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.


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.”

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