Factories eventually focus on turning out high quality products, but before, during and after the actual production tasks, data movement and management is as important as running production equipment. Software providers, equipment makers and system integrators are all offering new tools that make it easier to move data throughout a manufacturing enterprise.
The global environment and the need for close collaboration among many manufacturing partners is forcing companies to look at a wide variety of techniques for sharing data. Early in the product life cycle, digital files must be readily available during design so manufacturing managers can assure manufacturability.
They must also be transmitted among the many manufacturing teams that work together to supply components and subsystems just in time to keep lean factories running without delays. "All the manufacturers coming to us want seamless communications," says Jim Remski, automotive powertrain business manager for Siemens Energy & Automation in Atlanta.
Communications is critical with any size of product, but it grows for cars, planes and large equipment, since they have more complexity and often have more partners involved. Regardless of the size of the end product, manufacturing teams are benefiting from advances at many levels. A growing number of software tools are being designed with this type of data sharing in mind.
"Broad collaboration is much easier now. The standards have matured and products are now far easier to use, even when there are many companies and many modules in a project," says Dan Mender, director of business development at Green Hills Software of Santa Barbara, CA.
One of the many aspects of data sharing is to make sure that all files are updated when products change. When a purchasing department alters a component, files must be changed in many different manufacturing programs to make sure all operators of automated equipment are working with the latest data.
Software providers are building this tracing into their packages. "We track every change, so managers know that the version they're producing on the shop floor is the correct one," says Robert "Buzz" Kross, vice president of Autodesk's Manufacturing Solutions Division in Tualatin, OR.
Often, this sort of file integrity is limited to a given plant or a company's software. But when companies have many manufacturing sites, they may want to make sure all of them are constantly getting updates. Availl Inc. of Andover, MA makes what it calls a wide area file system, which constantly monitors selected programs and files for stored changes.
Every time data is altered, updates are immediately sent to all the involved computer systems. Constant vigilance means only small amounts of data are sent, eliminating the bandwidth problems that arise when companies send entire CAD files to partners.
"Manufacturing companies are our biggest customers. Many of them need to tie in outsourced companies," says Craig Randall, Availl's operations vice president.
As OEMs outsource more jobs to specialized partners, many are establishing very tight collaborations. Some of these suppliers are now giving key customers access to their manufacturing processes so OEMs will know if there are production problems, such as quality issues, with key parts.
InfinityQS, a Chantilly, VA, software house, addresses this issue with a tool that lets OEMs tap into their suppliers' databases, giving them access to selected files. "This lets you monitor both your processes and your supplier's. If there's a problem with your supplier's components, your product won't ship," says Michael Lyle, president of InfinityQS.
One of the enabling technologies for all this data sharing is Ethernet, which is being used to remove barriers between the front office and factory floor. Using one network throughout the enterprise makes it simple to transfer ordering, inventory and other information easily. A recent ARC Advisory Group study highlights its rapid growth, predicting that Industrial Ethernet Switches will grow to $939.8 million in 2009, up substantially from just $124.4 million in 2004.
Much of this growth will come as Ethernet extends down to the fieldbus level, replacing proprietary networks. "Ethernet's role as a fieldbus is definitely growing pretty rapidly," says Harry Forbes, senior analyst at ARC Advisory Group of Dedham, MA.
As companies adopt more of these collaborative manufacturing techniques, they're also planning to provide tighter links between their design groups and the manufacturing teams.
There's been a lot of effort in this area in recent years, and many observers feel that it's now poised to make a substantial impact. "The next big thing will be to use a single database as a product goes from concept and design to prototyping and on to manufacturing. That's part of the effort to create a truly digital factory," Remski says.
Tackling another aspect of communications, Sprint has dedicated a group that helps manufacturers use cell phones throughout large factories or around campuses. Its networks provide walkie talkie communications, while letting users utilize cell phones to contact suppliers and others.
"We've got bar code attachments that let people scan a product, pull up a work order for those components and then call a supplier who can even be in another country," said Jennifer Herbert, director of vertical marketing at Sprint Business Solutions of Reston, PA.
As companies involved in outsourcing and globalization work with more partners, a growing number are concerned over protecting their data. Ethernet and TCP/IP protocols improve openness and communications throughout the enterprise, but they also open the factory floor to the same types of attacks that plague the front office.
The British Columbia Institute of Technology Internet Engineering Lab has certified less than 200 attacks, but feels the number is growing rapidly. "That's just the tip of the iceberg," says Research Manager Eric Byres.
Suppliers note that while there's concern, there are tools that minimize risk. "Viruses and other things associated with the web have people really concerned. But there are safeguards that prevent hackers from impacting transmissions between devices," Remski says.
"We've seen better success using firewalls to separate the shop floor from the front office than using anything else," says Bryan Singer, a Rockwell engineer who heads the ISA's SP99 standard on security.
The ability to share data with partner companies also raises concern about theft of intellectual property when data is revealed knowingly. "Outsourcing forces you to share files with people you may not know very well," says Michael Staley, marketing director at Pinion Software of Austin, TX. Pinion has developed technology that lets engineers share files in their native format without letting others copy them. Its technical right management tool prevents unauthorized people from cutting, pasting or copying files. It can also delete files from the partner's computer systems after a specified time.