Over the coming years, manufacturing execution systems, integration and communication are going to play a fundamental role in the IT strategy of manufacturing companies, from the plant and factory control level right up through organisations’ IT systems. Chris Haines, business development manager at automation giant turned e-manufacturing software and services provider Rockwell, sees visualisation tools increasingly being offered in web-based versions in order to extend the availability of vital shopfloor information and the rest, right out across the Internet. “We’re not just talking basic levels of information such as plant control information and mimics, but things like OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) charts,” he predicts. The sheer power of web alternatives is partly thanks to the increasing appearance of fully-featured operating environments such as Windows NT in shopfloor equipment. Peter Iles-Smith, business development manager at process industries enterprise systems developer AspenTech, sees this as a mixed blessing. “These products are aggressively priced, and the industry has been shaken up rather dramatically as a result of competition… NT in the operator station is still not always as robust as some of the proprietary solutions. But standardisation on a single platform will drive many spin-off benefits.” Haines agrees that standards will become increasingly important. “It will become easier to make information available to people wherever they are, and at any time. Open standards such as Ethernet, HTML (the Net’s hypertext mark-up language), WAP (mobile phones’ wireless application protocol) and SMS (smart messaging service) all have a part to play. For example, production managers could automatically receive OEE charts to their PDAs (personal digital assistants), and if production drops below a certain amount, receive an alert via SMS to their mobile phones.” These standards will also help manufacturers on the road to greater integration, whether for internal use in de-bottlenecking and optimisation, or externally in e-commerce initiatives. “The meaningful data in any enterprise is on the shop floor,” says Iles-Smith. “If you can capture that data in real time and update your business systems with it, you’re well on the way to providing accurate capable-to-promise information – even taking into account scheduled maintenance downtime.” Now that’s a step forward. “OPC (Microsoft’s OLE [software object linking and embedding] for process control) will be a big driver of standardisation,” he continues. “It makes it cheap and easy to get your data available to the rest of the world. But although OPC interfaces will feature in the majority of new automation projects, there is a need to retrofit throughout the industry.” Peter Fox, marketing communications manager at industry giant ABB Automation, also believes in the importance of visibility of plant control data, from the plant floor to the production director. “With visibility of everything from factory floor control systems to maintenance management systems, the production director can answer questions like what products are being manufactured at any time, whether there is any spare capacity and so on.” Armed with this real-time information, a production manager faced with a reactive shutdown, perhaps due to a pump breaking down, can see what other products will be affected. “They’ll also be able to work out where to move production to where there is spare capacity, whether within that plant or even in other plants,” explains Fox. But Fox’s vision extends beyond just seeing production data. “We can give production managers, maintenance managers and anyone else visibility of all aspects of a particular control or object, all through our common operator web interface. For example, in the case of a failed valve, we can show where it is located in the plant physically, but also where it lies within the control structure. Mechanical drawings, CAD drawings and documentation can all be on-line, and in the case of an alarm, the operator could even call up a live video connection.” Food for thought? Context-sensitive menus would only display information relevant to the control, the operator and the event. “At the lowest level, an operator might just see the recorded data, but as you go up through the levels, they can see the details of the product, then the batch, and finally the whole order. At one level, the appropriate context-sensitive data would include the product specification, for instance, rather than details of a factory control,” explains Fox. Furthermore, all data would be live, and not archived to a separate documentation store. “If a drawing is updated, then the operator would see the updated version.” By taking this approach, manufacturers would benefit from a consistent interface, with easy-to-use web-based navigation tools, whether on the shopfloor or in the boardroom. “Furthermore, they’ll have better visibility into the information wherever it is – in a control system, or on a separate server – so they don’t have to go to different systems, keyboards and interfaces,” says Fox. Above all, it’s this type of approach that will facilitate that all-important communication and synchronisation between business systems and control systems. Business managers see relevant information related to what the factory is actually making, rather than an ambitious but fictitious schedule. “A sales manager trying to make a commitment to an on-line auction can see things as they are,” says Fox. Making information available to people outside the factory wall is also crucial – and not just production and forecasting data. “By providing remote Internet access to virtual control rooms, an expert within your own company but who isn’t on the premises, or perhaps a consultant from a supplier, can look into your control system and assist the on-site operator – whether it’s to run the plant a bit better, or solve a problem or incident,” says Fox. All these suggestions sound very nice in theory, but getting them to work in practice remains perhaps the biggest challenge. According to Rockwell’s Haines, manufacturers should be looking to a new breed of consultant to help them. “These aren’t consultants in ERP, business systems or supply chains, and they’re not plant controls experts – instead, they need a knowledge of all these systems. “They’ll focus primarily on the operational issues in manufacturing and look at the points of pain. They have to be experts on manufacturing, naturally, but also need knowledge of IT architecture, technologies, business and ERP systems – not necessarily in detail, but how they fit together. And one of the skills they need is how to bring together the various different business units or factions within a manufacturing plant.” It’s MES Jim, but not as we know it!