January/February 2011

Special Section: Manufacturing Intelligence

Unified visual intelligence

Real-time collaboration, visualization dashboards present information in a way users can understand quickly


  • Dashboards provide actionable information to improve operations.
  • Dashboards built as information portals serve all stakeholders.
  • Portals provide a secure way to share information.
By Tim Donaldson

special1Organizations are faced with ever growing competitive pressures and must improve their operational performance in the face of continuous change in business and technological environments to succeed. Many technologies have been deployed over the years to improve production efficiency, quality, and throughput in manufacturing and other distributed systems. Machine automation systems, process control systems, and building automation systems have been deployed widely over recent decades; much of it since the 1990s, based on computer-controlled systems that were based on proprietary technologies optimized for the subsystem. At the business system level, we have seen wide adoption of software to manage the financial and transactional elements of business. From customer relations management to enterprise resource planning to supply chain management to quality improvement, software systems are used everywhere.

Yet, when we look at these systems we find, in many cases, they remain disconnected from one another, many with proprietary communication protocols that make coordination difficult. As companies seek the next level of business performance, they must seek to improve their operational efficiency and coordination with business objectives.

Visual intelligence

An ideal operation should have a unified "visual intelligence" system to reach any and all parts of the enterprise in real time from anywhere with contextualized information, so people are empowered to make smart decisions fast. Plant floor and business systems would be connected to present key performance indicators (KPIs or "results") in real time in a business context.

But the reality is businesses have invested in a wide range of systems that were optimized to a specific function at the time of implementation, and the technologies deployed are very often proprietary to the extent that they have their own unique interfaces and communications technologies. It requires a great deal of effort and "middleware" or data replication to integrate the different systems. There are many barriers to achieving unified visual intelligence: technological, structural, human capital, business culture, and concerns about data integrity and physical security that have caused people to isolate their real-time systems from business systems.

Such challenges might include the integration of multiple, disparate systems or alleviating everyday information technology bottlenecks. Some companies might find concerns over data and/or physical security to be a large problem, while large enterprises might be concerned over their strategy for global competition. Some organizations might be slowed by dealing with multiple vendors' proprietary formats, while others might be at a standstill due to changing priorities within a corporate hierarchy.

Integrating systems within and across each layer of the enterprise can be complex, but today, there are real economical practicalities with the advent of open-standard communication protocols and fast, cost-effective distributed PC-based computing systems. These make it possible to create unified visualization and control systems in manufacturing, process control, building automation, and public sector systems.

Based on experience, those involved with operations should make a conscious strategic decision to select open-standard hardware and software platforms, thereby empowering their organizations to choose best in class hardware and software components, those best suited and most economical for the job at the time of evaluation.

The greatest benefit occurs when necessary information is available to people at all levels at all times. An approach that takes full advantage of the visual intelligence model, whereby business level context is available in real time at the operation level and real-time operations information is contextualized at the business level, is key to achieving operational excellence.

The most open approach is to create corporate portals to show KPIs, OEE data, real-time plant information, alarm notifications, business information, and other shared documents. Such portals can link to various third-party programmable logic controllers, controllers, devices, and business applications, capturing data and turning it into useful information.

Using standard portal software allows users to easily create and manage custom manufacturing and business portals and visualization dashboards that provide single sign-on and collaboration for the optimization of KPIs.

The advantages of using a portal are they require virtually no administration, are easy to configure, and deliver secure, role-based data to those who need it. Portal-based tools enable the delivery of data from virtually any industrial or corporate database in an interactive format for true collaboration.

The portal approach enables integration of information from different data sources, including Microsoft SQL Server 2008, Oracle, SAP, OPC HDA (Historical Data Access), OPC AE (Alarm and Events), and OPC real-time information.

When looking for a real-time collaboration and visualization dashboard, the following criteria should be included:

  • Visualize any real-time and corporate data source
  • Complete library of .NET automation web parts
  • Drag-and-drop layout and web part configuration
  • Add automation web parts to any SharePoint site
  • Create role-based views
  • Workbench style configuration
  • Firewall- and IT-friendly
  • Base on standards such as Microsoft SharePoint and .NET technology
  • Single sign-on for enhanced security


Real-time collaboration and visualization dashboards provide production line supervisors, plant managers, global supply chain managers, division leaders, and chief executives with accurate, up-to-the-second, real-time information from all enterprise systems. The results from implementing a visualization dashboard include the following:

  • Increased profitability: Business decision makers can take immediate action when real-time KPIs show deviation from target values. Simultaneous visibility into production rates, inventory levels, and outstanding orders leads to inventory reduction and cost decrease.
  • Streamlined business efficiency: Tracking multiple lean manufacturing and Six Sigma KPIs helps to identify areas for business performance and efficiency improvement. Enhanced product quality reports and root-cause analysis capabilities drive manufacturing process improvements over time.
  • Strengthened customer loyalty: A single view of customer information, order status, and product location enables customer service to respond instantly to customer inquiries. Real-time visibility into the entire supply chain supports "capable-to-promise" and "available-to-promise" capabilities.

Monitoring and control of more plant information has improved operations but created an avalanche of data for people. Manufacturing dashboards provide refined information from multiple systems that is easy for people to understand and make prompt decisions to improve operations.


Tim Donaldson (Timd@iconics.com) is the director of Marketing with ICONICS, located in Foxborough, Mass., and he has over 15 years of experience in the automation software marketplace. ICONICS is a visualization and automation software company. ICONICS solutions improve productivity, reduce integration time and operating costs, and optimize asset utilization.