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Shop floor to top floor system connections are slowly becoming more common. The idea of connecting control systems to enterprise systems has around for a while, but mostly has been limited to specific occasions.
The most common example of how this is being done today is when a company creates a connection to an ERP system. Among ERP’s, SAP is the dominant platform but there are a number of others a typical provider might encounter. Another common integration target, especially in chemicals and life sciences, is with Laboratory Information Systems. These systems will usually be relational databases, many times SQL Server, so that makes the integration story much simpler. An interesting side effect many customers find when they create these connections is that the use cases will blossom when other parts of the organization want to take advantage of the connectivity to perform a different function. Examples of this might be exchange of maintenance data with the shop floor or integration of operator training records into security for equipment.
A combination of software and technologies are continuing to make the integration story easier and more cost effective. Integration to older ERP systems tended to be via formatted text files pushed around via FTP. Now, there are a variety of affordable and easy to use solutions for making direct calls to these ERP systems. Another area that has made these systems much more accessible is the continued advance in generic interface mechanisms like web services and more modern RESTful API’s. Having these technically simpler interfaces, along with more capable SCADA platforms that can interact in a more native fashion, makes the integration portion a smaller part of the overall cost and schedule for the project.
When considering the Internet of Things (IoT), some companies are adding limited technology into the traditional manufacturing space but most have not made a wholesale adoption of much of the technology that’s available. Customers are picking and choosing technologies that are being developed for IoT and using them in slightly different ways.
For example, we recently had a customer with a remote warehouse facility that needed to be monitored from the main campus. They were running an extension of their existing SCADA system over a wireless point-to-point radio which wasn’t reliable. We explored the concept of using MQTT with a cloud-based broker to publish encrypted data from the warehouse and subscribe to the data in the SCADA system at the main facility. That is just one example of how IoT technologies might be repurposed for something other than their original use case.
These types of connections will likely become even more commonplace when they become familiar for traditional automation practitioner. A perfect example of this is with both Kepware and Wonderware writing MQTT drivers that live side-by-side with their traditional PLC drivers. Delivering data via this familiar technique allows engineers to focus on the value of the data and not the mechanics of data acquisition.
When it comes to Big Data today, only the most sophisticated customers are in a place where they can truly take advantage of this type of technology. A common misnomer is that Big Data is going to take a pile of random data and put big red glowing circles around the really important things and then explain exactly what steps need to be taken to improve costs or reliability by X%. These software tools are really there to help progressively sort through the correlations. It still takes deep knowledge of how a process functions before the results of the Big Data analysis can be turned into actionable information. What is encouraging, however, is the rise of a number of specialty analytics software packages focused on the manufacturing industries. These packages tend to hide most of the complexity of the math and the models and leave the engineer to focus on the most important function which is conceptually mapping the results of the models to real world manifestations in their processes.
No matter the technique for improving your operations; ERP Integration, Big Data, or IOT technologies, the best way for facilities to start is to sit down and make the business case first. When making the business case consider end goals such as cost reduction, improved traceability to support quality investigations or recalls, new product agility, or reduced errors, etc. Once this justification is solidified then you can work on identifying the gaps in your current processes and how these different technologies can be leveraged to close those gaps.
The best results are typically achieved when customers spend the time and money developing a coherent strategic plan and then attack each area in a very tactical way. No matter how execution is started, it should always be based on this strategic plan. If a customer doesn’t clearly understand the potential benefits and at the same time perceives the cost of the project to be high, they are going to be fearful about even starting an exploration.