Building an integration strategy


Moving the integration process forward

The benefits of integration are within the reach of most companies, but developing a strategy is critical. Manufacturers must determine the value they expect to get from their plant-to-enterprise integration systems. Sometimes that’s difficult, admitted Christian. “Some companies expect a great many things. We work with them to map out what is possible. The first temptation for most facilities is to say they need everything; to be effective they have to trim things out and highlight what’s really important. If production rates are down but quality, reliability, and safety are good, then the plant needs to focus on production so it can find out why it is down. Companies need to determine where the business optimization opportunities lie.”

Where are plant-to-enterprise systems likely to go in the future? The proliferation of wireless technologies within integration systems is a given, an expectation today. “A technician with a smartphone in hand at a tank farm can get just as much information as one working at a central control panel,” said Invensys’ Martin. “Mobility puts intelligence in the field.”

Mobile devices are key to effective plant-to-enterprise integration, agreed Ng, noting that many companies look to cellular modem devices to give them the connectivity they need. “We worked with a company that needed to bring production data from some 30 plants in different countries into a central location. Many of these plants were in areas with no strong Internet backbone, but that did have a cellular infrastructure. Dropping in cell modems gave the company access to the plant data it needed.”

Keeping up with technology

Technology changes so fast today that forecasting the state of integration is uncertain at best, observed Mitsubishi’s Zupan. “The future might find integration technology embedded in the controller instead of functioning next to it,” he suggested. “Wireless will certainly be more popular, and security enhancements much stronger. We foresee a proliferation of Gigabit Industrial Ethernet. Many networks are unable to handle the flow of information between production and business systems; Gigabit Industrial Ethernet eliminates that barrier. As it becomes more popular on the plant floor, information sharing between manufacturing assets in the IT environment will explode.”

Remember that integration doesn’t create any additional information, said Christian. “Integration systems only help sort through data that already exists, find what is relevant, and put it in useful context. The role of powerful domain-specific applications—from maintenance and production systems to planning and scheduling—will remain strong. The next level of improvement will come once those individual areas are working well. Then, widespread integration can take place as companies are able to see how planning affects reliability affects energy, and so on. An information system with the right level of integration and collaboration can raise each plant in the corporation to the level of the best, or maybe even better than the best. A few companies have reached that level. Many more would like to.” 

Moving forward with plant-to-enterprise integration

Facilities just getting started with plant-to-enterprise integration—and those striving to advance their integration efforts—will find it helpful to take time to review the current state of their company’s integration culture and technology before moving forward. Focusing on the cultural aspects of integration is imperative to a solid foundation. Reviewing optimum applications of existing technology and planning future efforts can lead to enabling more concrete results.

Cultivating strategy

A variety of new products and systems help enable the real-time visualization plant personnel need to operate in an integrated environment. Among them is Invensys’ Foxboro Evo, a next-generation process information system designed to improve operational insight and integrity. The system uses advanced tools and applications across a high-speed, fault-tolerant and cyber-secure hardware platform. Evo features powerful processing capacity and advanced applications to help facilities uncover hidden value from their operations using a component object-based platform that can undergo major upgrades without interrupting operations. Courtesy: InvensysPeter A. Martin recommends companies take action in five areas to strengthen an integration effort. They are:

  • Define your strategy. Have you clearly outlined a manufacturing and production strategy? Is it cost-based? Is it volume-based? How often does it change? Everyone needs to understand how the integration strategy impacts every aspect of an operation.
  • Perform an accounting review. Make sure plant personnel know how results are reported. Determine who contributes what throughout the physical plant. “When we consult with companies about their integration programs,” said Martin, “we try to help them develop contribution algorithms so that they can learn what the strategic performance measures are. These include accounting measures that go down to the plant floor. Then we try to model those measures right in the control system.”
  • Evaluate your human resources. What are the educational and experience levels of the plant’s employee base? Such an evaluation can help plants put information in a format best suited for each person or group.
  • Review the technology already in place, in IT and on the plant floor. Often such an analysis reveals new and additional ways of using existing systems to implement and extend the infrastructure.
  • Develop a plan for improvement. Consider what other actions will further improve the operation. Are advanced controls needed? Would a new maintenance program reap benefits? Perform a constraint analysis to determine what might be getting in the way of improvements.

