Shop talk

Envision a modern-day manufacturing plant and chances are you conjure up images of large robotic arms and other automated machines. Today, manufacturers are turning to a wealth of network-based tools for the next step forward, everything from radio frequency ID (RFID) tags for sophisticated inventory control and supply chain management capabilities to online business-to-business e-commerce exchanges.

But manufacturers need to face an age-old network problem on the shop floor before they can take advantage of some of these sexy new options: swapping out a plethora of incompatible network technologies for corporate-standard Ethernet and IP.

The goal is a network that blurs the lines between carpeted company offices and tiled shop floors. Companies that achieve such integration then more easily can take advantage of innovations such as product life-cycle management (PLM) software to manage products from creation all the way through to retirement, potentially saving millions of dollars in the process.

“The basic lesson of networking in manufacturing is, ‘Follow the infrastructure.’ Once it’s in place, the manufacturing plant will take advantage,” says Bill Swanton, an analyst with AMR Research Inc., who cites the adoption of Ethernet and wireless as examples.

Tangled factory floors

Today, factories use many types of networks to control machinery, and those networks support an alphabet soup of proprietary and industry-specific protocols – such as the Manufacturing Automation Protocol, and the Control Information Protocol and Modbus.

The disparity increases maintenance costs and makes it difficult to harvest factory-floor data, such as real-time statistics on production for use in corporate planning.

As such, many manufacturers now are pursuing an all-Ethernet strategy, with office PCs plugging into the same infrastructure as the programmable logic controllers (PLC) that run factory equipment.

One such company is Newell Rubbermaid, the manufacturing conglomerate in Freeport, Ill., which produces industrial and home plastic goods, Calphalon cookware and Irwin power tools. The firm has had a range of network technologies in its factories over the years, including Ethernet and token-ring, and a number of proprietary control protocols. But Ethernet and IP slowly are taking over, says Dick Emford, the firm’s lead network analyst.

Newell Rubbermaid has been able to connect its factory infrastructure to its corporate networks, but doing so requires complex protocol conversions and network bridges that can introduce latency. Ethernet puts everything on the same plane.

“There are fewer gateways to go through and fewer media transfers” when there is a common denominator, Emford says.

“It allows all parts of the business to share common back-end systems. The network just becomes a transport layer, connecting any server or any manufacturing facility together,” he adds.

Ethernet is even being used for that signature factory floor staple – the punch clock. When Newell Rubbermaid employees come to work, they scan magnetic ID badges instead of punching paper cards. A LAN server records the hours and links to the company’s payroll and accounting systems, speeding up payroll processing and other human resources administration tasks.

Standardizing on Ethernet makes IT management more efficient and lowers costs, Emford says. “Everyone is familiar with Ethernet vs. some of the proprietary stuff out there,” he says. And while older technologies such as token-ring and proprietary PLC gear can be expensive, “I can get an Ethernet (network interface card) for around US$50,” he says.

Ethernet-enabled factory floors let aluminium and glass manufacturer G. James Pty., an Australian firm, run its plants and coordinate its manufacturing schedules more efficiently. Ethernet switches connect all the company’s automation equipment, such as glass and aluminium cutting and shaping equipment, as well as gear devoted to post-manufacturing and shipping processes.

“Ethernet allows us to reach down into the PLCs so we can both log and update the running of the plants in real time,” says David Moy, technical services manager at G. James. The availability of real-time data lets management adjust production schedules to be more in tune with demand from suppliers, he says.

But merging factory floor and office networks comes with some risk. “It becomes an issue of internal security,” says Kim Smith, IT team leader, LAN and e-commerce for Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Akron, Ohio.

Goodyear, which has operations in 28 countries, is in the process of rolling out Ethernet in several manufacturing facilities. The tire maker’s business network is based on Enterasys Networks equipment and this gear will be used to run and manage industrial processes and equipment in the plants, replacing a variety of proprietary technologies used to control heavy equipment.

With industrial equipment plugging into the same network as the company’s business systems and the Internet, Goodyear is turning to internal firewall technology to regulate access, the same technology the company uses to keep hackers out of its worldwide network.

“We have to make certain that someone pushing a button on their PC doesn’t set off some process on the factory floor – either by mistake or intentionally,” Smith says.

Look, ma, no wires

The Ethernet incursion often is paralleled by the arrival of wireless technologies.

