The wired plant

The personal computer has become as vital as resin in the production of plastic parts. But throughout the modern wired plant, islands of information technology need to be connected to achieve maximum efficiency and uptime.

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February 1, 2001 by Cindy Macdonald, associate editor

Plastics pioneer Doug Winter tells a story about an early example of remote process monitoring and lights-out manufacturing. Many, many years ago, an entrepreneur had several molding machines operating in his garage. This fellow had devised a system that allowed him to enjoy the comforts of home while the machines churned out parts. A light and bell in the kitchen were wired to the machines, so that both attracted his attention whenever one of the machines failed.

With current technology, you can monitor your machines from halfway across the world. You can be automatically be notified when any of your molding machines sounds an alarm, and be able to access the machine control, read the alarm message, diagnose the problem, resolve it and resume production. Furthermore, the ripple effect of those actions could be analyzed by business planning software, and appropriate notifications sent upstream and downstream, advising clients and suppliers of the situation.

For most processors, these examples remain in the realm of fantasy, not reality. The reality is that the disparate information systems in the front office, warehouse and shop floor need to be linked by enterprise-wide software to achieve efficient e-business and full participation in electronic supply chain management.

What follows is an update on the various technologies for e-manufacturing, from purchasing to machine control.

ERP eases the move to e-business

Writers at CIO.com offer this explanation of enterprise research planning (ERP) software: It attempts to integrate all departments and functions across a company onto a single computer system that can serve all those different departments’ needs … ERP combines them all into a single database so that the various departments can more easily share information and communicate with each other.

This sharing of information and communication with partners outside of the company is at the core of e-business.

The current craze for all things “e” is reminiscent of the first bloom of EDI, says Jim Wilson, president of software supplier DTR Software International. “Because of the speed of adoption of “e”-everything, there’s not a lot of standards or consistency. It’s much like the early days of EDI; everybody wants to link the supply chain, but they don’t agree on how to do so.”

“Plastic processors have a few of their big customers saying, “This is what I expect.” And the processors must invest to comply with supply chain logistics again. The onerous part is the scope of what those customers expect.

“We have one processor that serves the hotel amenities market, who received a binder of specifications from a customer detailing the “shopping cart” model of e-commerce that the processor’s web site was required to offer.”

Hearing the similar stories from other processors being pushed into e-commerce, DTR Software has added an e-commerce module to it’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) software suite, called The Manufacturing Manager.

The Manufacturing Manager covers: MRP and purchasing, manufacturing, sales and distribution, e-commerce, inventory, accounting, and reporting and analysis. Production monitoring is optional.

Another alternative to buying an ERP system is to use the services of an application services provider (ASP). These companies deliver ERP-type systems via the Internet. They typically host the software on their server and charge a monthly fee for use. Apps4biz.com, for example, offers a suite of applications covering order entry, creation of work orders, shipping and billing and customer-facing e-commerce functions, customized for the plastics industry, for US$250 per month, per user.

“Almost all of our target companies (small to medium sized businesses) have some financial software, so we don’t offer an accounting module. The motivation is for companies to buy “operations” software. They’re getting pressure from customers to do e-business, and a push from their suppliers too,” explains Peter Lopes, vice-president marketing for apps4biz.com.

Online purchasing a first step

On the supply side, online resin purchasing is gaining momentum. Despite its glamour, however, the ease and speed benefits generally still come to a crashing halt at the purchaser’s desk. Distribution of delivery dates to other staff or interaction with a company’s financial software is generally still a manual task.

Kristen Stein of GE Polymerland, a resin distributor with a strong emphasis on selling online, notes that users can currently download information from their account to Excel and bring it into other applications. Interfaces to MRP systems and XML-based standards for full B2B compatibility will be forthcoming, she adds.

Last year in Canada, GE Polymerland received 27 percent of the region’s revenue through the online channel. Stein reports the company is on pace to hit 75 percent of Canadian revenue over the Internet in 2001.