These steps are helpful in determining an integration strategy, said Martin, stressing that such an analysis does not focus on products. Rather it considers how to measure, how to empower, how to use existing assets for improvement, and then how to integrate. “You need to start by focusing on what you want to do with integration, not the integration itself,” he said. “Integration is an enabler. Only after you know what you’re going to do with integration can the technologies be effectively applied.”

Advancing technology

Looking at the technology side of getting started, Ming Ng, industrial networking product manager at Siemens Industry, emphasized that companies seeking to integrate operations do not need to rip and replace. A lot of existing infrastructure can be reused, he agreed, noting that in his experience, plant-to-enterprise integration efforts today typically focus on three areas:

  • Making the transition from an older fieldbus technology to Ethernet. Such facilities have installed bases and are seeking to put machines on Ethernet and/or connect islands of automation into a network, Ng explained. “Ethernet offers many benefits unavailable with fieldbus technology. It will give the plant better data, and enable it to react faster and make better decisions,” he said. “With Ethernet products, the toolsets are better; most Ethernet-based products today have a built-in web server. With a standard laptop and an Ethernet cable, engineers can connect to the network for diagnostics and to see the messages in these devices. In the past, they would have needed special software, a dongle, and a lot of network knowledge.”
  • Applying wireless; specifically, determining where it can be used and what benefits it can achieve. In most cases, facilities concerned about mobile and wireless technologies are those with a unique application or who have not used wireless before, said Ng. “Planning is the most important part of any wireless effort,” he said. “Companies need to understand how to lay out a network.”
  • Designing a network and working with IT effectively. Many production, plant, and controls engineers remain concerned about interacting with IT, admitted Ng. “They may feel they have insufficient background or knowledge about networking,” he added, “but most controls engineers can install, configure, and use industrial networking devices. Toolsets are designed with a common look-and-feel so that engineers can own the network on the plant floor while IT maintains the office side. Delineating who has responsibility for what is crucial. Each side must take responsibility for the areas in which it has domain expertise. Most importantly, they must work together to find the integration points. Every situation is different. Facilities need to strive to build trust.”

Integrating the energy factor

Among popular plant-to-enterprise integration offerings is Mitsubishi Electric’s MES Interface IT. This enterprise connectivity interface, part of the company’s e-F@ctory concept, bridges the gap between factory and office by enabling bi-directional data communication from the production floor to enterprise IT systems. Eliminating all middleware and gateway PCs, it offers controller-level direct database access to help users achieve a lean solution that reduces overhead costs and points of failure. The MES interface IT allows users to standardize the way information is shared across the plant floor, from a variety of automation supplies to many different IT applications. Courtesy: MitsubishiOne area relatively new to the plant-to-enterprise integration infrastructure is energy management and power monitoring. A challenging global economy and rising manufacturing costs are prompting many companies to look at their energy resources more closely. “More and more facilities are starting to view energy in the same way they do time and labor,” said Ghulam Khan, engineer, senior automation solutions, Mitsubishi Electric. “Moving integration of energy resources to the enterprise level can be compared, in many respects, to adding a previously missing piece. Plant managers are focused on production and it is hard to draw their attention to energy, but as sustainability becomes increasingly important, these issues are more crucial as well.”

Khan believes in a need for complete plant-to-enterprise visibility, calling plant-to-enterprise-level energy management a way of applying a magnifying glass to these resources. “Providing energy transparency up the enterprise is becoming increasingly critical. Companies need to know what, when, where, and how much. Integration gives management the ability to tie production to energy costs,” he explained, “and even helps determine a plant’s carbon footprint. It can help companies achieve a competitive edge, allowing them to improve operations by measuring resource use that they could not measure before.” 

Anticipate greater use of wireless technologies for energy applications, stressed Khan, as tablets and smartphones essentially put dashboards into the hands of employees. Products and systems available now allow plants to view real-time and historical energy consumption information, added Sloan Zupan, senior product manager at Mitsubishi Electric. “Devices can be used in and around the plant and remotely to obtain an analytical view of assets, to determine which systems are using the most gas, water, power. Smartphones and tablets enable operators and managers alike to access data from wherever they are."

Jeanine Katzel is a contributing editor to Control Engineering. Reach her at


A recent Control Engineering/CFE Media survey queried subscribers about the integration measures at their facilities, the benefits integration has brought them, the technologies applied, and plans for the future. Results are being compiled. Watch for a report summarizing what they said, soon to be available online.

For additional information about plant-to-enterprise integration and integration products and systems, visit the websites of the companies mentioned in this article:

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