Companies are beginning to cut costs and speed reaction time by using wireless links to eliminate paper-based systems used to support everything from inventory to the production line.

Next-generation wireless technologies such as RFID – small radio tags used to track items – will alter the landscape when they get into full swing in 2005 and replace bar codes. But even today, wireless technologies are revolutionizing shop floors and warehouses.

GM, for example, has installed wireless access on forklifts, letting assembly-line workers notify drivers when they need more materials. “We are reducing labour costs and improving our performance by exchanging this data in real time,” says Tony Scott, CTO of GM.

A recent IDC survey on wireless application adoption shows 68 per cent of auto and aerospace manufacturers are using wireless or are in the initial stages of rollout. In discrete manufacturing the number is 42 per cent and in process manufacturing 51 per cent. The rest of the respondents said they either are evaluating wireless or will roll it out within 12 months.

“Our customers tell us they increase productivity by 40 per cent on average with wireless applications,” says Joy Doran, principal of Doran Associates, a systems integrator in East Hampton, Conn.

One customer she declined to name eliminated 12,000 paper forms that quality inspectors filed on a yearly basis. “Wireless allows companies to focus on the processes and pinpoint faults while saving time to take corrective action,” she says.

Eastman Chemical knows that firsthand. In May, the Kingsport, Tenn., company equipped its seventh warehouse with a wireless inventory system. Dave Hrivnak, associate mobile projects manager, says the rollouts run about US$50,000 but the payback is swift.

“Last year our physical inventory took two days with six people and 48 hours of overtime on the paper-based system,” he says. “This year it took six people with wireless devices four hours.”

Eastman uses industrial I-Safe devices from Symbol Technologies. The handhelds, which include a scanner and Microsoft’s Pocket Internet Explorer, pump information into Eastman’s back-end SAP system.

“It’s a simple concept, but what we get is data reuse,” Hrivnak says. “We can make the data available to others, such as planners and shippers.”

Experts say the biggest draw to wireless applications are those kinds of paybacks. “Mobility tends to pay for itself in a short time, it’s measurable,” says Richard Dean, an analyst with IDC. He says average ROI takes about nine months. “There is a gradual acceptance of mobile solutions because they are quite compelling,” he says.

Wireless also is helping companies extend e-mail access to more workers. Newell Rubbermaid’s Emford says some plants are rolling out 802.11-enabled PCs and laptops to plant floors, pushing e-mail beyond the cubicle. “It helps keep all employees better connected,” he says.

Manage the product

Combine the network standardization effort with the new wireless infrastructure and you have a far-reaching network that can support lifecycle management tools.

Manufacturers say they hope to use PLM technology to create a holistic view of the manufacturing process that has never been available using piece parts: product data management tools, and procurement, supply chain and marketing applications. PLM tools that let data from those applications be combined and shared over the network or Internet will make that possible.

In essence, PLM lets the left hand know what the right hand is doing so manufacturing is less of a relay race and more of a collaborative effort.

Particular attention is being paid to the design phase, where PLM lets engineers in global companies not only collaborate and reuse designs but share data with others in the manufacturing process.

While engineers are designing products, shop floor managers can be acquiring the tools needed on the assembly line and procurement managers can begin to acquire materials.

Collaboration is key because nearly 60 per cent to 80 per cent of production costs are accrued in the design phase, according to ARC Advisory Group, a consulting firm that specializes in advising manufacturing companies on strategies, trends and technology. The design phase also is becoming more of a group effort involving other companies and partners.

“There is a tremendous shift in that companies are far less vertical, therefore they need to collaborate,” says John Moore, vice-president and general manager for advisory services at ARC. A recent ARC study showed that 70 per cent of corporations plan to increase their spending on PLM software over the next three years.

One of those is Genlyte Thomas, which manufactured and sold nearly US$1 billion in lighting fixtures and controls in 2002. Genlyte, a combination of 17 autonomous companies and design teams in Louisville, Ky., is rolling out PLM to its design engineers across four plants at its flagship company, 99-year-old Lightolier. The tools consist of Autodesk Inventor, a 3-D modeling tool, and Autodesk Streamline, a Web-based collaboration tool that was deployed in February, 2003.

“Lightolier is our proof of concept,” says Rick Blanchard, CIO of Genlyte. “The real benefit comes when we lay this across the 17 companies to share designs and get products to market quicker. Today we reinvent the wheel way too many times.”

Hochmuth and Fontana are writers for Network World (U.S.).

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