Building Bridges to the Enterprise

A convergence of business pressures is creating a perfect storm of circumstances set to alter the role and function of control engineering in the plant. Control engineering's historic charter, to ensure the safe and efficient operation of the plant, has kept it an island unto itself for years. Automation equipment and systems—and the data they generated—were primarily for use by aut...

By Frank O Smith for Control Engineering May 1, 2006
  • IT and engineering convergence

  • System integration

  • Data integration

  • MES software

Learn more about enterprise integration

A convergence of business pressures is creating a perfect storm of circumstances set to alter the role and function of control engineering in the plant. Control engineering’s historic charter, to ensure the safe and efficient operation of the plant, has kept it an island unto itself for years. Automation equipment and systems—and the data they generated—were primarily for use by automation experts. Management interested in those data had to pick up the phone or wait to glean it from a report.

No more.

“Information is the best game in town for differentiating your organization,” says Eric Rogge, vice president and research director for Ventana Research. Information about one’s own operational processes is increasingly key to competitiveness as product differentiation is marginalized by competition. Due to increasing regulatory mandates and escalating global competition eroding margins and shrinking cycle times, enterprise-level management wants real-time access to automation data to drive real-time strategic decisions. Key motivators are the need to preserve margins, speed the order-to-cash cycle, and maximize demand opportunities and return on assets.

The inability of enterprise resource planning systems (ERP) to deliver anticipated production insights created intense interest in solutions to bridge the automation-to-enterprise gap. This drove the long-malingering manufacturing execution system (MES) market—one approach to the issue—past a billion dollars in sales in 2005. Other integrated solutions also are penetrating the plant domain, bringing new tensions, challenges, and opportunities.

According to a recent Control Engineering survey on enterprise integration (see Feb. 2006, page 34), the largest portion of automation-to-enterprise integration (52%) is occurring through PLCs linked to higher-level systems. Respondents also report using MES (18.4%) and portals for manufacturing data visibility (20.4%), as well as a “mixed bag” of systems (9%) to achieve integration.

Solution vendors and analysts are eager to talk about bridging the automation-to-enterprise data transfer chasm. Interestingly, however, manufacturers seem reluctant to discuss it. Of eight vendors contacted, only one provided a customer willing to talk.

“A lot of people don’t want to share best practices. If I know something is a best practice, do I really want to share it?” says John Moore, eQuality program manager for KLA-Tencor, a San Jose-based manufacturer of quality assessment systems for the semiconductor industry.

Bottom line: leveraging plant automation data at the enterprise level is now vitally strategic. And, while it’s a long way from being easy, bridges are being engineered.

A recent AberdeenGroup study, “Manufacturing Transparency,” found better performing manufacturers were leveraging real-time plant data in boardroom decisions. The reality of the gap also was highlighted. “Sixty percent of the respondents cited the gap between ERP and the shop floor as a major barrier to achieving their performance objectives,” says Mark O’Hearn, Aberdeen vice president.

According to the Control Engineering survey, respondents’ most-recent automation-to-enterprise integration projects were driven by corporate objectives including competitive issues (44.6%), supply chain integration /partner requirements (36.6%), and compliance with regulations (11.6%).

Devil in the details

Generalizations about automation-to-enterprise integration are difficult to make because of the scale of critical touchpoints. Scope of variables is also huge, including discrete vs. process considerations, unique industry dynamics and, significantly, unique company dynamics. At the plant level, factors include:

  • Diversity of type and generation of automation;

  • Breadth of desired integration;

  • Criticality of specific performance issues; and

  • Budgets—always budgets.

Volume of process industry automation data, for example, is higher than in discrete or batch process, with much of its collection more integral to equipment safety and efficiency. Discrete manufacturing relies more on adjunct data collection from bar codes and, to some extent, RFID.

Process industry enterprise managers increasingly are interested in data reflecting:

  • Yields;

  • Capacity; and

  • Equipment performance, especially relevant to maintenance.

