Princes Group, the £700 million turnover packaged food and drinks part of Mitsubishi, was one of the first UK firms to sign for the new and all-embracing portal-based enterprise system environment from eERP giant SAP, following its implementation of R/3 with IT services company Diagonal back in November 1999. The firm is integrating its complete ‘value chain’, which includes more than 170 suppliers, shipping companies, third party logistics providers, warehousing contractors and customers using, with the focus on business collaboration. But that’s at the global commercial trading level. Neil Crew, Princes’ manufacturing systems manager and former chair of the SAP production planning and control user group, says that at the process and packaging plant level it’s not there yet – although the firm is “looking at a scoping exercise [for] in the next couple of months; implementing maybe next year.” He says, “We’re a lot clearer about what means and how it fits now than we were six months ago. And we’re moving more towards the model of being a supply chain business, not just a manufacturing business.” For him, aspects like advanced planning and optimisation (SAP’s APO) will be applicable to some parts of the business, while “standard planning boards,” for example, would be used elsewhere. The point, he says, is that as food and beverage companies – or indeed any process/hybrid manufacturing firms – get bigger with multiple sites, “the opportunity to look at whole capacity in real time, rather than say monthly, is going to help.” Why? Because, like everyone else, Princes is under pressure to keep decreasing lead times, drive costs down and be more responsive to its customers, the retail outlets. “The opportunities are there,” he says, “with the new [IT] tools to become more agile at the plant level.” And he cites soft drinks production: “The plan changes all the time – hourly really, especially in the height of summer or on the run up to Christmas. So we have to be flexiblle. But some of the older systems would have just got in the way of that, so they weren’t implemented.” But with modern APO and, he believes that’s changed, and real-time process data driven flexibility is better managed by the machine. Quite simply, the systems don’t make mistakes like humans do, and optimise better and more consistently than humans can, so the “hidden cost of flexibility, like long change-overs, batches wasted and production line downtime while batches are converted” can be reduced. What about the old chestnut, links to the plant control systems? Crew says there are and will be none, other than at the planning level – with data automatically taken directly from PLCs, flowmeters and the like for material consumption, recipe management and work instructions – for the foreseeable future. “Integrating more [to the plant] is still a step too far,” he says, although he concedes that in other areas of process manufacturing it has real merit. Nevertheless, he sees it as a worthy aspiration – moving up to collaboration with suppliers, for example, such that packaging materials could be delivered just in time. “That’s a significant cost of a bottle of lemonade,” he says. In any event, it’s not on the radar yet. For Princes, he says, the future on plant with will probably be about increased flexibility and better management of increasingly shorter production runs and product lifecycles through web-based workflow – and providing better links and services for suppliers and customers to improve relationships and ultimately profitability. The sticking point for him, always, is ensuring that it really must offer value for money in a business that necessarily operates on low margins. Issues will include the realities of user training, security, authority, maintenance and hardware upgrade costs. Although, like many in manufacturing, he says “this is a treadmill we’ve already climbed onto – we had to... These are powerful tools”. Meanwhile, at Princes’ soft drinks plant at Bradford, there’s been a lengthy (18 months) plant controls integration project, starting on the process side, but now moving to plug the gap to the packaging side with Cube MES (manufacturing execution system) software from Orsi (now Siemens). “We hadn’t done much DCS, MES and SCADA work before,” says Crew: the plant was run by a disparate set of PLCs and automation systems, many supplied with the plant. “That’s forced engineering and IT to get their heads together.” By coming late to the party, Princes has leapfrogged the often entrenched divide between plant controls and IT. Cost benefit analysis for Bradford, however, revealed the prospect of reduced downtime, reduced batch time, reduced inventory and working capital, better information, reporting and analysis and better opportunity management through improved plant visibility. It worked and now it’s being rolled out.