An old friend of mine, a CIO in fact, observed the other day that without information, his business would literally shut down. He works for a global beverage company, so you can understand the value of production, shipment, and sales data, all of which talks to each other.
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But what does that really mean for the CIO? How deep in the weeds do you need to go to understand information flow and its importance to a business? Plenty deep it appears, at least at the outset. If you don’t, the pain can be very real if your business relies on real-time information and you face a crisis.
My friend put it this way, “If we had 30 minutes of downtime in a factory because we could not access the screens, it would back up our operations to the extent that the senior vice president of manufacturing would have to shut down the factories. We would not be able to make cans because we could not track or account for them and there is no manual back-up.”
He’s not alone. Most businesses have a supplier or customer or partner somewhere around the globe. Keeping track of different locations in the supply chain is critical. The greater the latency between the detection of a significant event and the actions that need to be taken, the more inefficiency will creep into the supply chain. The goal is to find a way of making information continuously available without the need for expensive IT specialists at every point along the way.
Manufacturers are starting to solve this problem. Their example could provide insight to anyone who is charged with growing a company through strategic investments in IT systems.
The work being done is based on a new generation of industry standards—for Internet, web services, and service-oriented architecture (SOA)—that make possible heightened levels of plant-floor systems integration, process flexibility, and inter-enterprise collaboration.
Such enterprise systems include manufacturing execution systems (MES), enterprise resource and planning systems (ERPs), product lifecycle management (PLMs), supervisory, control and data acquisition (SCADA) solutions, and scheduling and planning systems.
The newest approach to this long-term problem is xMII, which stands for manufacturing intelligence and integration. xMII serves as a middle layer for tying plant-level information from partner systems with enterprise data and business context from the ERP level. It provides prebuilt, standards-compliant connectors between the shop floor and enterprise systems, and a configurable dashboard.
xMII is actually part of xApps, an SAP AG product in the NetWeaver suite. The module adds an important capability to SAP’s enterprise resource planning software by letting customers see strategic processes, such as production, maintenance, quality, costing, inventories, environment, and security, on a single platform. Given SAP’s large share of the manufacturing market, xMII is getting a lot of attention in just the few years since its introduction.
One particular example highlights some of the complexities that can arise in moving to xMII—what amounts to a new business model. For instance, a manufacturer that operates a shop-floor data collection system can transition from batch to real-time data connectivity with the SAP enterprise system using SAP xMII.
An alert would go out immediately when the manufacturing execution system (MES) detects a batch or production order has fallen out of quality specification. Via xMII, the event can be matched with appropriate actions, such as further quality testing, order replanning, or expediting a shipment from another plant.
xMII makes life easier for the mobile workforce, as I found out in a project for an energy company. The IT director wanted to make it possible for mobile employees to get access to data about the processing facilities. My company used xMII to create a VIP portal and mini-dashboard that delivers alerts and information on any handheld device.
In this way, xMII becomes a tool for decision making and accident prevention. Because xMII takes advantage of existing IT infrastructure, businesses can deliver information securely over intranets, extranets, or the Internet without the need for modifications.
Single View of the Truth
It’s not always necessary to have a fully integrated set of software solutions to achieve better manufacturing intelligence in global operations. Other kinds of solutions are more tactical in nature, using Internet technologies to gather data from disparate plant-floor systems. Aggregation and analysis of the resulting information—delivered in near-real time as key performance indicators (KPI)—allows for quick reactions in dynamic environments, including changes in demand coming down from ERP systems.
But with xMII, you get a single view of the truth. Operations are managed not as isolated units of production and silos of information, but rather as the nexus of a web of real-time information, allowing optimized production based on known demand and secure supply; and plant floors and the business enterprise establish bidirectional communication.
Lionel Carrasco is CTO of Neoris, a global business and IT consultancy, specializing in nearshore outsourcing, value-added consulting, and emerging technologies.