“They’re interested in overall efficiencies, particularly achieving better yields and lower inventory,” says Chris Boothroyd, Honeywell product manager. “They’re also interested in understanding plant capacity, as in commodity markets like chemicals, where it’s important to whether you can take an order and where you assign it. As scheduled downtimes are expensive, coordinating equipment run times and maintenance is also important.”

Discrete and batch process enterprise managers are increasingly interested in:

  • Quality;

  • Material track-and-trace to document “as built” for warranty and regulatory purposes; and

  • Capacity utilization for scheduling, especially in high volume/high mix environments.

“In discrete and batch process, track-and-trace and quality are more separate systems,” says Julie Fraser, principal research analyst at Industry Directions. All industries are interested in equipment run-time performance measured in overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and better plant visibility to improve responsiveness to demand-driven opportunities, she says.

Universally, “the classic driver is wanting to commit to customers, set realistic expectations and promises, and then meet them. That’s impossible without visibility into manufacturing,” says Colin Masson, AMR Research director of supply chain networks research.

Data management

Primary data management issues revolve around access, cleansing and aggregating, context, communication, security, storage, and archiving. Standards are central to data management for easing vertical and horizontal data sharing. Always evolving, sometimes official, sometimes defacto, they range widely: from emerging standards like ISA-95 in conjunction with the WBF’s B2MML (business-to-manufacturing markup language for text message formatting), adapted more to process, to fairly well-established “standards” such as XML as a common text message medium and OPC for providing non-proprietary drivers for vertical and horizontal interoperability.

Collaboration among standards groups offers promise for easing the framework maze, significantly between process-oriented ISA and discrete-focused OAG.

Increasingly, MES figures prominently in many manufacturers’ schemas. Classically configured to reside between the plant-floor automation layer and ERP, MES gathers and aggregates automation data, and contextualizes them based on a detailed manufacturing model for exporting to higher level business systems. The hot demand for MES has spawned keen interest from automation vendors, many of whom acquired MES solutions. These include ABB (Base Ten/Consilium), Honeywell (POMS), Rockwell Automation (ProPack), and Brooks (FASTech). ERP vendors are interested as well, engineering middleware to facilitate integration with MES.

“Interfaces between Siemen’s PCS7 (DCS solution) and its ORSI acquisition were developed soon after the acquisition, and as product development goes forward, coordinated development between the two will merge the world of process automation with higher level automation so the integration is more transparent,” says Todd Stauffer, market manager for PCS7.

Top down, SAP’s embrace in 2004 of ISA95 for its schema to connect ERP with MES was followed by Microsoft, Oracle, and others, giving the standard tremendous momentum. SAP subsequently partnered closely with Siemens to provide a comprehensive automation-to-enterprise solution, with ISA-95 as the linchpin.

Integration architectures

Automation vendors also are designing and engineering comprehensive overarching architectures and integration platforms. These broad footprints ease the use of one-off application programming interface (API) linkages that typically require extensive services. Vendors and their platforms include Invensys with its ArchestrA platform and Wonderware Enterprise Integration Application, GE Fanuc using Proficy, and Rockwell Automation with its Integrated Architecture and reconfigured FactoryTalk Integrator Editions.

“When we first launched ArchestrA, we focused more around control system integration,” says Kevin Tock, Wonderware vice president. “The last two years, it’s been more IT-like.”

While platforms provide breadth, they tend to support large-scale projects with complex implementations. Platforms embrace a mix of protocols, standards, and third-party technology—such as Microsoft’s BizTalk, SAP’s NetWeaver and IBM’s WebSphere middleware components—to orchestra the flow of data and messages from lower- to higher-level systems using common services. Some vendors more closely align with particular middleware components to simplify deployments, such as Wonderware’s reliance on BizTalk and Rockwell Automation’s use of WebSphere. Virtually all equipment and systems suppliers also provide tool kits and preconfigured API adapters to link the homogenous world of plant systems.

