Making Room for a Manufacturing-Centric View

Tom KevanIf you had a heart condition, you'd probably bypass the general practioner's office on your way to a specialist-someone who knows and understands the particulars of the heart. Makes sense! So why has it been such a leap for companies to see that they need manufacturing specialists to help them select, define, and run data gathering, distribution, and analysis on the shop floor? After all, collecting and using data from sensors, actuators, and other manufacturing devices is quite different from working with PCs, PDAs, and printers. Context is everything. Right?

Some manufacturers, large and small, have figured this out and are creating working groups whose assignments are to set plant floor standards and specify the right kinds of products to support them. This has not been easy. Control and process engineers are often so focused on meeting production goals that they view any sort of information technology (IT) infrastructure or requests for information as unnecessary interference. On the other side of the wall, many corporate IT wizards see the plant floor infrastructure as archaic. The result of this division is that plant-wide data collection gets lost in the shuffle.

John Dyck, a manufacturing IT specialist at GE Fanuc Automation, told me recently that "this gap has been largely responsible for the lack of technology adoption on the shop floor and a lack of standards proliferating down to [it]."

Two things have changed that. The control folks began to see direct benefits from technology. If the products and their benefits had been pitched solely in terms of IT, they probably would have earned nothing more than a sneeze from the engineers. Automation vendors are now offering software tools that can drive infrastructure development and help the control engineers tie their systems together. And these engineers are learning how to create a separate network for their controls layer, one that will survive if the information network layer fails and will also withstand security breaches.

A second motivating factor is economics. Big surprise! The larger the corporation, and the more expensive its product lines, the greater its need to optimize its manufacturing processes. Manufacturers have begun to realize that calling on manufacturing IT specialists to define their data infrastructures would be a pretty sure way to squeeze every ounce of productivity and profit from their operations.

The major U.S. automakers caught on early. About 10 years back, Ford, GM, Daimler Chrysler, and other serious players recognized the value of an IT infrastructure that would help them understand every facet of their production capacity. They got busy building manufacturing IT staffs and driving automation vendors toward creating ways to collect larger amounts of data and then to develop software that would be more powerful in terms of analyzing and providing key performance indicators. The results would help the automakers discover where the losses and constraints lay, and where capacity was being bled away.

One upshot of this forward thinking was a new form of analytics. Analysts have been talking for several years about enterprise manufacturing intelligence. This concept refers to ways to view, analyze, and report on shop floor data, and it includes employees, processes, and equipment in a manufacturing-centric context. Put into place, this approach yields better business decisions at both the plant and the enterprise levels.

"Most higher level, nonmanufacturing-related IT folks might assume that business intelligence works for the shop floor, but it doesn't," says GE Fanuc's Dyck. "The enterprise manufacturing intelligence space is created around manufacturing intelligence because business intelligence is fairly generic, fairly nonmanufacturing-centric. And it is so far abstracted from the shop floor that it cannot provide visibility of or connection to the shop floor in a time frame that makes real analysis feasible."

Enterprise manufacturing intelligence is a shift in awareness and a new perspective on an old problem. It provides a vital piece needed for the manufacturing-centric view. The proliferation of IT technology on the shop floor should move faster now, but it won't break any speed records.