17 January 2012

Production power

With so many shopfloors still running on spreadsheets and clipboards, it should come as no surprise that agility remains elusive. Brian Tinham examines the roles and capabilities of so-called manufacturing execution systems

Something, somewhere isn't quite right. Although finance directors in manufacturing companies are apparently signing off increasing budget for ERP software year-on-year, the vast majority believe it is not measuring up. That is chief among surprise findings from research released late last year by the Business Software Alliance (BSA). Indeed, the trade organisation's study suggests that, while 98% of FDs (79% of whom are responsible for software licensing) agree that enterprise software is important to running their businesses, just 2% feel they are getting the best from the investment.

BSA's study goes on to steer said FDs down the path of blaming poor software management, noting that less than one tenth (9%) are confident of their software deployment, while 70% tick the unhappy box. Issues raised range from worries over unlicensed software, to expensive over-licensing and difficulties with ensuring operational continuity.

But there is another, arguably much more important, issue here. And that has less to do with software licensing per se (which should be a relatively easy fix), and much more to do with the software type and focus – specifically its impact on manufacturing . How can it make sense to implement ever more sophisticated (and expensive) ERP systems, yet leave the shopfloor to run largely on spreadsheets, clipboards and what amount to workarounds? Is this approach really likely to provide the agility and flexibility that are today's watchwords for manufacturing success, and, perversely, so often drive those investments in ERP?

Not convinced? For useful corroboration, look no further than a survey carried out by MESA (the international Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association) with manufacturing systems analyst Cambashi, also late last year. Perhaps their most remarkable finding (based on the first 100 responses) was that the majority of manufacturing companies' employees don't have enough visibility into plant performance to change outcomes even by shift end, never mind during a shift. That's across the board: the pair's study 'Pursuit of Performance Excellence: Business Success through Effective Plant Operations Metrics' was global, and spanned all production types and industries.

Makes you think, doesn't it? Cambashi's Tony Christian makes the point that early data suggests fully two-thirds of manufacturers are only delivering production metrics on a daily or even less frequent basis to operators, supervisors and others managing operations. He also notes that only one in five respondents says they always provide line-level metrics to operators so that they can make informed adjustments within their scope of control. The remaining four-fifths clearly cannot, which is a recipe for something rather less than slick – particularly where multi-product production lines are subject to increasingly variable product variety and mix, as well as growing volatility of demand.

Just as important, preliminary findings also show that one reason so few companies can show employees' their performance results quickly enough is that nearly two-thirds of them need an analyst (or similar) to clean the data prior to drawing any conclusions. Indeed, more than 70% indicate that analysing and setting up the data for visualisation is time consuming. Perhaps as a result, nearly half (42%) do not issue 'leading' metrics that might help to predict problems, but instead provide at best lagging reports, covering what happened yesterday. It's the old adage of driving a car while relying only on the rear view mirror for direction.

All of which ought, perhaps, to make manufacturers' management teams think of investing some of their hard-earned cash in so-called MES (manufacturing execution systems) or even MOM (manufacturing operations management) systems, not just ERP. These are, after all, the classes of IT that purport not only to provide much needed lean shopfloor automation and integration with business systems, but also timely management information capable of driving, monitoring, recording and, most important, optimising production in response to changing conditions.

Most companies, however, don't – at least, they don't use either of those terms. The reasons are essentially twofold. First, systems for managing various aspects of the shopfloor tend to have grown up ad hoc over decades, bespoked with the assistance of systems integrators as requirements were identified, and champions gave them voice and eventually substance. So they're built on different technology platforms, encompass a huge range of shopfloor applications – from APS (advanced planning and scheduling) and production management systems to operator HMIs, and shopfloor data collection, simulation and analytics systems – and are largely seen as plant-, or at least industry-specific.

Secondly and consequently, early moves by bigger shopfloor systems players to generalise 'solutions' into modules of an MES suite (in a similar vein to ERP) were seen for what they were – premature and largely hype born out of the triumph of commercial hope over experience.

But none of this relieves the pressing need for production-centric systems, capable of delivering where ERP alone just cannot. And MESA would argue that yesterday's hype is today's reality, with increasingly modular, configurable and functional MES suites now available to address all sorts of factory floor issues. The organisation would also point to a large body of systems integrators able and willing to specify, configure and install systems capable of making a real difference and delivering keen ROI.

Let's test that by looking at what has been achieved with two very different systems at two equally different factory types. One is Ricardo's new low-volume engine assembly plant at its technical centre in Shoreham, West Sussex. The other is United Biscuits' rejuvenated snacks production lines around the UK.

Ricardo's new facility runs in a near clean room environment, with a capacity for 4,000 engines per annum across two shifts, based on a 10-station vertical conveyor mini-line, supported by incoming materials inspection and lineside component delivery. Essentially, at what we might term the MES level, each station is equipped with a bespoke ruggedised PC-based HMI from MacDonald Humfrey Automation (MHA), which provides detailed guidance to operatives on the sequence of operations at every stage – with all tools and assembly equipment instrumented, and providing data to a central warranty database.

