A merging of cultures-IT and engineering    Image

By Martin Michael

When I came into the manufacturing technology world two years ago, I was very surprised at the status of technology.

Coming from the traditional IT world, I lived through the client/server revolution, enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), supply chain management (SCM), and all of the other acronyms that describe the various technology trends in the corporate world.

While it is clear technology is rampant in every U.S. manufacturing plant, it was also clear the world was dominated by proprietary everything.

Different operating systems, different communication protocols, and an overall lack of standardization were immediately clear.

Names like Rockwell, Schneider, and Siemens dominate the scene over the purity of the Microsoft and Ethernet world I had come from.

Although it is not clear if anyone will, or can, dominate the market the way Microsoft has, consolidation is going to happen.

While the technology challenges are clear, there is an even greater hurdle to overcome if the manufacturing marketplace is to ever evolve to a consistent set of standards that will work fluidly with back office systems.

That challenge is overcoming the human element. In many large American companies, the IT departments are big and powerful. They manage the network and the critical business software and often dictate the policies of the organization.

With security and reliability so critical today, most business decisions cannot happen without the approval of the company's CIO. Moreover, with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act scaring most corporate officers with a fear of jail, networks and systems are now becoming so tight employees often find themselves severely limited.

On the other hand, the engineering department owns and manages manufacturing technology. Corporate heads of engineering are still in operational support roles.

Their challenge is with keeping up with operation's production requirements. Worse, their systems are inherently open technologies where support engineers are constantly changing things to solve immediate production challenges.

Security policies are lacking, standards are whatever the last internal project required, and the number of proprietary systems creates incredible support challenges.

The collision of information technology and engineering is here. Ethernet is pushing onto the manufacturing floor, and Microsoft SQL is becoming a dominate plant floor data collection system.

New standards have emerged that create XML standards to move data between back office and manufacturing systems. Manufacturing execution systems are being installed that cross both worlds.

However, who owns these systems now merging? The two worlds of engineering and IT are different. For example:

Engineering is concerned about milliseconds of time on their networks, while IT can survive minutes of lost communications.

Getting an office worker up in two hours from a personal computer failure is great response time. Fixing a PLC in the same period can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Nowhere is this issue more apparent than in the world of MES. Charged with selling these solutions to large corporations, we often find ourselves in a position of not knowing who is going to make the "buy" decision.

MES requires cooperation from both groups: IT would prefer to buy their technology from Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, or someone else they know and trust; engineering would prefer Rockwell, Siemens, or others they have been working with for years.

The key to resolving this conflict may be one of the biggest management challenges a CEO of a manufacturing company has to overcome in the next few years.

As someone exposed to both worlds everyday, my advice is to begin forming cross-functional teams now. Start moving toward one department or the conflicts will hold back corporate growth and efficiency.


Martin Michael (mmichael@advancedautomation.com) is a vice president at Advanced Automation, where he heads the company's work in Manufacturing Execution Systems and Manufacturing Support Solutions.