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Embrace manufacturing convergence to optimise plant agility

Embrace manufacturing convergence to optimise plant agility

Manufacturing convergence is one of today's hot topics, but is it just a theoretical discussion or can it be a practicality reality? We talk to Rockwell Automation Business Leader Mike Loughran about the benefits of integration.

It seemed like a great idea at the time. The people in marketing came up with a great promotional idea for the month that would really drive up sales. And it turned out to be a fantastic idea, because the orders came pouring in. The orders trickled down to the plant via the usual paper processing system - a bit slow, but that's the way it had always been done. Unfortunately, between being checked and being implemented a large chunk of the order wasn't seen for a couple of days. When the paperwork finally got to the line, the plant was already well into its normally monthly cycle. Putting the new orders through the line was really going to stretch capacity. The only way to do it would be to delay other products, perhaps put on an extra shift.

So it probably wasn't too much of a surprise at the end of the month when you found that numerous orders were late, everyone was stressed, and the profits you'd forecast from the promotion had spectacularly failed to materialise.

Suppose instead that marketing, logistics, management, manufacturing and the wider supply chain are all much more closely linked. The business systems are fully aware of stock levels, raw materials supply capability, the capacity of the production lines - not just in this plant but in all of your plants - and the precise status of all existing orders. All facets and assets of all plants are automatically communicating their status and capability. Now if you want to run a similar monthly promotion, you know before you start that you will definitely be able to act on orders responsively, at the most appropriate plants, and track those orders right through production to despatch. You have the agility to respond to market demand and can readily capitalise on opportunities and maximise profitability.

This is the story of manufacturing convergence - the merging of traditionally separate functions and systems to create new capabilities. It's about information, control and communications, and it's about people, processes and technology all working as one. The question is, though, is it simply a theoretical paradigm, or can it be made a working reality?

The driver for manufacturing convergence is integration: machine-to-machine, line-to-line, to and from the higher-level systems, and plant-to-plant. It's also about communications to external suppliers and customers - tying supply of raw materials and other logistics functions to the plant, and establishing links with customers so as to be able to respond immediately and flexibly to market demands. You can look at the performance of all plants in real time, regardless of where in the world they might be, benchmark them, and utilise them to best strategic effect.

Connecting to the plant floor
To an extent, most businesses have already started along a path of convergence. Those who have been through ERP or SAP implementations will have been rewarded with greater agility at the higher level system level, establishing seamless communications through the supply chain. But that shouldn't be the end of the path; the next logical step is to connect the higher-level systems to the plant floor - indeed, to every plant floor in every manufacturing facility - and so be able to follow orders right through the manufacturing system.

This level of integration demands a new focus on communications capability. With the adoption of Ethernet as the network standard of choice at all levels of the enterprise, it is a simple matter to link manufacturing into the wider enterprise and begin to reap the benefits of true convergence.

If the feasibility of manufacturing convergence seams somewhat daunting, the good news is that implementing it doesn't need to be an all-or-nothing decision. Ethernet has long been the communications standard of the higher-level enterprise, and it has now become the de facto standard at machine and plant level too. You might not need the broadest implementation of manufacturing convergence right now, but if you have Ethernet as your communications backbone then you can integrate systems as required. Without Ethernet as your plant floor standard, you already have a communications impasse.

Rockwell Automation has made its commitment to open Ethernet through network standards such as EtherNet/IP and through its partnership with Cisco, so bridging the technical and cultural gaps between plant-floor and higher-level business systems. Through collaboration on products, services and educational resources, Rockwell Automation and Cisco are helping manufacturers to simplify their network architecture and tightly integrate technical and business systems.

As a ubiquitous networking standard Ethernet is inherently future-proofed. You might well be looking to run equipment on a 10-15 year lifecycle; by ensuring your equipment is Ethernet enabled, you know that you'll be able to connect it into your enterprise systems when you're ready. You've future-proofed your assets instead of leaving yourself facing the potential cost of having to invest in new equipment a few years down the line.

The ability to scale up your integration gradually means you can look first at the areas of manufacturing that  are most important to your business or that you can get the greatest value from, and bring in other areas of the business as you go along. Suppose that an overriding driver is your commitment to reduce your carbon footprint; that might be through minimising packaging or reducing scrap or lowering energy use. With the higher level systems communicating with the plant floor over Ethernet, you can open up connections at relevant points on your machinery and production lines and gather data, then use that data in real time to optimise your processes.

With that done, you can move onto the next KPI. Perhaps that is benchmarking the performance of different plants, monitoring capacity, simplifying maintenance or maximising availability. Over time, you will build a platform of manufacturing convergence one KPI at a time.

You can begin to realise other benefits, too. What about enabling customers to track products as they are made, by giving them a window into the plant over the network? If the prospect of customers having access to the network fills you with dread - especially after the recent number of high profile security scares linked to SCADA systems - then it needn't, provided you have given proper consideration to network security. And it's worth giving proper consideration to, because the benefits for product sales in building greater interaction with customers are enormous. Again, manufacturing convergence is at its heart.

For those who embrace manufacturing convergence the rewards are enormous. Companies have it within their grasp to achieve higher levels of business performance, turn resources into assets and discover unique opportunities for competitiveness.

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