It's all about semi-automation and traceability. Paul Crosbie, MHA's technical director, explains that the detail of each assembly station's operations is configurable by Ricardo's production engineers to match different engine variants. Each station is also interlocked via its HMI, with operators required to complete all operations before the line indexes and moves each engine to the next station. However, although based on experience with similar assembly systems developed for Aston Martin, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover, Crosbie agrees that this project could not be described as simply drawing on a library of existing MES modules.

"There was nothing on the market, so this was a turnkey solution," he says. "Our system takes operators step-by-step through the process of building an engine, providing on-screen information and visual aids, with instructions right down to every bolt to be tightened and its torque."

And so it goes on: the DC-tooling measures torque and angle to provide traceability as each engine moves down the line, and scanners record component 2D barcodes at every station, so that any operation can be reviewed. Meanwhile, a Siemens PLC drives mechanical operation of the line, including the interlocks, only releasing each engine platen when all operations have been completed and recorded in the right order.

Then managing it all is the virtual server-based PC network, which handles everything from receiving and managing engine build instructions to logging individual operations, tolerances, etc, via the HMIs. It also drives the MachPick pick-to-light system (which highlights the correct components and confirms operator selection), and provides real-time event reporting, control and alerts, as well as stock monitoring for replenishment. Then, closing the loop, this system monitors real-time line indexing performance against scheduled takt time, to refine realistic build sequences.

Crosbie states that the whole system was built using open standards, right down to the SQL Server database, the OPC (industrial automation) server that talks to the PLC, and the ethernet network for the Cooper DC tools, the HMIs, etc. But is it modular? "We do have some libraries of routines and applications, as well as products that we can adapt," muses Crosbie. "But each project is different so the biggest element is bespoke. Mostly, it's about coding from the ground up, using our experience."

So much for Ricardo; what about United Biscuits' (UB) experience? Phil Chirgwin, UB's business analyst, says that its MES project was primarily about enabling management to access performance data from 11 manufacturing plants and 130 lines – to improve visibility and control, and help drive operational decisions and continuous improvement. For him, getting such a beast within a sensible budget meant building a single solution capable of working with all plants – and hence the choice of Lighthouse Systems' web-based Shopfloor-Online system (which is modular) to report across all facilities.

The early stages of this project are interesting. Chirgwin says broad parameters and measures "were debated at length, and system design and terminology were also scrutinised until there was consensus". For UB, the project also entailed mapping all the lines and their processes as flow charts before system specification could commence. Finally, dashboard information had to be agreed and built into the system design. Only then could standard models be generated for UB's several types of manufacturing lines, such as baking and frying, in readiness for project roll-out.

Dave Allery, manufacturing data systems manager at UB, concedes that there was a lot of work up-front for the steering group, in terms of scoping and defining processes in detail, but "it was a necessary and revealing process that [is yielding] huge benefits".

Shopfloor-Online was piloted in Manchester and Teesside, before being rolled out to the other nine UK plants. And the result? Allery says UB plugged in some additional Lighthouse MES modules, and can now see line availability, waste, OEE, quality and performance, with standard reports and performance snapshots. The dashboards also provide information at line, factory and global levels, enabling managers to compare factories and lines against forecast outputs and costs.

Lee Stephenson, manufacturing change lead, says efficiency has undoubtedly improved, in part because the sheer transparency of data enables quicker response to problems, while more structured and accurate reporting allows factory managers to focus on areas that really need improvement. "We are driving towards lean processing in every part of the organisation and a well-designed factory information system is a key part of this," comments Stephenson. "We can concentrate more on process improvement and optimisation, rather than responding reactively... More informed managers are more forward thinking, focused and effective."

And he adds: "There is no doubt that having accurate data delivered quickly and in a clear, readable format means that we can spot changes, incidents, peaks and troughs in performance instantly and take action. With the dashboards operating, the facts just jump out at you."

And United Biscuits hasn't stopped there. Since going live, the team has successfully piloted a project that analyses process data on one of the frying processes. Here, Shopfloor-Online's Process Parameter module is being used to collect 135 data points per minute from the line's PLCs, again using OPC technology.

Stephenson says this is being rolled out to all other facilities. He also confirms that a quality management project is underway at UB's Teesside plant, replacing its legacy system with Shopfloor-Online and providing improved operational visibility across all lines.

What can you say? It's easy to see why so many manufacturers struggle to get beyond ERP. It's also easy to see why modular MES is difficult to get your head around. But, although there may not be an MES panacea, focusing IT investment on the factory floor is well worth the candle.

Brian Tinham

Supporting Information

Cambashi Ltd
Lighthouse Systems Ltd
MacDonald Humfrey (Automation) Ltd
MESA Europe

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