thumbnail group

Connect With Us:

ME Channels / Controls & Software

Managing Factory-Floor Data

Advances in ERP and MES software, including cloud-based systems, can help manufacturers control critical manufacturing operations



By Patrick Waurzyniak

Senior Editor


As manufacturers wrestle with global competition and the constant need to cut costs, manufacturing operations seek the most efficient software tools to monitor and manage often far-flung factory facilities. The latest enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution system (MES) software packages can offer fast, efficient management of factory data critical to every manufacturing operation. 

The choices for managing today’s global manufacturing operations are getting wider, as many manufacturers consider outsourcing the management of essential factory data previously housed in on-premises ERP, MES, or other factory-data management systems to the “cloud computing” model in order to cut costs and improve efficiencies. Many ERP/MES developers currently offer or are working on cloud-based systems where customers’ manufacturing data reside in vast data centers accessed via the Internet. Photo Courtesy of Dassault Systemes

The emergence of cloud computing in manufacturing is not to be underestimated, according to some observers who see “the cloud” as a must-have tool for manufacturing operations. “To be competitive, manufacturers are turning to the cloud because they can’t put in the investments that it would take to build and operate in a world-class manufacturing system in their own facilities,” notes Mark Symonds, president and CEO of Plex Systems Inc. (Auburn Hills, MI), developer of Plex Online, a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) cloud-based ERP system. “The cloud allows them to take advantage of really powerful systems that they don’t have to house and manage themselves, and the software’s always up to date. So to remain competitive, manufacturers are all headed to the cloud.” 

Cloud computing is catching on with manufacturers, according to recent research from IDC (Framingham, MA) that contends a majority of manufacturing operations either have considered, evaluated, or already implemented cloud-based systems. In its “Cloud Computing in Manufacturing” IDC Manufacturing Insights report, IDC found that 44.3% of manufacturing companies are either implementing or currently evaluating cloud deployments, while more than 22% of manufacturers have already implemented cloud systems. 

A robust, manufacturing-centric ERP system should offer users strong links to shop-floor data in order to efficiently manage manufacturing operations. Plex Systems evolved from a production project at the former MSP Industries (now part of American Axle [Detroit]), notes Symonds, who sees MES capabilities as crucial to any ERP system. “MES is the core of our system, the shop-floor system,” Symonds says. “MES is what we’re all about, and our ERP sits on top of it. For a manufacturer, we believe that most things that affect the success of a manufacturing company happen on the shop floor or on the shipping and receiving dock—and that’s all controlled by a manufacturing execution system. 

“We define it very broadly, so it’s not just controlling production, downtime, scrap, and so on, it’s also time and attendance, labor tracking, costing, quality, and preventative maintenance,” he adds. “Essentially, it’s everything that happens on the shop floor that we feel is part of an effective MES.” 

With Plex’s offering, users can choose from roughly 360 different software modules that are rented from Plex in the SaaS Web-based cloud model. “What are the roots of the system? A lot of our competitors start out with accounting, and then try to build shop-floor capabilities,” Symonds observes. “Our very beginning was from the shop floor, meaning our goal was to provide to an operator everything they need to set up, run, and check parts for first-time quality, and then to capture everything, as it happens, so then you have valid data for the rest of the organization, whether it’s customer service, shipping, accounting or costing. 

“A key thing to look for is the ease of capturing information,” he adds. “Our barcodes are just a built-in, natural part of the system, and those can integrate the system with scales, with PLCs, and with other shop-floor equipment. Another element, especially for the automotive supply chain and other highly regulated industries, is that it should be a total solution for the business, so if you need quality, the vendor should be able to provide that integrated. If you need EDI [Electronic Data Interchange], or if you need preventative maintenance on your equipment, that should be built in. It’s really important that all these things be native, and not bolt-ons from a third party.”

Use of barcoding with partners like Symbol and Intermec greatly helps shops automate the data-collection process, as ERP developers leverage the devices connected to the factory floor, Symonds adds. “More and more production equipment has a computer attached, typically a PLC. You can get a lot of information from those devices and also pass it a lot of information. For instance, you can store a recipe in our system and then when you go to run a part, you can automatically download it.” 

Early data-management systems evolved first from manufacturing resource planning (MRP), then MRP II systems, before finally morphing into ERP in more recent years. These earlier systems also extensively used EDI, particularly automotive suppliers. “EDI is actually becoming more common,” notes Symonds. “It’s an efficient way to get orders and shipment information back and forth between trading partners.” 

