Enhance smart manufacturing with production process management

Production process management (PPM) applies process design and management tools to enhance smart manufacturing. Twelve tips of what PPM offers are included.

By Michael McClellan, Darren Riley, Tim Sanford October 22, 2016

Business processes in today’s manufacturing environment is, at best, full of information gaps. Major systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or product lifecycle management (PLM) are processes that are based or focused on departmental issues, which means the processes are not cross-functional.

Production process management (PPM) is a specialized version of business process management (BPM) that can act as the missing link that supports smart manufacturing. PPM describes the concept of applying process design and management tools to manufacturing plant and supply chain activities within and across the extended enterprise.

How processes work today

Business processes, especially those connected to the plant floor, operated based on horizontal and sequential needs to produce products. However, it is difficult to include the necessary data management into one fully integrated package.

For example, a human resources application within an ERP has employment history, wage administration, performance reviews, etc., covered in fine detail. However, when the manufacturing execution system (MES) needs to confirm training qualifications at a work station, manual integration has to take over. The other option is to have the information technology (IT) department build a custom application. 

In this example, the replenishment process is not even half developed and there are already many information gaps, which make errors possible. The steps in this example require multiple electronic systems and manual steps for the process execution and with each step, there is greater for potential for costly mistakes.

Smart manufacturing’s purpose

A key objective of smart manufacturing is addressing the need to eliminate process gaps including manual steps such as searching for information across various electronic systems. This is a formidable task, to say the least.

The problem is the physical weaving of digital process data through each of the electronic or manual processes across the extended enterprise. Attempting to do this with systems integration software coding techniques has, historically, caused more grief than satisfaction. Smart manufacturing differs from this process in several ways:

  • Standards—There is significant effort being made to develop and promote standard methods, interfaces and technologies to exchange information between software applications.
  • New applications—new applications are being developed that address specific operations niches such as inventory movement or energy management or environmental management concerns.
  • Process management—a rapidly growing vendor market segment is providing new tools to assist in planning, modeling, inventorying and managing businesses and production processes.
  • Process execution—the past few years have seen substantial growth in the use of workflow and business process management software systems. These approaches are designed to enhance information management techniques on the plant floor.

Workflow and process management’s roles

The newer concepts of workflow and process management are designed to focus on supporting the business process rather than the features and functions of siloed applications. A workflow consists of an orchestrated and repeatable pattern of business activity enabled by the systematic organization of resources into processes that transform materials, provide services, or process information. These methodologies are designed to retrieve and provide data elements from the sources as necessary to get the job done.

One example is retrieving and displaying work instructions to an assembly station. This action may require information from many sources, but the key perspectives are delivery to the workstation, focus on the business process, and focus on what is necessary to support each step in that process. Workflow information management techniques, developed in the 1990’s, have been beneficial and useful in a wide variety of business applications including the plant floor.

PPM helps smart manufacturing

PPM, which is a specialized version of BPM that describes the concept of applying process design and management tools, helps companies in the area of manufacturing plan and supply chain activities within and across the extended enterprise.

Processes are designed to follow chronological steps of how companies want to run the business by connecting and supporting predefined, sequenced events with the correct information in a role-based form for the intended user. A process may be electronic, manual, or a hybrid of the two. One key requirement is that the process is specific to the given business requirement and can be configured to provide an easy path for revision and improvement.

The Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition (SMLC) and other groups support this process-centric approach to information management and have provided 12 examples of what might be possible:

  1. Separate data from the application and invert the historical manufacturing paradigm by bringing the data to the application instead of the application to the data. 
  2. Provide actionable data, trust, and visibility across the supply/value chain.
  3. Manage orchestration of standardized decision workflows based on structured adaption and autonomy.
  4. Deploy applications that can share data, data that can share applications and applications that can connect to applications to achieve horizontal enterprise views and actions.
  5. Build applications that cross different time constraints and seams, including the supply/value chain.
  6. Provide applications that do not lose control of state.
  7. An enterprise-level platform to manage and support applications/processes that can be company-wide standards that are specific to the existing local plant information system infrastructure.
  8. Build information tools that can differentiate company performance and provide a competitive advantage through operational and information management techniques.
  9. Easy to understand applications/processes that can evolve to solve changing business needs.
  10. Information management concepts that allow operational processes to be company owned intellectual property.
  11. An information management infrastructure that is easier to manage, less costly and more supportive of users.
  12. Computer driven processes that can be supported by manual involvement, fully automatic or a combination of either.

Using a process-centric approach to support production is a key element of smart manufacturing. It is designed to create a new understanding of enterprise-wide information management, which is an area fraught with high IT costs, wide information gaps, and angst from buyers.

The process view gives manufacturers a wider horizon to think strategically by using information to build and maintain a competitive advantage based on how they want the business to run with a top-down and strategic view. Response and global maneuverability are the issues rather than data collection or equipment efficiency. The executed process is the unit of automation and how processes are defined and managed is the tactical stroke that supports the enterprise strategy.

Manufacturing is best managed at the process level and they should span end-to-end across functions, departments, sites, and capabilities. They need to be dynamic and be updated to ensure manufacturing systems remain agile to potential business changes.

For example, ERP started with end-to-end processes focused on business fundamentals. This must be extended across the value chain in a horizontal dimension as well as taken deeper to drill down to the specific details that support each step of production activity with appropriate role-based information.

The future perspective will be much less based on the functions within an application, and much more on how information from any resource can best support the user’s business and production processes. To paraphrase an old political adage from a few years ago: "It’s all about the process."

Michael McClellan, Darren Riley, and Tim Sanford are members of MESA International’s smart manufacturing working group. This article originally appeared on MESA International’s blog. MESA International is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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