Oct 24, 2012

From the Bottom Up: Data on the Move - Part I

Posted by Tony Paine

Manufacturing and industrial automation environments have become increasingly complex. They house different types of equipmentalong with different manufacturing software applicationseach with a different purpose. Yet somehow, it all has to work together in order to solve real-world manufacturing objectives. On top of that, businesses are looking to utilize the data and information that these manufacturing systems produce.

The Levels

Starting at the bottom, the plant floor is where information is at its infancy as raw data. The data is produced by equipment that may include Distributed Control Systems (DCS), Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC), Programmable Automation Controllers (PAC), Computer Numerical Control (CNC) devices, or some other type of device, sensor, or system. The equipment is then networked together into a single or distributed system that is controlled and monitored by Human Machine Interface (HMI) and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software applications. Once networked, the operators can monitor and interact with the equipment in order to make plant-floor decisions.

Further up the organization, you will find the business application level, collectively referred to as Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES). This is where data becomes more contextualized and where IT meets Industrial Automation. These applications exist to aid in the management of manufacturing operations. Products and functionality at this level include Production Scheduling and Optimization, Order Processing, Batch Management, Advanced Process Control, and Business Intelligence for running day-to-day operations.

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At the highest level of an organization, you will find another classification of business applications, collectively referred to as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). These applications aid in the management of all functions of the business—above and beyond the manufacturing process. Some of the functionality at this level includes Asset Management, Customer Relationship Management, Finance, and Supply Chain Management.

Each level plays a specific role in the operation of the entire enterprise, and although decoupled, share similar interests in much of the same information.

Interoperability

The large industrial automation vendors typically provide a complete line—or at least a number of synergistic products—within their niche market. Because of this, the equipment is likely able to communicate with other equipment and software within that vendor’s catalogue. At this point, most automation vendors have also adopted standards such as OPC (open connectivity via open standards). OPC Classic was originally designed specifically for the manufacturing/industrial automation layer. 

What about the business application levels, MES and ERP? Manufacturing vendors do not necessarily develop these applications, as they serve businesses inside and outside of manufacturing environments. The vendors of these applications may not be familiar with, or are less inclined to adopt, manufacturing-specific standards such as OPC. Though not ideal for the business level, the vendors recognized the need for integrating with other applications and systems and have developed their own integration points around a generic methodology known as a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA).

Raw Data Becomes Information

In order to fully integrate manufacturing with these business applications, system integrators and automation engineers need to develop the appropriate adapters to exchange the necessary information between the disparate manufacturing and business systems. 

Typically these system integrators and automation engineers do more than just build adapters to connect the flow of data from one end to another. They have to contextualize the data along the way in order to meet the requirements of the different business applications. For instance, the manufacturing level will exchange raw process data between like devices and systems in an effort to automate the control system. While this process data is useful at the control level, it probably won’t be of any use to an operations manager who needs immediate visibility into the overall state of the plant.

Raw data from the Manufacturing level needs to be pulled together and turned into richer information as it traverses up the organization’s business levels. This can be a time-consuming task to configure and get right. This method is also difficult to scale, as it is usually implemented differently among most organizations within our industry.

Next Time…

We will examine what vendors are doing to enable factory floor, MES, and ERP equipment and software to communicate within one another. We will try to answer a few questions, like: Is there a standard that both Manufacturing and Business software vendors have adopted or can adopt? Why isn’t there a more standardized way of formulating data into information? Why does the integration between different business applications still seem ad-hoc? Stay tuned.

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