Cross-platform communication enables continuous process improvement

Failure to communicate across platforms often blocks effective continuous process improvement.

By Erik Dellinger March 20, 2013

Do you remember the movie “Cool Hand Luke”? The scene where the Captain (prison warden) addresses Paul Newman’s character, Luke, is my favorite. He says, sarcastically, “What we have here … is a failure to communicate.” Communication is king, especially when referring to continuous process improvement (CPI).

By its very nature, continuous process improvement is a business management process and methodology that helps companies work smarter and faster. For lean enterprise or Six Sigma efforts, the core goal is streamlining the business to make it more efficient, and the benefits are undeniable. Gartner Group recently estimated the value of business process management (BPM) investments as part of an improvement methodology, stating “As companies try to find cost optimization opportunities during the economic downturn, business process management (BPM) investments can provide a cost savings of as much as 20% within the first year of implementation.… Analysts have said enterprises can achieve the payback from their BPM implementation within a year.”

The road to continuous improvement is rocky. What’s necessary is real-time and highly efficient communications across and between industrial equipment. Poor communications and unreliable data make it almost impossible to power process improvement, creating an increased focus on industrial automation to eliminate this “failure to communicate.”

Industrial automation

With the increasing cost of personnel and the complexity of manufacturing processes, the industry is demanding automation for industrial processes and machinery to increase productivity and quality.

The market is responding. It’s estimated that the industrial automation market will reach more than $200 billion by 2015. Analyst firm IMS Research (IHS Inc.) notes that markets in the United States and China will drive a 9.5% growth in the global market.

More effective communications have helped generate more than $500 million savings in performance improvement projects for ZPI Inc.

According to IMS: “Purchased largely for manufacturing processes, industrial automation equipment is a key factor in a country’s gross domestic product and … generally indicative of economic health.”

But analysts also agree that to ensure successful industrial automation, the real key is communications.

Communications is king

Many companies have been faced with poor industrial communications and unreliable data, which significantly impacts quality reporting and operational efficiencies. These issues are made even more complex by the growing number of data sources, with metrics now required from hundreds of machines polling from several thousand points at a time.

The global economic crisis has put a premium on real-time information. By enabling devices to “speak” to one another in real time, advanced communications provide business-critical information on operations and processes. For many companies, this means the difference between success and failure.

Advanced communications solutions are designed to connect disparate devices and applications, ranging from plant control systems to enterprise information systems. Most such systems provide comprehensive drivers and client connectivity for isolated automation systems. Having one communications platform dramatically simplifies communications management. ZPI Inc. is among companies that have unified communications to drive continuous improvement processes for competitive advantage.

ZPI Inc. connects CPI

ZPI Inc., based in Ontario, Canada, provides enterprise manufacturing diagnostics software to help customers accelerate production, improving top-line performance while reducing waste. The company’s Enterprise Manufacturing Diagnostics software suite helps companies produce more products in less time. The software allows modern manufacturers to accelerate the continuous improvement process.

Based on a homegrown fact collection and reporting engine, ZPI collects details from the plant-floor programmable logic controller (PLC). It generates facts for the organization, from operators to upper management. ZPI applies business rules to raw metrics and then store them in an SQL database, so data metrics can be accessed from anywhere and used as the foundation for CPI.

For ZPI, delivering accurate information to customers is an essential success factor. After aligning with an automation vendor, several flaws were identified. The software tended to drop data points, causing drivers to associate with incorrect information, not good for customers. For example, bad data for a customer in the food production industry might mean inaccurate reads on oven temperatures, leading to under- or overcooked food. Quality control was an issue.

ZPI also realized many client networks weren’t designed correctly. Layering new drivers to gather information on poorly designed networks resulted in overload, as well as lost and incorrect metrics.

Poor communications and unreliable data make it almost impossible to power process improvement. 

Understanding the critical nature of accurate and timely data, the company chose to base its communications infrastructure on a different software platform to help effectively manage, monitor, and control a wide range of automation devices and software applications. By leveraging a business interface, the team at ZPI could view plant-level data, analyze bottlenecks, and immediately identify problems. For typical installations, ZPI developed a communications channel for each production set, thus providing insulation from communication failures in other channels. This feature (along with the auto-demotion functionality that automatically takes a device off pole after a failure has occurred and reestablishes polling on a reconnection) results in near-perfect data every time.

Driving CPI 

Today, ZPI has an infrastructure in place to drive continuous improvement across its entire process. With more effective communications throughout devices, the company has generated more than $500 million savings in performance improvement projects. Developing a reliable communications infrastructure was a time-consuming and difficult task for ZPI, but it has paid major dividends for the company and clients. Advanced communications for automation unlocked the power of CPI and quality control. Only with accurate data can these processes work.

Software can help effectively manage, monitor, and control a wide range of automation devices and software applications.

This brings me back to “Cool Hand Luke,” a terrific movie—but in real life, you’d be better off not having a failure to communicate, which can cause irreparable damage to business and reputation. As noted in another well-known film, “failure is not an option.”

– Erik Dellinger is product marketing manager, Kepware Technologies. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

Key concepts

Unified industrial communications helps considerably with continuous process improvements, quality, and effective applications of automation.

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