Get the most from your assets: be proactive

3 mins read

Automating the shopfloor and gathering real-time data from your plant equipment is a good place to start for most manufacturers. But for those that are already doing this, the real business gains come from integrating these systems with your enterprise level software. Dean Palmer reports.

UK industry is undergoing significant change. More and more manufacturers are seeing their product margins falling and their skill sets diminishing. As a result, some are having to reduce their production floor space and sometimes even outsource their manufacturing to improve the firm’s balance sheet. But some careful management of your plant assets (capital equipment, CNC machines, etc) is one area where manufacturers can make big strides in efficiency and cost reduction. At MCS’ e-Forum round table debate in March, Rockwell Automation’s Andy Bates summed up the current state of UK manufacturing when he said, “[Manufacturers] are looking at ‘I have an asset base; how do I make the right stuff at the right time and right price out of those assets? And then how do I make as much of it as I possibly can?’” So good asset management is fundamental here. According to Rockwell’s UK marketing manager, Steve Darnell: “There’s still big savings to be made in the space between the shop floor level controls and the business level software – the MES [manufacturing execution systems] space. “But we are finding that customers are much more open these days to integrated solutions rather than one dimensional offers or products,” he adds. “In the last year, I’d say this whole area of open, integrated systems has seen the biggest mind shift.” And at the same time, external business pressures and the forces of e-commerce and the web, are driving this trend for more integration, from the plant controls level right up to business level systems. Adopting digital fieldbuses can certainly help here. Although the long running and often confusing debate still rages between the various industrial protocols – Fieldbus Foundation, Profibus, DeviceNet, WorldFIP, Ethernet, CANbus etc – the business benefits are still there for the taking. Adopting digital fieldbus wherever possible means you have the opportunity to collect real-time data from your factory equipment. It can lead to lower cost, PC-based predictive maintenance, and overall plant asset management also becomes more feasible and easier. And having well-maintained machines means an increase in process (or machine) availability, thus improving plant productivity and product quality. So going the ‘digital’ route makes total business sense. Ethernet connectivity Kevin Prouty of analyst AMR Research says the UK is lagging behind the US in adopting digital fieldbus. “The decision to buy [digital fieldbus] is usually a fragmented one. In the US though, we’re seeing a definite shift from this approach to a corporate IT one. When an engineer buys a PLC [programmable logic controller], he now needs to consider the company’s overall networking strategy: he cannot simply make an isolated decision to buy any longer.” And on the subject of Ethernet, analyst ARC’s Richard Piggin says: “People have been sitting on the fence naively waiting for a [fieldbus] standard. Ethernet certainly has its place, although not at the device level. But expect to see a thinning out in the control layer. The plant floor automation hierarchy will collapse as more devices have Ethernet connectivity.” A global study this month by ARC revealed that the market for condition monitoring (CM) and plant asset management (PAM) is indeed growing faster than expected. Sales of software, hardware and services in this sector grew by 14% in 2000 to $790 million, and it predicts sales to reach $1.3 billion by 2005. Author of the study, ARC’s Wil Chin, believes that manufacturers need to be much more proactive, and start using predictive maintenance methods. “In the study, users employing PAM and CM reported as much as 20% reduction in plant downtime and a 30% reduction in maintenance budgets.” And what about the Internet? Are UK manufacturers actually buying into the idea of e-business for their plants? ABB Automation’s marketing manager, Peter Fox, says that making information available to people outside the factory walls is 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.” The automation vendors themselves are busy acquiring each other. Rockwell, for example, has just bought batch process control specialist, Sequencia, for its plant-to-enterprise interface developments. And Siemens is getting into the maintenance management arena, by partnering with enterprise asset management vendor, Datastream. This will allow Siemens to offer Datastream’s software over the web to its manufacturing clients, on an ASP (application service provider) basis, all under the Siemens banner. Fisher-Rosemount has made a similar alliance with MRO Software (formerly PSDI). The two hope to drive down plant costs by combining Fisher’s PlantWeb process plant asset management systems with MRO’s widely-used Maximo integrated maintenance, repair and operations materials management software. Honeywell has also been busy acquiring and re-positioning itself, and like Rockwell and Siemens, is aiming to ‘bridge the gap’ between plant controls and enterprise systems. Honeywell POMS’ coo, Wayne Castner, said last month: “We’re no longer in the business of just selling products, we want to offer complete solutions to business problems.” A familiar phrase, yes, but it does highlight the way things are going in this market. And the final word goes to Intellution’s Steve Rubin: “Production downtime is wasted asset time. Act on bottlenecks in the production process, make proactive adjustments, enable workflow and maintenance developments. And as you begin to improve asset utilisation, you improve the balance sheet and obtain the required return on investment.”