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Automation needs standards

June 12, 2014

Automation needs standards

Manufacturing any product, no matter how simple it may appear overtly, involves some kind of complexity or challenge. These complexities are generally hidden from the end-consumer/user of the product, but are of great importance for the manufacturer. Manufacturers generally start experiencing these complexities even before producing a single unit or batch of any product, right at the stage where it’s established by the strategists/decision makers. Then a plant needs to be set up to produce a particular product or product line.

Setting up a manufacturing plant is in fact quite a complex project and needs to be carefully planned and executed by a team of experienced individuals, right from top management representatives to engineering/automation experts to IT and operations management professionals. Let’s understand a bit why manufacturing plants set up in modern times need this team of experts to begin with. Any manufacturing plant will have 3-4 basic requirements to produce anything. One is capital; the other material; then machine or in more sophisticated terms equipment; and last but most importantly man, human resources or human capital as they are now referred to.

These requirements have been present from the very beginning of mass-manufacturing ever since the first industrial revolution. The reason we state the obvious here is that the way in which these components participate in the activity of manufacturing has drastically changed, from the first industrial revolution to the current and fourth revolution. Modern technology has automated all or most of the tasks which were once performed manually, making human beings more the controllers of a production activity than actual doers. Second, IT has provided supervisors, managers and top management a bird’s eye view of the entire plant and they can now make sense of the entire process by just clicking a button on their computers or notebooks. The way in which money is now spent to establish a plant and choose the equipment, IT and personnel is completely different from say 50 years ago. This is the reason setting up a manufacturing plant in the modern era is a complex task and needs a team of experts from various functional areas to work cohesively to ensure that the plant is set-up to deliver value in the long run, considering the exponential changes occurring in production technology and the IT which supports it.

Today we will discuss the specific challenges faced by manufacturers while choosing process equipment and IT applications like the MES to control and connect the manufacturing activity to the enterprise level and beyond. Also we will reflect on the importance of considering the equipment integration from an MES perspective as well and how neglecting the same can cause loss of good business. First things first, why should process equipment and their ability to interface with standard IT applications be of any concern to a manufacturer as long as they are able to perform the task they are intended to perform? Process equipment are the most important part of the manufacturing activity, especially in cases where they are only virtually controlled by a human being through a PLC/SCADA HMI. In modern automated environments it’s considered highly important to have an integrated process, where individual machines or tools are connected to a higher more comprehensive application like the MES, which provides integration not only between process components but also integrates the entire process to the business part of the organization by further connecting with an ERP/MRP/CRM or SCM system. The way in which the equipment performs or fails to perform has a direct impact on the bottom line of a manufacturer. Their integration to the enterprise and before that to the MES is vital for the management to gain a clear understanding of the issues/events effecting their equipment and thereby their bottom-line. The challenge here is that set of process equipment in a plant may have been manufactured by completely different OEMs, making it a massive challenge to integrate them to an enterprise application. Unless this capability to connect to the enterprise application is considered right at the very beginning at the time of short listing and assessing the process equipment.

Generally manufacturers of automated equipment follow or should follow some kind of standards to ensure compatibility with enterprise applications. These standards can be generic to highly specific, such as OPC standards which are considered more generic to SECS/GEM standards which are highly specific and apply largely for the semiconductor industry and its derivatives. These standards provide a basic set of guidelines, rules and configurations which allow both manufacturers and IT vendors to ensure integration right from the PLC/DCS level to the API between the automation application and the MES/SPC or any other enterprise application. These standards basically ensure that no matter who manufactures the process equipment and who purchases them, they remain compatible with the higher level IT applications, if the host application also complies with the same standards. It is therefore mission critical for the project team responsible for setting up the manufacturing plant to ensure that the equipment they want to purchase complies with the relevant industry standard such as the OPC or the SECS. This ensures that later on when they want to integrate the process equipment to the IT applications in the above layers, it’s a seamless transaction and requires minimum coding. This not only will save massive costs, efforts and errors, but drastically cut down the time required to roll out the MES and then further integrate it with the enterprise.

The team of experts needs to evaluate process equipment considering the big picture, which goes beyond its ability to perform a particular task accurately and cost; it’s also vital that the equipment is capable of being an active part of the process and not just a passive tool. This care around the interface capability of the equipment or equipment software is still neglected by many manufacturers. Doing so presents two clear risks: one that the plant may never be fully integrated with an MES application due to higher costs or large coding efforts required; and two, soon after purchase of the IT application the equipment might need to be replaced. Even in cases where plants aren't fully automated the process equipment employed should still be capable of integrating with the MES application, to enable better control, cost effectiveness and profitability.

At this point it is worth noting that we're considering the MES layer with the wider scope often referred to as Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM). Following the modular approach we've been advocating, the Equipment Integration layer, often a separate application that later requires integration with the MES, should instead be a module of the overall MOM/MES application, making its integration as smooth and easy as possible, both at setup time and when changes and adaptations are required. This is an essential part of the overall strategy towards having a solution that can ensure high automation or at least provide a clear path towards higher automation levels.

We have always highlighted the importance of selecting the MES application through a project approach. It’s extremely vital that the team involved in process equipment selection has some representation in the team responsible for selecting the MES. The above statement is of more relevance when these activities i.e. choosing of process equipment and the MES is performed simultaneously, which might happen in the case of a new set-up. If both the project teams fail to communicate effectively and end up choosing equipment and MES application which are incompatible or need large efforts to achieve compatibility, it will definitely effect the overall cycle time for setting up the plant and making it fully operational.

From an overall MES or MOM perspective it’s of extremely high importance to comply with standards such as the OPC or the SECS/GEM as this could be the factor which finally influences whether or not their application is chosen for a particular plant. It will be pointless if the MES high functional coverage, a state of the art SPC or LIMS suite, ability to integrate with almost all/any ERP application and still is unable to integrate with the process equipment of the plant. As at the very root of its existence an MES application needs to communicate with the process equipment, capture process data in real-time and provide decision makers meaningful information pertaining to this integrated process, so that they can initiate improvements/changes in the process based on this continuous flow of data. An MES application is set to fail if it’s incompatible with the process equipment of the plant, as it won’t be able to perform its most basic function which is to control the process and help execute it efficiently.

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