What business can learn from manufacturing

These columns usually describe how Business IT can be applied to Manufacturing IT problems. However, there are many lessons that well-run manufacturing IT organizations can teach business IT organizations. Manufacturing has had many requirements that are only now becoming general-purpose business IT requirements.
By Dennis Brandl May 1, 2008

These columns usually describe how Business IT can be applied to Manufacturing IT problems. However, there are many lessons that well-run manufacturing IT organizations can teach business IT organizations. Manufacturing has had many requirements that are only now becoming general-purpose business IT requirements. If you have developed such solutions, you should not hesitate to demonstrate these to your business IT partners.

Manufacturing has dealt with real-time data and system responsiveness for many years. Business processes are now asking for more real-time data, which typically means data that is available no more than a few minutes after an event occurs. Additionally, business systems need to have subsecond responsiveness in displaying the data. Manufacturing IT has systems and architectures to meet these requirements.

Manufacturing systems have to be extremely robust and reliable. They are often mission-critical and cannot be down for any significant period of time, and some systems cannot be down for even milliseconds. As more business systems become mission-critical and their availability requirements increase, the architectures and procedures that manufacturing has can be effectively used. These include the use of hot standby systems, automatic failover systems, cold standby systems, disaster recovery procedures, procedures to identify mission-critical systems, and manual backup procedures when all else fails.

Patch management

Security in well run manufacturing systems is managed and implemented at the end devices and servers. As business IT connects a wider variety of devices to the corporate networks, they are recognizing the requirement for additional end device security and security policies. The systems that a well-run manufacturing IT organization has put in place can be used as a starting point for non-PC device security, such as network printers, handheld devices, time and attendance devices, and physical security control devices.

The lessons include how to protect systems that cannot be patched, and how to define levels of security and access control so that compromised devices will not compromise the entire network.

With the flood of patches coming from operating system and application vendors, the problems of patch management are becoming increasingly important to business IT. Manufacturing systems have had to handle patch problems for mission-critical systems for a long time. Well-run manufacturing IT groups have developed procedures, policies, security levels, and security groups to handle testing and distribution of the patches at well controlled and coordinated times. Manufacturing IT users do not allow uncontrolled patching or uncontrolled reboots of systems, and business IT users are starting to have the same requirements.

Many manufacturing systems include automated workflow engines for production, such as an MES (manufacturing execution system), and historical data collection systems. Manufacturing IT organizations have used the workflow engines to automate IT processes, such as setting up new machines, starting and shutting down servers and services, and handling failure and switchover.

The workflow engines enforce the procedures and generate a log of compliance that can be used to both verify and improve operations. Manufacturing systems are also connected to historical data collection systems, for collection of trends for system utilization, free memory, disk latency, and network activity. When incorporated with alarm systems, this data provides real-time monitoring of mission-critical hardware and services.

Finally, well-run manufacturing IT groups have learned how to implement systems on a limited budget. Manufacturing often has to work under severe ROI constraints that a service organization such as business IT has not had to deal with. The methods and models that you use in manufacturing to calculate ROI and determine the best solution for the least money may be the best lesson that Manufacturing can teach Business IT.

Dennis Brandl is president of BR&L Consulting, Cary, NC, which is focused on manufacturing IT solutions. He is also chairman of the ISA88 committee. Reach him at dbrandl@brlconsulting.com .