This post was authored by John Nesi, president of Peak Performance Advisory Services, and previously vice president of market development for the global sales and marketing segment of Rockwell Automation.

Conversations in recent months with manufacturing professionals across a range of industries highlight a common challenge and opportunity. The most competitive professionals are looking for seamless and secure working information capital—not simply more data—to drive better decision making, expose process inefficiencies, facilitate best-practice collaboration, and uncover new business opportunities.

At Rockwell Automation, we understood what working information capital meant to global manufacturers because Rockwell is one. Roughly a third of its employees work within the company’s numerous global manufacturing plants, which manage hundreds of thousands of SKUs and produce thousands of build-to-stock, configure-to-order, and engineer-to-order products.

Like our customers, we face pressures to manage complexity and drive out inefficiencies. We responded with our connected enterprise journey. It is inherently continuous and involves converging information technology and control to access real-time and historical operational data as well as business and transactional data to shorten response times to customers, ensure raw material availability, improve supply chain coordination, and enable better collaboration among our engineers.

The following insights from my experience might be helpful for other manufacturers seeking to put their own information to work.

Standardized processes enable accurate measurements

Creating a standardized, enterprise-wide benchmarking system helps us manage the complexity among our various manufacturing processes, while reducing competitive risk. The new system has a common manufacturing platform that can be expanded to different regions and product groups, all while retaining an efficient and accurate way of benchmarking and measuring key performance indicators. Our connected enterprise provides the right data at the right time, regardless of what manufacturing process is occurring.

When information is contextualized, people get it

Like our customers, our output efficiencies are the key to our profitability in building products. Improving those efficiencies requires visibility into—and an understanding of—the processes. We have been rolling out a global enterprise resource planning system, and while beneficial, we found it did not give us qualitative and filtered information on our processes. Our plants used to have different manufacturing execution system solutions with little integration from plant to plant. However, now our system is coordinated across the enterprise to pull data from hundreds of applications, streamline it, and feed understandable, actionable information in a context that makes sense to each role, so they can quickly and accurately use it to make improvements.

Operators and engineers are now better able to understand the differences in products, realistic output, cycle times, manufacturing processes, and expectations. Information that is understood is put to work. If a particular style of circuit board, for example, consistently fails quality checks, plant managers can now use that data to improve product design and development.

Connected enterprises enhance collaboration of both systems and talent

A goal at the project’s onset was greater collaboration within each plant, between a plant and the enterprise, and across global facilities and related supply chains. In addition to connecting systems, we aimed to connect talent. Our team leads from each location meet regularly to discuss best practices, lessons learned, and new developments. These plant managers and engineers leverage one another’s knowledge. They learn how and why a site is doing things in a certain way and possibly adopt the same practices at their own locations. Because processes are in constant development, collaboration among teams leads to new ideas, such as integrating the company’s global workforce management tool within the system to measure labor costs, time and attendance, status of jobs completed, scheduling, and absences.

The information network should be optimized for the enterprise

An enterprise is not truly “connected” without a common network infrastructure that facilitates communications between the automation and control systems and the enterprise network. An open, single-network Ethernet infrastructure that helps facilitate secure interoperability with corporate networks and industrial applications provides a wealth of information beyond what our plant operators anticipated. The infrastructure eliminates previous issues with data collisions and resulting network efficiency guesswork. Now, engineers have concrete validation that allows them to be predictive rather than preventive.

Design in security from the onset

For all the benefits of connecting our plant and manufacturing assets, we understood the connected enterprise introduces greater risk in the form of internal and external threats, both malicious and accidental. Throughout our journey, we very deliberately designed security in from the beginning, as opposed to implementing it after the system was installed. Our defense-in-depth security approach is multilayered—using both physical and electronic defenses—to help ensure threats can be stopped at multiple levels using numerous safeguards within the manufacturing zone, including device, controller, process, and enterprise. A single technology or methodology simply will not suffice against the multitude of vulnerabilities that exist.

Working information capital reaps real rewards

Rockwell leveraged its working information capital to lower inventory metrics 31 percent, capture $3 million a year in capital avoidance, improve supply chain delivery to 96 percent, reduce lead times by 50 percent, improve customer service metrics such as time-to-want to 98 percent, and reduce parts-per-million quality issues by 50 percent. We estimate our productivity has improved four to 5 percent annually. Our journey is a successful, but continuous, evolution, promising even more working information capital. That is information that will help us compete more efficiently and serve our customers—with products and services and first-hand experience—more successfully.

About the Author
John Nesi is president of Peak Performance Advisory Services, and previously served as vice president of market development for the global sales and marketing segment of Rockwell Automation. He has extensive experience in sales, marketing, systems, services, operations, and engineering across various businesses while at Rockwell Automation. Nesi holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Cleveland State University and is an executive scholar of Kellogg School of Management.

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A version of this article also was published at InTech magazine

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