Future integration will be eased by services oriented architecture (SOA), where specific software functions are component services configured and bundled, exploiting Web services for communication and access. Presently, SOA is more vision than reality, but a consortium of vendors is working collaboratively to ease development and adoption by defining a higher level services component architecture (SCA) standard.

Control-centric solutions

Focused niche approaches for bridging the gap also have appeal. Two of the more interesting are Online Development’s xCoupler, and Shoplogix’s Plantnode.

“We call xCoupler an ‘appliance.’ It’s a solution-based bundled product. It snaps onto the backplane of a programmable automation controller and sends data to enterprise database servers,” says Ron Monday, CEO. “It’s not MES. It’s a data pipe. It’s a secure, simple-to-configure two-tiered solution that gives control of the data and the control system back to the plant floor.”

Originally developed as an OEM component for Rockwell Automation, it is now branded and marketed independently. It can execute stored procedures, such as a request for information about the next job or to download a recipe, and is garnering the interest of large manufacturers with extensive legacy equipment installations, says Monday. It’s priced under $10,000.

Plantnode by Shoplogix is also a bundled solution, not much bigger than the Rubik’s Cube toy of the 80s, cabled to an individual piece of equipment. “What we’ve done is condense a server to a small box with an embedded SQL database, Web server, and email client and given it all kinds of connectivity options,” says Scott Birmingham, product marketing manager.

“We sell it with an overhead operator display and a bar-code reader. If a plant manager wants to see the information, he fires up his laptop and accesses it through his Web browser.”

In business only since 2002, Shoplogix has more than 400 Plantnode units currently installed. The company doubled sales last year, and expects to triple them this year. ROI is typically under two months, says Birmingham.

Medical device maker Benlan Inc., based in Oakville, Ontario, outside Toronto, primarily makes molded and extruded single-use disposables like flexible IV and catheter tubing. “We were initially looking for a non-manual means to gather real-time production data to gain visibility and a better understanding of the efficiency of floor equipment,” says Tom Enns, Benlan president.

Benlan was expecting heavy customization of whatever they found. “Shoplogix proved exactly what we were looking for,” Enns says. They started with one unit on a packaging machine for advance alerts for material replenishment. They’ve since implemented 10 other units on a variety of equipment, he says.

“The communication piece is very beneficial. We’re a busy place, running 24/7, 365 days a year. Virtually everyone has access. I can sit here and tell you about any piece of equipment on the floor,” Enns says.

Benlan is now using Shoplogix to help plan production. “It tells us what our real capacity is. Our production has increased and it enables us to increase business with confidence.”

Bridging the automation-to-enterprise gap is all about leverage —leveraging floor data into enterprise information. It represents a seismic shift for the role of control engineering, with numerous challenges and opportunities. The more receptive and adaptive the control engineering team is, the greater the opportunity.

Learn more about enterprise integration

This is the second in a series of four articles exploring the realities of automation-to-enterprise integration. Look for the following articles in print and online through the Control Engineering article archives at

Part 1: Business Technologies Boost Engineering, Feb. 2006—Manufacturers are being asked to improve what previously could not be improved by selecting and presenting real-time manufacturing data to enterprise-level information systems. The results of a Control Engineering Reader Survey quantify the massive shift taking place, and tell who is driving these automation-to-enterprise integration projects, which applications they’re tackling first, and where they’re finding allies and obstacles.

Part 3: Who Has the Power? Aug. 2006—The convergence of IT and engineering departments around automation-to-enterprise integration projects is presenting challenges and opportunities. Who’s driving the projects, how are decisions being made, and how can the rest of us learn from the pioneers?

Part 4: Plan for a Career Where IT and Automation Converge, Nov. 2006—What do engineers need to learn now to make themselves essential to automation-to-enterprise integration projects? What projects are worth volunteering for—or suggesting—to gain the right skills and experience?