

Effective plant-to-enterprise integration demands a culture of cooperation. Although different priorities characterize the engineering and IT organizations and the production and business functions, the territorial conflicts that once marked efforts to work together appear to have eased. “More and more, the process control worlds and the business system worlds are merging,” observed Honeywell’s Christian. “A generation ago, control systems were strikingly different from IT systems. Today, the skill sets of each are not all that different. As these systems merge, any sources of strife likely will disappear after a while.”

Moving the integration process forward

The benefits of integration are within the reach of most companies, but developing a strategy is critical. Manufacturers must determine the value they expect to get from their plant-to-enterprise integration systems. Sometimes that’s difficult, admitted Christian. “Some companies expect a great many things. We work with them to map out what is possible. The first temptation for most facilities is to say they need everything; to be effective they have to trim things out and highlight what’s really important. If production rates are down but quality, reliability, and safety are good, then the plant needs to focus on production so it can find out why it is down. Companies need to determine where the business optimization opportunities lie.”

Where are plant-to-enterprise systems likely to go in the future? The proliferation of wireless technologies within integration systems is a given, an expectation today. “A technician with a smartphone in hand at a tank farm can get just as much information as one working at a central control panel,” said Invensys’ Martin. “Mobility puts intelligence in the field.”

Mobile devices are key to effective plant-to-enterprise integration, agreed Ng, noting that many companies look to cellular modem devices to give them the connectivity they need. “We worked with a company that needed to bring production data from some 30 plants in different countries into a central location. Many of these plants were in areas with no strong Internet backbone, but that did have a cellular infrastructure. Dropping in cell modems gave the company access to the plant data it needed.”

Keeping up with technology

Technology changes so fast today that forecasting the state of integration is uncertain at best, observed Mitsubishi’s Zupan. “The future might find integration technology embedded in the controller instead of functioning next to it,” he suggested. “Wireless will certainly be more popular, and security enhancements much stronger. We foresee a proliferation of Gigabit Industrial Ethernet. Many networks are unable to handle the flow of information between production and business systems; Gigabit Industrial Ethernet eliminates that barrier. As it becomes more popular on the plant floor, information sharing between manufacturing assets in the IT environment will explode.”

Remember that integration doesn’t create any additional information, said Christian. “Integration systems only help sort through data that already exists, find what is relevant, and put it in useful context. The role of powerful domain-specific applications—from maintenance and production systems to planning and scheduling—will remain strong. The next level of improvement will come once those individual areas are working well. Then, widespread integration can take place as companies are able to see how planning affects reliability affects energy, and so on. An information system with the right level of integration and collaboration can raise each plant in the corporation to the level of the best, or maybe even better than the best. A few companies have reached that level. Many more would like to.” 

Moving forward with plant-to-enterprise integration

Facilities just getting started with plant-to-enterprise integration—and those striving to advance their integration efforts—will find it helpful to take time to review the current state of their company’s integration culture and technology before moving forward. Focusing on the cultural aspects of integration is imperative to a solid foundation. Reviewing optimum applications of existing technology and planning future efforts can lead to enabling more concrete results.

Cultivating strategy

A variety of new products and systems help enable the real-time visualization plant personnel need to operate in an integrated environment. Among them is Invensys’ Foxboro Evo, a next-generation process information system designed to improve operational insight and integrity. The system uses advanced tools and applications across a high-speed, fault-tolerant and cyber-secure hardware platform. Evo features powerful processing capacity and advanced applications to help facilities uncover hidden value from their operations using a component object-based platform that can undergo major upgrades without interrupting operations. Courtesy: InvensysPeter A. Martin recommends companies take action in five areas to strengthen an integration effort. They are:

  • Define your strategy. Have you clearly outlined a manufacturing and production strategy? Is it cost-based? Is it volume-based? How often does it change? Everyone needs to understand how the integration strategy impacts every aspect of an operation.
  • Perform an accounting review. Make sure plant personnel know how results are reported. Determine who contributes what throughout the physical plant. “When we consult with companies about their integration programs,” said Martin, “we try to help them develop contribution algorithms so that they can learn what the strategic performance measures are. These include accounting measures that go down to the plant floor. Then we try to model those measures right in the control system.”
  • Evaluate your human resources. What are the educational and experience levels of the plant’s employee base? Such an evaluation can help plants put information in a format best suited for each person or group.
  • Review the technology already in place, in IT and on the plant floor. Often such an analysis reveals new and additional ways of using existing systems to implement and extend the infrastructure.
  • Develop a plan for improvement. Consider what other actions will further improve the operation. Are advanced controls needed? Would a new maintenance program reap benefits? Perform a constraint analysis to determine what might be getting in the way of improvements.

