01 September 2004
Dealing with the data deluge
When and how engineers get information from the plant floor.
By Daniel Miklovic
The growth of computer technology in manufacturing, particularly on the plant floor, has created a smorgasbord of information about what is happening in the factory. Engineering and operations staffs today have immediate access to nearly every parameter associated with the manufacturing process—in real time. However, many liken trying to sift through the deluge of data looking for information content to trying to drink from a fire hose. There's much truth to that analogy.
Current computer-based process control and process information management systems can literally collect and spew back hundreds of thousands of data points every second, and that is just for one location. In a large multinational corporation with dozens of facilities, the data stream can be nearly a gigabit per second of raw data.
With such voluminous data available, what do technical and operational staff really need in the way of information to help them do their jobs? To find out, InTech and ISA–The Instrumentation, Systems, and Automation Society partnered with GartnerG2, a business research unit of information technology researcher Gartner Inc., and conducted a survey to understand just what kind of information technical engineering and operations staff wanted to help them do their jobs better. Web research firm IntelliSurvey conducted the survey. We also solicited InTech subscribers to participate. The survey classified respondents by job title and channeled them to relevant questions based on their roles within their organizations.
When asked about production information, technical staff—defined as process or process control engineers, and operational staff—defined as first-line supervisors—were most interested in production rates, but operational staff also had a strong interest in finished goods inventories. Both groups picked current production rate data as the most important piece of real-time data they needed to do their jobs. In addition, both groups chose "alarms when production falls below target" as the second-most important piece of production-related plant floor data they needed. However, the two groups differed as to the third-most important piece of plant floor production data.
While technical staff wanted notification when production stopped, operational staff wanted to know more about finished goods inventory. When asked how they wanted the information presented, both groups selected "by production line" as the most important. Technical staff received the option of diving deeper with "by production cell," which was their second-most popular choice. Operational staff, who did not have a "by cell" option, chose "by day" as the second-most important category.
The strong alignment by technical and operational staff as to what is important and how they want the information presented shows that technical staff understands what is important to the operations staff. This close alignment leads GartnerG2 to believe that systems or solutions that serve one group with the information they need can be useful across the broader manufacturing plant management function.
With today's emphasis on quality, there were no surprises about the importance of quality information. Operations staff was most interested in alarms when quality fell below targets, but both groups put this high on their lists. Technical staff showed slightly greater interest in actual lot or batch quality statistics than alarms but again, both groups ranked these very high. The alignment between the two functions shows both technical and operational staff can use similar data from a single system to meet their needs.
However, we included a third category of respondents in the survey—business executives, defined as plant management, division management, or higher. Business executives chose "quality by order" as the most important quality parameter they wanted to see. Both technical and operations staff ranked this as the lowest item of interest from a quality perspective (executives having a nearly 50% higher interest on average). GartnerG2 believes executives need to communicate better to the technical and operational staff the customer focus emphasis. Engineers tend to lose sight of the value of customers in the daily grind of manufacturing. They could have better alignment with management if they paid more attention to quality on a customer-by-customer basis.
Strong alignment was also evident when considering actual real-time process information. However, the variation from management continued with "order summary" data. Executives ranked this as almost 50% higher in relative importance. This reinforces our belief that operations and technical staff put the customer behind the manufacturing process itself. To align themselves with management, both groups need to place more emphasis on using data to understand the customer's perspective.
Technical and operations staff indicated the preferred source of information is their process control systems. Technical staff also chose technical systems, such as a process information management system or data historian, as a preferred source (an option operations staff didn't receive). The fact that executives preferred enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications as their number one source does not come as a surprise. The fact that executives chose process control systems as their number two choice for information does. It serves as a reminder that the Internet has given executives access to information sources they did not have in the past and management wants to see the same raw data technical and operational staff have access to.
What is real time?
One very interesting anomaly from the survey was what people considered real time. Given choices ranging from less than a minute old to less than a day old, the number one choice for technical staff was less than one minute old while the number one choice for operations staff was less than a day old. The second-most popular answer for operations staff was less than one minute old, but the fact that more respondents chose less than one day is troubling. The distribution for the remaining alternatives was similar. Even executives chose "less than five minutes old" as their first choice. Thinking of real time in more immediate terms could better serve operations staff. Where senior management has a more immediate perception of real time than operational and supervisory staff, the possibility for miscommunication and goal misalignment is almost a given. All respondents, including executives, say they access needed information several times a day for the most part.
We asked only technical staff which standards were important when dealing with information. Regarding the question on whether designers had developed existing systems to a particular standard, the results show a surprising lack of knowledge about the existing environment. More than half of the technical respondents said they do not know what, if any, standards their systems are built to. Of those who did respond with a definitive answer, the most common response was SAP. The strength of a single ERP vendor to define how data moves within manufacturing enterprises is telling. Clearly SAP's presence in manufacturing has had a strong impact on information management. Compliance with S88 and S95 (while trailing SAP) is not insignificant, given the voluntary nature of compliance within the manufacturing community today.
When asked what data they would like to have that they can't get now, technical staff chose "more detailed quality information." Operations and supervisory staff chose "more detailed labor information," followed closely by quality data as their second choice. Vendors of both process control and ERP systems should consider this when looking for functional enhancements they can add to their systems. Where an information need exists and mainstream applications aren't meeting the need, boutique solutions will spring up to fill the need. Given the industry trend toward consolidation and vendor reduction, those vendors that meet these needs stand the greatest chance of keeping competitors at bay in their accounts.
The close alignment between technical and operations staff in most areas dealing with plant floor manufacturing data needs indicates that the supposed gap between the plant and engineering is more myth than fact. Both groups are getting the same information from essentially the same systems to do their jobs. If a gap exists, it's not a function of the tools they have to work with, but their inability to communicate. However, both technical and operations staffs need to pay more attention to customer-focused issues. Vendors would serve the user community better by understanding and aligning not only the technical and operational needs when it comes to information collection and display, but by enabling executive management to get what they want as well. Integration with Customer Relationship Management (CRM) appears to be the missing piece of the puzzle today.
Behind the byline
Daniel Miklovic is vice president and research director at GartnerG2 in Seattle, Wash. His e-mail is Dan.Miklovic@gartner.com.