With many small to mid-sized manufacturing customers, Epicor Corp. (Livermore, CA) takes a modular approach to its ERP software development, notes Christine Hansen, Epicor product manager. Epicor’s roots are in discrete manufacturing, but the company has broadened its scope to include mixed-mode and standard manufacturing, or make-to-stock, Hansen says. “We’ve been doing this for over 30 years now, in terms of serving ERP solutions for manufacturers. Our philosophy in particular on the shop floor is that the shop floor is just an extension of the top floor, if you will,” Hansen notes. “We have a very embedded approach as to how we’ve built our systems on a modular level that extend into the shop floor, so that you can do functions like tracking quantities and time, management of material handling, or tracking quality functions, from within our MES systems that are on the plant floor.

“Our embedded modules cover not just MES, but things like purchasing functions; scheduling functions that need to be very tightly tied to MES in order to have accuracy in scheduling; costing functions, which again need to be very tightly tied to MES in order to cost accurately; and finally quoting functions,” Hansen states. “The accuracy of information coming from MES feeds the next round of quotes that you have, and so having that as an embedded component of the system, from a historical, costing, scheduling, and a planning perspective, keeps the stars in line, if you will, and helps the business be more efficient.” 

For manufacturers affected by compliance requirements, such as aerospace or medical manufacturers, Epicor’s system has features that help manage those scenarios, she adds. “Having a system that supports your compliance requirements is a very critical component as well,” Hansen notes, “whether that means having functions like change log capabilities or workflow, document management is part of the system. There’s a whole list of things for medical or aerospace/defense industries. We have a quality-assurance module, but we also have a technology foundation that was really built with compliance in mind and the toolset that’s in there really supports businesses, because compliance changes. The FDA is always coming up with new things to do, and so, as it changes, you want something that is flexible enough to meet the needs of those changes, and so flexible technology becomes a big factor there.” 

Moving critical factory data to the cloud may seem daunting for manufacturers with mission-critical applications that simply can’t afford even minor delays, much less assembly line or factory shutdowns, and security breaches. “I’m going to up-play it by downplaying it,” Hansen says. “It’s just a new choice in deployment of software or solutions, and a way of managing your business. It takes away the pain of technology, and really puts it in the hands of the experts.

“Rather than an individual business investing in the expense and the expertise of running their business solutions, businesses basically can rent out that infrastructure and ongoing management. Outside of that, where we really start to see the cost benefit to businesses is when you look at multi-tenancy of solutions that are out there with cloud computing, where you’re just basically renting what you need to use. You’re not purchasing a server, for example, and only using a portion of it. You’re sharing the cost of the management of that server, the capital of that server, and the management of it across multiple companies now, so that you’re really getting the cost benefit of cloud computing in software.” 

 Photo Courtesy of Plex Systems Inc.   
Security and reliability of cloud-based manufacturing solutions also are pressing concerns to manufacturing operations. Manufacturers need to be sure their cloud provider meets the audited standards for security, Symonds adds. “They need to make sure that their cloud provider is secure and there are third parties who audit them, that’s the key thing,” he says. “It’s not something built into the software. It’s how you do business, how you control the software development. This was created by the AICPA [American Institute of CPAs], and it was started as an accounting standard to make sure that the data that goes into financial reports was accurate. It’s telling auditors what they need to check to make sure that computer systems are providing accurate data and that it’s properly secured and protected. There’s way less resistance now, especially when they visit our data center and realize they can’t afford to make the kind of investments in security that we make—security and redundancy. They realize their data’s way more secure here than it is at their place.” 

“Another thing companies need to consider is to ask about their [cloud provider’s] data-backup policies, their system redundancies, any type of support-level metrics and agreements that they might have in terms of their uptime, when the system would be up,” Hansen points out. “You would want to have your data backed up and stored online, in potentially multiple locations, and preferably that’s in different geographies. As we know, there are rolling blackouts and earthquakes in California. And finally, one of the kicker questions to ask is, what is their policy if we end this relationship, how do I get my data? You need to know their policy on letting you get your data.”