These steps are helpful in determining an integration strategy, said Martin, stressing that such an analysis does not focus on products. Rather it considers how to measure, how to empower, how to use existing assets for improvement, and then how to integrate. “You need to start by focusing on what you want to do with integration, not the integration itself,” he said. “Integration is an enabler. Only after you know what you’re going to do with integration can the technologies be effectively applied.”

Advancing technology

Looking at the technology side of getting started, Ming Ng, industrial networking product manager at Siemens Industry, emphasized that companies seeking to integrate operations do not need to rip and replace. A lot of existing infrastructure can be reused, he agreed, noting that in his experience, plant-to-enterprise integration efforts today typically focus on three areas:

  • Making the transition from an older fieldbus technology to Ethernet. Such facilities have installed bases and are seeking to put machines on Ethernet and/or connect islands of automation into a network, Ng explained. “Ethernet offers many benefits unavailable with fieldbus technology. It will give the plant better data, and enable it to react faster and make better decisions,” he said. “With Ethernet products, the toolsets are better; most Ethernet-based products today have a built-in web server. With a standard laptop and an Ethernet cable, engineers can connect to the network for diagnostics and to see the messages in these devices. In the past, they would have needed special software, a dongle, and a lot of network knowledge.”
  • Applying wireless; specifically, determining where it can be used and what benefits it can achieve. In most cases, facilities concerned about mobile and wireless technologies are those with a unique application or who have not used wireless before, said Ng. “Planning is the most important part of any wireless effort,” he said. “Companies need to understand how to lay out a network.”
  • Designing a network and working with IT effectively. Many production, plant, and controls engineers remain concerned about interacting with IT, admitted Ng. “They may feel they have insufficient background or knowledge about networking,” he added, “but most controls engineers can install, configure, and use industrial networking devices. Toolsets are designed with a common look-and-feel so that engineers can own the network on the plant floor while IT maintains the office side. Delineating who has responsibility for what is crucial. Each side must take responsibility for the areas in which it has domain expertise. Most importantly, they must work together to find the integration points. Every situation is different. Facilities need to strive to build trust.”

Integrating the energy factor

Among popular plant-to-enterprise integration offerings is Mitsubishi Electric’s MES Interface IT. This enterprise connectivity interface, part of the company’s e-F@ctory concept, bridges the gap between factory and office by enabling bi-directional data communication from the production floor to enterprise IT systems. Eliminating all middleware and gateway PCs, it offers controller-level direct database access to help users achieve a lean solution that reduces overhead costs and points of failure. The MES interface IT allows users to standardize the way information is shared across the plant floor, from a variety of automation supplies to many different IT applications. Courtesy: MitsubishiOne area relatively new to the plant-to-enterprise integration infrastructure is energy management and power monitoring. A challenging global economy and rising manufacturing costs are prompting many companies to look at their energy resources more closely. “More and more facilities are starting to view energy in the same way they do time and labor,” said Ghulam Khan, engineer, senior automation solutions, Mitsubishi Electric. “Moving integration of energy resources to the enterprise level can be compared, in many respects, to adding a previously missing piece. Plant managers are focused on production and it is hard to draw their attention to energy, but as sustainability becomes increasingly important, these issues are more crucial as well.”

Khan believes in a need for complete plant-to-enterprise visibility, calling plant-to-enterprise-level energy management a way of applying a magnifying glass to these resources. “Providing energy transparency up the enterprise is becoming increasingly critical. Companies need to know what, when, where, and how much. Integration gives management the ability to tie production to energy costs,” he explained, “and even helps determine a plant’s carbon footprint. It can help companies achieve a competitive edge, allowing them to improve operations by measuring resource use that they could not measure before.” 

Anticipate greater use of wireless technologies for energy applications, stressed Khan, as tablets and smartphones essentially put dashboards into the hands of employees. Products and systems available now allow plants to view real-time and historical energy consumption information, added Sloan Zupan, senior product manager at Mitsubishi Electric. “Devices can be used in and around the plant and remotely to obtain an analytical view of assets, to determine which systems are using the most gas, water, power. Smartphones and tablets enable operators and managers alike to access data from wherever they are."

Jeanine Katzel is a contributing editor to Control Engineering. Reach her at


A recent Control Engineering/CFE Media survey queried subscribers about the integration measures at their facilities, the benefits integration has brought them, the technologies applied, and plans for the future. Results are being compiled. Watch for a report summarizing what they said, soon to be available online.

For additional information about plant-to-enterprise integration and integration products and systems, visit the websites of the companies mentioned in this article: