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Shop-Floor Intelligence at Your Fingertips

Pat Waurzyniak
By Patrick Waurzyniak Contributing Editor, SME Media

New mobile technologies are helping senior manufacturing executives quickly get data from the shop floor

Getting fast, accurate data delivered to the palm of your hand is helping drive demand for enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. With the popularity of smartphones and tablets, manufacturers are capitalizing on the ability to get critical factory operational data from ERP, manufacturing execution systems (MES) and enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) applications into the hands of the right decision-makers in a timely manner.

In addition to the proliferation of mobile apps, enterprise software is also moving toward more integrated systems that are easier to implement and maintain, as well as ERP systems that offer a direct interface to engineering applications like Autodesk Inventor and Dassault SolidWorks CAD systems.

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Electric car builder Tesla Motors uses the Apriso Corp. FlexNet MES software at its Fremont, CA, vehicle assembly plant.

“Mobile applications are changing the ERP world forever,” said Dusty Alexander, president of ERP software developer Global Shop Solutions (Houston). “Companies are investing in wireless networks in the shop and using mobile devices to collect labor data, issue material, do bin-to-bin transfers and ship product. Shop-floor employees can clock in and out of jobs using an iPad or a tablet. Sales reps can run the CRM [customer relationship management] application on their smartphones, and supervisors can get out from behind their desks and keep tabs on the shop floor from anywhere. All of this efficiency starts with two critical items—a mobile device that can connect to the Web and an ERP program like Global Shop to facilitate the communication.

“Ultimately, ERP is all about cutting costs and improving productivity on the shop floor, especially for job shops and smaller manufacturing operations.” With ERP, shops get better inventory control, more efficient scheduling, and improved material handling, so management can focus on growing the business rather than merely trying to survive, he added.

Real-Time Access Is Key

Linking top-floor management with what’s happening on the shop floor is an important trend in enterprise software, as ERP/MES/EMI developers maximize the value of factory operational data such as overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), cycle time efficiency, part production counts and machine downtime.

“When you think about those technologies and about the top floor to the shop floor, what we see is people trying to figure out how to get to the truth,” said Diane Murray, manager, product marketing, the Mattec MES and Informance EMI software from ERP developer Epicor Software Corp. (Dublin, CA).

Epicor’s cloud-based ERP solutions include embedded MES capabilities for small and mid-size manufacturers. For businesses looking for advanced MES/EMI, Epicor sees growth potential in supporting these more advanced capabilities in the cloud, Murray said.

“From the top floor to the shop floor, everyone has a certain set of questions that they want to answer. They’ve got different questions and different problems,” Murray said. “So the big thing is how do we get to a single real-time version of the truth? We answer that with technology by integrating your ERP, MES or EMI systems so they talk to each other and you get a single real-time version of the truth.”

Real-time access on the shop floor can be a matter of seconds, compared to purchasing organizations, where it might be the same day. “Real time is going to mean different things to different people, and it’s how we address that in technology,” Murray said. “Certainly mobile computing and mobile apps continues to be rapidly moving, it changes all the time.

“People want pervasive visibility. There was a time when you really didn’t have senior-level executives having shop-floor information,” she added. Today’s technologies allow an executive or manager to know not only if a given machine in a particular plant is down, but to also know why it’s down, Murray said.

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Direct interfaces for Global Shop Solution’s ERP software to extract Bill of Materials data from design packages like Autodesk Inventor and Dassault’s SolidWorks can save manufacturers time and money.

Greater collaboration enables enterprises to respond faster to change, said John Fishell, vice president, Product Management, Apriso Corp. (Long Beach, CA), developer of FlexNet MES software. “This need is impacting not only automation capabilities but the need for enterprise software applications to work better, faster and more efficiently across an entire organization.

“In the past, it might have been fine to purchase an MES system on a plant-by-plant basis,” Fishell said. “Today, the momentum has changed to viewing this type of purchase at an enterprise level to help multiple plants respond with greater collaboration, so they can best meet the needs of an enterprise’s global customers. Everyone’s talking about the four pillars of social media—our prospects talk about collaboration, mobile, cloud and big data. They want to be able to share their information better.”

Acquired in June by Dassault Systèmes (Vélizy-Villacoublay, France) for $205 million in cash, Apriso has recently beefed up its mobile technology. “We have been aggressively adding mobile collaboration capabilities to our software,” Fishell said, “and recently we launched our first Windows 8 application, which enables senior managers all the way down to the shop-floor technicians to have real-time access to their manufacturing operations performance.”

These capabilities have helped in preventing downtime, improving responsiveness as well as reducing overall operations costs, Fishell added. “Mobile is huge for us right now. We support all mobile devices, whether it’s Android, iOS or Windows 8 —we have standard apps for those. I don’t think a week goes by without one or two customers saying ‘We’re ready to go for it.’ They’re looking for totally mobile solutions and the cost of a tablet is so much cheaper than a desktop.”

With the growth in mobile access to manufacturing data, developers and users alike are paying close attention to safeguarding key shop-floor data. “We’ve taken extra steps with security issues. Customers still care about security, especially with the Android devices. We’re seeing more people looking at Windows 8 and iPad,” Fishell said. “You can use sideloading—it’s a way of getting your app on the iPad without going through the [app] store, but it’s very cumbersome.

“Given an aerospace and defense customer, I would push them toward Windows 8, which allows you to have your own private store and own means to manage it,” Fishell said. “The solution, the technology stack, that Microsoft’s building is designed for the enterprise. To me, iOS is designed for the consumer market. If I have a corporate app, I don’t want to push it to an iTunes store that everyone can access—I just want it for my enterprise. Windows is designed for that.”

Seamless, Integrated Systems

Taking an integrated approach to ERP and MES is key for manufacturing operations, noted Jim Shepherd, vice president of strategy, Plex Systems (Troy, MI), developer of the Plex Online ERP system that includes integrated MES and EMI.

“A really important trend is dealing with these applications as a single integrated system. Traditionally these were different systems from different vendors with different data models,” said Shepherd. “We don’t distinguish between those aspects of the system, so we don’t have to deal with the difficulties of time granularity and terminology differences. We think that provides a much more seamless experience for the customer. It’s faster and easier for them to implement, and the end result of this is that with our software, the linkage between the top floor and the shop floor is inherently built-in, as opposed to something that you have to struggle to get, which has been traditionally the case with manufacturing.”

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With Epicor MES and EMI software, users get plant-management real-time data feedback on key operational metrics such as OEE, cycle time efficiency, part production and machine downtime.

With Plex’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)-delivered ERP, seamless handling of data is part of the architecture, allowing users to easily extract data from ERP/MES/EMI systems. “That’s the direction of the future,” he said, “given the need for immediate information and very rapid reaction to change.”

Integrated systems offer users many advantages, says Global Shop’s Alexander. “Manufacturers don’t want the hassle of having separate operational, financial, quality, and customer relationship management systems. ERP brings together every aspect of the business under one fully integrated system,” Alexander said. “Increasingly, manufacturers are looking to connect their ERP systems directly to their production machines, biometric devices, tooling systems, etc.”

For example, instead of having workers manually enter data to issue material to a CNC job, an ERP system can automatically pull the data from the CNC machine, he said, and this direct interface saves time, removes human error, and increases the accuracy of the data.

Likewise, automatic tool vending machines save time and money for ERP users. “Companies are also using vending machines to improve the accuracy of tooling costs. These look like a typical vending machine, but they dispense tools instead of snacks,” Alexander said. “Workers scan their badge and job number into the machine and press a button for the tool they need. The vending machine dispenses the tool and automatically applies to the ERP system the cost of the tool to the job, thereby increasing accuracy for the overall job costing process, inventory control and tool usage. We observed one customer cutting his tool usage by almost 50% once he started displaying tool usage by operator.”

Linking ERP to Design Systems

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An employee at plastic extrusion instrumentation manufacturer Dynisco scans part data into Synchrono’s SyncKanban pull-based inventory software. The system helped Dynisco cut inventory costs by nearly $1 million in a year.

More efficiency improvements also can be gained through using Global Shop’s direct interface to engineering systems such as the Solidworks or Autodesk Inventor design software. “By doing so, they can design a part and then click a button to automatically build the bill of materials and part numbers in the ERP system,” Alexander said. “Depending on the size of the job, this can generate huge time and cost savings.

“One of our clients recently had five days to quote a job requiring a 900-part BOM. Normally, just entering the materials would take him at least five days,” he said. “Entering labor and other costs could take several more. We installed our Solidworks interface and, counting installation time, he completed the entire BOM within four hours. With the interface already in place, he could have completed it in about 15 minutes.”

Synchronizing the Factory Floor

With manufacturing software from Synchrono (St. Paul, MN), manufacturers can synchronize their manufacturing facilities with a pull-based approach rather than with traditional push-based manufacturing. Founded in 2000, Synchrono’s software suite includes SyncManufacturing, the company’s patented software formerly called Adaptive Manufacturing, that enables synchronizing demand-driven manufacturing systems to improve efficiencies.

Synchrono’s software suite also includes SyncKanban for lean manufacturing inventory control. Focused on lean, the company’s solutions help fill a void in the industry, said John Maher, Synchrono vice president, Product Strategy. “Continuous improvement was the mantra of the people running these operations, but even in those environments that have been on a continuous improvement path for years with great success, we find that we can still get double-digit improvements,” Maher said.

The SyncKanban package is a pull-based inventory replenishment system that uses lean and Just-in-Time principles to respond instantly to changes in customer demand while maintaining minimal inventories. After installing the SyncKanban system at its manufacturing facility, Synchrono customer Dynisco (Franklin, MA) saw dramatic improvements in its inventory costs. Within a year after implementing SyncKanban, the materials testing and extrusion-control instrumentation manufacturer found that right sizing alone saved the company more than $985,000 in inventory costs.

“There’s really been a shift toward real-time, demand-based systems,” Maher said. “The core piece of agile manufacturing is having actionable information, and the trend is toward getting that information in the hands of decision-makers at the time they need to make the decision. I’m seeing where management is getting out of the office and into the plant to see how they can improve things, and with this, there’s transparency from the shop floor to the top floor.”

The SyncManufacturing solution is available both on-premises and in the cloud, while SyncKanban comes only as a cloud-based system. Synchrono solutions work with most ERP systems and the company has expertise in integration, he added, working with major manufacturers in aerospace, automotive and other industries. A large aerospace and defense manufacturer is installing SyncManufacturing, the company’s new manufacturing operations platform.

“This solution really is from the shop floor to the top floor,” Maher said. “The initial phase was SyncManufacturing—that’s already in place. Next is connecting to the machine level. We’re installing a system that’s flexible enough so everyone has access to information they need—process engineers can dig into detailed data in a time-based manner and plant managers have access to aggregated data on how the plant is running and what areas require support. It’s all about getting information to the people who need the information at that critical time when a decision must be made.” ME

This article was first published in the September 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.

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