Ensuring MES delivers data-driven value
Data is the lifeblood of every organization. Visibility of the right data at the right time in the right context can help improve the overall effectiveness of assets and performance of operations. Good visualization provides a window into plant activities to illustrate opportunities, avoid problems, improve safety, mitigate risks, meet deadlines, and reduce costs. Examples range from seeing material usage and energy costs, to what time the latest shipment arrived or must leave, to knowing, monitoring, and alerting safe operating parameters of plant conditions.
Data is acquired, examined, analyzed, reported on, used collaboratively, and then stored for future use. There are endless ways data can be used, making it one of the more valuable assets that plants can leverage.
An unfortunate challenge with data is that more is not better, and process manufacturing plants generate massive amounts of it. What happens when there is too much data? When the ever-increasing amount of numbers, figures, and statistics begins to overwhelm those who need it most? Without consistent methods of analyzing and making sense of the vast amounts of data that most plants have locked away, there are missed opportunities that can negatively impact important decisions, overlooked trends, and conditions essential to plant safety.
To be useful and to avoid mistakes, data must be delivered in context and at the right time. To make an impact and drive good decisions, information and conclusions need to be drawn and actions must be made based on those conclusions to translate into better results.
Complicating the picture, evolving technologies can make data relatively useless if it cannot be accessed or used in combination with data from related systems. Isolated islands of data trap potential and reduce opportunities for improvement. Duplicated data copied and sprinkled across data warehouses creates challenges with timeliness and up-to-the-minute accuracy. Legislation, regulations, security threats, and compliance issues also mandate that data is kept safe. It should only be visible and changeable by certain job roles or individuals.
Proprietary technologies that are no longer supportable can paralyze accurate data analysis, and the ever-increasing frequency of updates and patches for IT systems creates an environment of consistent technology churn, which makes it difficult to create consistent and reliable informational benchmarks.
Enter the often discussed, but often not well-defined manufacturing execution system (MES). Helping connect the plant floor with business decision makers, MES exists to manage both production and operations, which unties the knot that exists between the control and business levels.
Improved visibility of information is one of the major benefits a collaborative MES provides. Through greater availability of information, plants are better equipped to overcome their critical business challenges by being able to anticipate problems before they occur, collaborate on solutions to overcome potential problems, and optimize performance to take timely action based on the information they have accrued.
The value of MES
MES is valuable for a number of reasons: It helps improve yields and exploit market opportunities in production planning, minimizes costs during production execution, improves the reliability of operations management, and helps ensure product quality while minimizing inventory. Measurable benefits are seen in operational efficiency improvements where energy and maintenance costs are reduced, material losses are mitigated, and distribution costs are shrunk. Further, MES can help improve personnel productivity and extend worker resources.
However, one of the most valuable benefits that MES can provide to an operation is through data visibility and visualization techniques, in which important information that drives actions for plants is more easily derived from the vast amounts of recorded data. In a time where people are finding themselves overwhelmed by data, yet starving for information, MES helps plants contextualize their data sets, separate useful data from noise, and link process to business.
Coping with data overload
A major challenge that organizations, managers, and operators face is the constant technology churn that can make even recent technologies unsupportable and antiquated. With the future guaranteeing an accelerating pace of technology, the reality is rapid changes to the technology landscape. A well-designed MES strategy can help protect existing investments, better future proof, manage lifecycle costs, and ensure collaborative access to data.
It is important to select MES vendors with strong relationships to major technology companies so IT trends can be anticipated and leveraged. A benefit of new technologies is improved capabilities of capturing details, measurements, and other data points that may not have been measurable before, and the opportunity to turn the data into meaningful representations.
The question then becomes: What do I do with all of this data and how can I make sense of it all? More data might seem like a helpful way to improve processes, but when systems and personnel are inundated with data, operations can become stretched and personnel can become overworked. Employees with too much data to digest can find their efficiency dropping. The disruption in the business can fuel this inefficiency, and factors such as an aging workforce or loss of domain expertise adds to the problem.
What’s more, data is not always readily available or inherently easy to access. Points can be isolated, lost, inaccessible, incorrect, late, or underproductive. Combine these and the result is a set of data that is unreliable and makes a system that can consistently and comprehensively make sense of measured data essential, not a luxury.
Making sense of the data
That leads us to a second challenge that plants face with the stacks of information at their disposal: not only what to do with it all but how to make sense of it and create subsequent value. Data, of course, is meaningless without context, and making sense of vast amounts of data necessitates the proper tools and technologies to analyze the data. Plant personnel often complain of being “data rich and information poor” or “drowning in data but starving for information.” Extracting information from that data must be proactively gleaned and analyzed to properly understand it and make well-informed decisions.
Start with disparate data. This is data from many different places typically available in a plant: process equipment, field devices, quality systems, control systems, data historians, inventory systems, business and ERP systems, asset management, and data from outside the plant like energy costs, economic trends, geopolitical situations, and weather conditions.
One goal for the business is to gather the data together in meaningful context to provide insight and information. From there, users can make sound conclusions upon which concrete actions can be taken. This is what delivers business results and creates value out of the data.
While moving from data to value is not a simple task, options are available. An organization can invest in copying data into data warehouses, federating data (i.e., keeping the data with the system that owns it), or a combination of techniques.
It takes experience and domain expertise to determine the best methods for implementing a comprehensive data visualization and acquisition strategy, and there is a horizontal flow that must be accounted for when creating value out of data. For instance, information must be extracted and orchestrated from the initial sets of data, processed and concluded upon. Actions can be taken on the resulting conclusions based on the information, which then translate into technical or economic results.
A final challenge of inordinate amounts of data is visualization and visibility, and getting the right information to the right people in way that doesn’t tie up their bandwidth. Acquiring the right information goes a long way toward the overarching problem that plants face of keeping costs under control. For instance, being able to understand what products to make at a given time based on changing energy costs helps keep production expenses in check and sheds light on the most cost-effective methods of production. Creating visibility out of information allows operations to be more agile and mitigates the instances of lost opportunities.
Turning data into value
To create effective visibility and deal with the data challenges that plants face, the proper solutions and technologies are necessary to provide the tools, analyses, and algorithms to support decision making. MES technologies are available to make sense of the data, not just create more. They create visibility that turns data into information that can be understood in intuitive, easy-to-consume outputs and presentations that drive effective communication for better business insight. MES helps produce information related to all aspects of the business, from planning and scheduling and production tracking to operations monitoring and performance management.
In production management, for instance, MES can provide solutions to improve accuracy, cost containment, and order fulfillment, which help drive customer satisfaction.
Visualization, monitoring, and analysis of aspects like production allocation, material tracking, production reporting, and on-time delivery—all of which directly impact a company’s income statement—provide the information necessary to make sense of the control-level data that impacts results and planning at the business level.
Freeport LNG is one example of a company that succeeded in using MES technology to help make sense of all the data generated from its facility. The company faced the challenge of developing a comprehensive MES to manage operations and optimize production and supply chain execution of a grassroots LNG terminal in Freeport, Texas.
An enterprise-wide MES solution was installed, which included multiple business applications unified under one collaborative platform. Now, access to and visualization of the right data allow personnel to monitor separate process functions simultaneously to optimize productivity. Production flexibility has helped to ensure Freeport LNG’s capabilities as an operator are among the most efficient and agile of all LNG receiving terminals in the world.
Another example shows what MES can accomplish in a pulp and paper company. JoutCon concentrated on getting its business off to the best possible start, but also remained keenly focused on implementing a company-wide strategy that would permit seamless growth, diversification, and integration with its main contractors in the paper and board industry.
It deployed an MES at two of its production facilities to improve overall performance and visibility, and maximize operational flow. Since the plant was new, it wanted to use the most up-to-date technology to meet current and future paper and board industry requirements.
Through the use of an MES, the JoutCon facility was able to upgrade and improve in:
- Order processing and planning
- Sheet production and tracking
- Pallet labeling
- Interfacility communications involving production lines, warehousing, and delivery
- Process efficiency
- Cost of tracking production results
When it comes to creating value out of data sets that drive critical business performances, MES provides the integration, visibility, and embedded domain expertise that helps visualize, identify key performance metrics, and make sense out of the seemingly unending stream of collected data. By helping manage production and daily operations above the level of control, MES helps derive valuable information that leads to improvements in performance, integration, and planning and scheduling.
With plants finding themselves increasingly susceptible to drowning in data, yet starving for information, MES helps plants contextualize their data, visualize for improved decisions, link process to business, and improve business performance.
Dan O’Brien is Solution Manager, Manufacturing Execution Systems for Honeywell Process Solutions