An on-premises ERP solution, Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012, was introduced in September by Microsoft Corp. (Redmond, WA). Improved operating systems with Windows 7 and the popularity of the Internet for manufacturing collaboration has changed the way companies do business, notes Rakesh Kumar, Microsoft global industry product director of manufacturing for Dynamics ERP. “What I’ve seen is you can divide the ERP software market distinctly between what happened before 2000 and what happened after 2000,” Kumar says. “There are two reasons for that—the quality of operating systems, and the second is increasing use of Internet. Along with that, a lot of business processes also started changing rapidly. Some key changes were the collaboration part in which a lot of manufacturers started outsourcing their business processes, and also a lot of the requirements around safety, around quality.” 

Many Microsoft AX 2012 users are found in both discrete and process manufacturing, as well as hybrid situations, he notes. The company offers some 1500 pre-built manufacturing-specific functions targeting many customers in all industries. “We’re designing solutions, rather than one size fitting all,” he notes. “People want a high level of flexibility or agility. Different manufacturers want different processes or different means to reduce their operating costs, or to take care of their customer’s requirement. Our software allows them to adapt and provide this type of information and leverage the software to manage their business processes.” 

With its new digital manufacturing or PLM-based MES solution, Delmia Operations Execution (OEX), Dassault Systèmes (Paris; Auburn Hills, MI) offers users the ability to track and manage global manufacturing operations incorporated into the MES functionality of V6 PLM systems. Dassault, which acquired MES developer Intercim earlier this year, is banking that MES can offer customers timely 3-D views of their operational performance in building aircraft and other products around the world. 

“What we have done with Intercim is take the bet that there was more value to have the MES, the execution system, tightly integrated into PLM, on the engineering side,” says Patrick Michel, vice president, Delmia Solutions. “We’re closing the loop between engineering and the shop floor, specifically in aerospace, where you have to react to changes on the shop floor that involve reengineering. This is the next step to extend the scope of PLM and use that to run the shop-floor operations.” 

The Delmia OEX doesn’t aim to replace ERP systems, he adds. “We’re replacing ERP projects that would require customization to run the shop floor. There’s a debate whether that should be tied to ERP or PLM. That’s where we step in, but what we do will not replace an ERP system. 

“We have now split Delmia into three domains: modeling, simulation, and operations. Modeling and simulation is typically what we’re known for; we’re extending that to supply-chain modeling and simulation, and the operations side runs the shop floor. The first step has been the Intercim acquisition. We have what we call the Operational Intelligence portfolio; once you’ve collected a lot of information running the shop floor, there’s patterns that you can start seeing on some of the defect parts, and that’s an entity on its own inside the portfolio.” Photo Courtesy of Dessault Systemes

After working with Intercim, Delmia has tight integration between its solutions and Intercim's MES. “We just launched plans to put it all on the new V6 platform; that should be done fairly shortly. We deliver 3-D work instructions to the shop floor, and the shop floor can feed back information to Delmia already, so independent of the technology architecture, we already have a tightly integrated business process.” 

The OEX technology will allow cutting down on lengthy engineering change times, Michel adds, which potentially can cut six weeks or more off time-critical product developments. The company signed an agreement earlier this year with aircraft builder Embraer S.A. (Sao Paulo, Brazil) to deploy Dassault's 3-D solutions on design and manufacturing of Embraer’s Phenom and Legacy 500 executive jets at the company's plants in Melbourne, FL, and Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil. “Intercim has all the information of each and every part that’s installed on the airplane, and with it capturing that information, when an engineer has to take a look at an issue in installing a part or a nonconformance that arises on the shop floor, he can have an instant view of each plane being built,” Michel says.

What Dassault’s PLM solutions offer in digital 3-D mockup is being added to manufacturing now, he adds, with the 3-D data downloaded to tablet computers at factory work stations. “You can have a view of each unit being built, where we didn’t have that feedback loop before; we use 3-D to close the gap between engineering and the shop floor so that the 3-D delivers the work instructions, but it also feeds back nonconformance issues at hand, and the status of each unit that’s being built. We’re looking at a design ‘as being built.’ The whole idea is that with the execution system, you deliver the right information at the right time to the worker who needs to know what to do.” ME 


This article was first published in the October 2011 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF

Published Date : 10/1/2011

Editor's Picks

Advanced Manufacturing Media - SME
U.S. Office  |  One SME Drive, Dearborn, MI 48128  |  Customer Care: 800.733.4763  |  313.425.3000
Canadian Office  |  7100 Woodbine Avenue, Suite 312, Markham, ON, L3R 5J2  888.322.7333
Tooling U  |   3615 Superior Avenue East, Building 44, 6th Floor, Cleveland, OH 44114  |  866.706.8665