Machine Data Acquisition Capabilities Grow

ERP Systems Are Gaining Ground on Machine Diagnostics in Customer Functionality

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By Phil Burgert

Better data acquisition technologies for factory settings are raising interest among machine builders and their customers. Maintenance and service top the list of benefits that can be leveraged, but increasing capabilities for enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems also are coming along.

Data collection capabilities now being added include remote diagnostics, wireless connections, performance payment management, real-time control, heavy-duty mathematics and other developments. Machine builders say their customers are asking for these capabilities more frequently.

Defining Need

“Current technology simplifies and defines a better line between long-term support needs,” says Mark Chrismer, senior project engineer at automated material handling systems company FKI Logistex, Leicestershire, England. “It also provides opportunities to use common programming languages and reuse existing code.”

“Software advances in support of common languages like .Net expose connectivity in new ways that help reduce cost.” says Chrismer. “Systems are becoming more readily connected to corporate networks. This is a key difference as information technology and control technologies become more compatible through the new advances, while support costs are reduced as a result of the improved connectivity.”

FKI Logistex, he notes, prefers to work with single source providers in developing and building data acquisition systems in which the provider is required to build features and capabilities into its products. Chrismer says his company has been attracted to products from Wonderware that make use of data collection, storage and retrieval technology advances allowing database professionals to perform long-term support of features that previously required controls engineers (Figure 1).

New Support

Figure 1: Data collection allows database professionals to perform long-term support of features that previously required controls engineers.

Mike Bradshaw, director of global VAR/OEM business for Wonderware, says original equipment manufacturer customers are interested in data acquisition and data collection for better maintenance of machines and for remote diagnostics.

In some cases, data acquisition also helps a machine builder’s customers use pay-for-performance type arrangements when a machine isn’t purchased outright, but is compensated based on uptime or the performance of the machine, he says.

“In addition we find that the OEM wants to back up that requirement with some benefits or value to the end user, as well,” says Bradshaw. “They look to provide some sort of reporting capabilities to the end user rather than just typical HMI, graphical interface and squiggly line trend information.”

Much of the data acquisition in manufacturing now is becoming more machine-specific, notes Bradshaw. “People want to get more out of each machine, as opposed to an overall line. So the granularity of data becomes more apparent.”

Machine builders, he says, strive to either increase sales opportunities or decrease costs because the market for brand-new machines is not as buoyant as it has been and they are looking for other ways to grow their business. Options include increasing add-on capabilities and reducing the cost to maintain the machines and/or provide warranty coverage.

“If they can do remote diagnostics and solve a problem without having to send somebody to the site, they’ve saved an absolute fortune—thousands of dollars on one machine in one downtime,” says Bradshaw.

ERP Influences

Both Bradshaw and Chrismer downplay the role ERP systems playi in driving the development of data collection systems, although ERP might have an increasing role in machine data collection in the future.

“I think the users of ERP systems drive the needs for increased reporting,” says Chrismer, adding that he’s noted no direct connection between the need to transport or import data for reporting purposes and the development of data collection. “This information becomes part of the process of decision-making in ERP.”

Bradshaw agrees. “The greater opportunity actually is providing better uptime for the machine because, at the end of the day, the machine is only making money while it is manufacturing products.” Bradshaw also notes that in the next few years ERP will increasingly push into machine supervisory systems. Wonderware, he says, very infrequently is asked for ERP connections when selling software through a machine builder. “You could probably count on one hand when a customer said that they must link in to SAP at the machine level.”

That probably will change, says Bradshaw, claiming that Wonderware is working with some large packaging machinery companies on manufacturing execution-system (MES) data collection capabilities for machines.

“What we are doing at the moment is not at the individual machine level,” he says. “We’re more at the line level where we try to put in an MES data collection layer over a machine line rather than an individual machine, because there are very few lines that actually come from just one vendor. They’ll buy different machines from different vendors to make a line.”

When current machine builder development efforts increase, data collection will push down to the machine layer, he adds, noting that ERP started off as a financial tool and moved into resource planning and gradually is working down to machines.

“More and more on the machine side of it, the capabilities are getting more closely linked,” he says. “So I think its only a matter of time before that becomes more of a requirement. But today if we tried to push that side of it, we would have to be giving it away because the machine builder sees no value in it.”

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