Picking data off the plant floor

It takes about 1,300 parts to assemble one of Intuitive Surgical Inc.’s surgical robots.

To comply with regulations governing the manufacture of such equipment, Mountain View, Calif.-based Intuitive must keep track of every part and process that goes into the assembly.

So far, Intuitive has used what’s known as paper “travellers” to manually record the required information at various stages of the manufacturing process.

That’s about to change. Intuitive is implementing new technology that will allow assembly workers to enter details of products being assembled, as well as to store work instructions and to test records on PCs installed on the plant floor.

Bar-code labels slapped onto every component used in the assembly process will allow Intuitive to keep track of each part from the time it arrives on the receiving docks to the time it ships.

If it works the way it should, Intuitive’s Web-enabled manufacturing execution system (MES) will simplify the record-keeping process and provide the company with a wealth of real-time, unit-level data that it can use for analysis, forecasting and even collaborative manufacturing in the future, said Don Chamberlain, a senior analyst at the company.

“We expect we’ll have much more efficient manufacturing once the system is implemented,” he said.

Intuitive isn’t alone. A growing number of manufacturers are looking at MES with renewed interest in their efforts to extract manufacturing data and use it in planning and forecasting applications that extend far beyond the factory floor, said David Monroe, an analyst at Plant-Wide Research Group, a Billerica, Mass.-based consultancy.

Most of the interest in MES is coming from companies with global manufacturing operations and those with multiple locations, Monroe added.

Wide Appeal

The push among manufacturers to use plant-floor data for strategic planning is being driven by a trend toward Web-based buying and selling, configured-to-order products, global outsourcing and a continuing push for better operational efficiencies, said David Krauthamer, MIS manager at Advanced Fibre Communications Inc., a Petaluma, Calif.-based maker of telecommunications equipment.

Having access to real-time shop-floor data makes it easier for companies to track production schedules, forecast materials requirements, provide customers with order-tracking information and make changes later in the production cycle if needed, he said.

“Almost everyone is focused on improving operational margins” by providing more enterprise-wide visibility into the plant floor, Krauthamer said.

For example, a recent survey of 50 global manufacturing managers by Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. found that 38 percent cited poor visibility into plant operations as their greatest challenge to expanding manufacturing operations overseas.

The XML Effect

Fuelling the renewed interest in MES is the growing popularity of XML-based standards, Internet-based communications, object programming languages and the availability of Windows-based utilities that make it relatively easy for companies to install such systems, said Monroe. “MES has come and gone over the years. … It has had its waves of popularity; it has had its wave of needs,” he said.

What’s driving MES today is “this whole movement away from build-to-stock to a build-to-order” manufacturing model, said David Cone, president of Camstar Systems Inc., a vendor of MES software in Campbell, Calif. As a result, “a lot of companies want to coordinate the movement of information and goods, not just within a single plant but between multiple sites,” Cone adds.

Take Acma Computers Inc., an assembler of custom-built PCs in Fremont, Calif. The company needed to find a way to deal with the complexities of planning and processing customer-built configurations over the Web. Acma’s paper-based tracking and quality-measurement systems were totally inadequate when it came to providing plant managers and customers visibility into activities such as checking order status, production schedules and inventory levels.

So, earlier this year, Acma installed technology from San Jose-based Datasweep Inc. that lets assembly-line workers get order instructions, enter quality records and swipe bar codes to enter the details of components used in the manufacture of Acma’s PCs. This sort of work-in-progress information-gathering has contributed to better configuration and inventory management and has provided Acma’s customers with instant order access, said Allen Lee, Acma’s president.

“Overall, it improved productivity, efficiency, quality, customer satisfaction and internal resource control,” Lee said. For example, output per employee increased from 85 to 111 PCs per week after the system was implemented, he said.

Stepping Out

The shift toward Web-based communications and custom orders has considerably broadened the scope of MES applications, Cone said.

Until recently, MES was mainly used as an internally focused, highly customized tool for gathering information across single product lines or to perform function-specific tasks such as quality monitoring. There was little or no integration among different plant-floor systems, and the data was rarely used off the shop floor, Cone said.

“MES in the past has been basically used inside the four walls” of a manufacturing facility, Cone said. “Today, it provides an external view of the factory. That is the biggest change.”