Bridge the IT and automation disconnect

As an OEM making automated packaging equipment, this company is caught in the middle of the battle between IT and automation at its customers’ plants.

By Darren Elliott, Chief Electrical Engineer, R.A. Jones

As companies strive to drive more and more costs from their manufacturing processes, several of these cost-reduction opportunities can be realized by simply reducing inventories. For this to happen, manufacturers are focusing on becoming more efficient in the supply chain by going from a quota-based production system of making a certain production rate regardless of the demand for the product, i.e., 10,000 cases of brand X per day, to a pull-based production system in which production rates are determined by actual customer demand for product, as with Just-In-Time manufacturing.

Companies such as Wal-Mart are asking manufacturers to deliver product that maintains the stocking levels on their store shelves--without taking on inventories themselves. Currently, many manufacturers carry excess inventories to meet this demand.

In order to accomplish a pull-based production system, there needs to be a connection between the ERP/MES layers of the manufacturer and the automation equipment. The problem that prevents this from happening simply is the disconnect that exists between the manufacturer’s IT group and its automation groups.

As an OEM making automated packaging equipment, our company is caught in the middle of this battle between IT and automation at our customers’ plants.

Our customers have been asking OEMs like us to provide the equipment that meets the needs of the automation group responsible for production.

We get calls several months later from these same customers to help get the equipment running again. This often happens when the end-user IT group responsible for the maintenance of all plant PC software, upgrades the Windows operating system on an operator interface with PC drivers that are incompatible with the automation technology. This disconnect causes a significant production loss and interferes with potential operational improvement opportunities.

The causes for this type of disconnect are many, but the top reason is that most companies do not have a unified plan to incorporate IT resources and automation resources into a total technology solution within the manufacturing environment. The lines of responsibility often are blurred in plants where each side thinks they have the responsibility for the equipment.

The IT group assumes responsibility because they are in charge of the plant-wide network, as well as any automation equipment with an operator interface that includes a Microsoft Windows operating system.

On the other side, the automation group assumes they have responsibility because they purchased the automation equipment and are responsible for the output of the equipment.

Unfortunately, neither side understands that it takes both sides, working together to build a system that incorporates the best features of both, in order to maximize production efficiencies.

What is needed to reach this state of production efficiency? The first step is for a company’s leadership team to set common goals that force both the IT and automation groups to work together to obtain these goals.

With an understanding of what the end user’s production goals are, the IT and automation groups can allocate their resources to collaborate in building a feedback loop between the automation equipment hardware and the ERP/MES software. This feedback loop will enable the automation equipment to respond in real time to product demands, which will maximize the efficiencies for the production lines. By producing product in this type of pull system, product inventories and associated costs will be minimized, resulting in just-in-time manufacturing.

Many of you might still have a question: “What does this have to do with industrial OEMs?”

An automated equipment OEM’s first job is to help customers maximize production efficiencies by using the available technologies to provide feedback, control, and correction to their processes. To accomplish this, OEMs must perform two critical actions.

First, communicate the benefits of bridging the disconnects between the IT and automation worlds in customer plants, and be willing to facilitate this process between the two groups.

Second, use industry standards such as Ethernet-based networks with Windows-based programs that have conduits to the MES/ERP layers in a plant. Automation standards such as OMAC provide guidelines to structure this information.

Once the gap between the end user’s IT and automation groups is bridged, their collective resources can be used to move their plants to a place of previously unobtainable efficiency and prosperity. On top of that, your company will have played a large role in making that happen.


  About the Author
Darren Elliott is chief electrical engineer at R.A. Jones, a manufacturer of packaging machinery and systems, Covington, Ky. Learn more about the company at www.rajones.com, and you can reach Darren at Elliott.D@rajones.com.

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