While there is much interest in online purchasing, one dot-com company found smaller processors need encouragement to try this new purchasing channel. Polysort ran a seminar series last summer and fall to introduce new clients to its online resin trading exchange, polymersite.com, and even sent a sales/training team around to visit purchasers at their plants. “People walked in to the seminars very skeptical,” says Donna Shelley, marketing director. “They would be saying, “This is never going to work, it’s all about the relationship, my business is different…”. In the end, people were opening their minds.”

“Small to medium-sized businesses are our target,” says Matt Wilkes, director of sales for Polymersite. “They don’t have ERP systems. They just don’t have that capability.” These companies may have computers linked by a Novell network or other common network applications, but they generally do not have ERP or MRP in place, he adds.

Wiring the shop floor

The advent of PC-based controls for injection molding machinery and auxiliary equipment is a tremendous step toward easier integration of the entire plant, and will further blur the line between a machine controls specialist and an information technology specialist.

“The customer can now bring low-cost “office PC” solutions and networking to the shop floor, using the same technology and human resources already needed for the office computer network,” explains Bill Gruber, vice-president, Ferromatik Milacron North America. More importantly, shop floor production systems can now easily be networked into the customer’s business information systems to facilitate e-commerce, order entry and reporting. Our Xtreem control can now be a portal to the Internet and the business data network, while providing dozens of new process features as well.”

The NT version of Milacron’s Xtreem control runs the Microsoft Windows NT operating system. It includes a mouse port and can perform essentially like an office PC, running any third-party, Windows-compatible software for data acquisition/analysis, imaging, multimedia, etc. It also has the Internet Explorer browser built-in. “This commonality between shop and office systems leverages the customer’s investment in software, computer support and training,” Gruber says.

Chris Choi, director of controls engineering, for Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. agrees that integration and interoperability are two of the most important benefits of the movement to PC-based controls. “One of the key factors in Husky’s decision to develop PC-based controls is the fact that this technology gives small molders lots of functionality without a large investment.”

Husky’s PC based control is unique in the North American industry in that it uses a single industrial PC to provide both machine control and the human-machine interface (HMI).

Choi notes that it is easy to leverage the PC technology to control affiliated components such as conveyors, robots and hot runners. In addition, easily available, generic software and hardware can be used to create a firewall for Internet access.

One medical manufacturer has integrated its Husky molding machines with its MES
(manufacturing execution system)/ERP system. The molding plant, material storage site and warehouse are all part of the corporate network. The manufacturing execution system (MES) co-ordinates real-time production and reports manufacturing events of the Husky machines to the ERP. Using a virtual private network and a firewall, Husky has access to the molding machines through the customer’s corporate network with no security issues.

Negri Bossi America is using wireless technology for remote monitoring and servicing of its injection molding machines. Larry Pascucci explains that Amico tele-service allows each machine control to have wireless, two-way communication with a receiver at a central PC within the plant. Using the Internet and modems, Negri Bossi Call Centres are able to communicate with a plant’s central computer to perform real-time diagnostic and monitoring functions. Amico tele-service is a standard feature on all Negri Bossi machines sold by Negri Bossi America Inc.

Husky’s Chris Choi predicts that the use of wireless communication to access machine control data will spread to operators and executives alike as wireless technology improves.

Auxiliary equipment has entered the Internet age as well. Spurred by a raw material supplier and a producer of consumer goods, Maguire Products has introduced a software program that enables processors to forecast raw material needs, secure bids, issue purchase orders and track delivery information via interactive email.

Introduced at NPE 2000, Maguire’s Advanced Inventory Management Software (AIMS) program operates through a Microsoft Windows NT platform. Using real-time data retrieved from the plant’s gravimetric blenders, either the supplier or the processor can monitor material inventory.

Bringing it all together

Although all these technologies can operate piecemeal, the real challenge for processors in the 21st century will be effective, efficient integration.

“MRP was originally designed for integration, so that key people could share information when making decisions,” explains Wilson. “The discipline of MRP has come a long way in terms of offering flexible solutions, but it is still fundamentally about integration.

“Because of the possible forthcoming economic downturn, there will never be a better time than now to invest in ERP,” Wilson counsels. “If you have hopes of doing better when things pick up again, you need the functionality in place. Processors need to get back to the fundamentals of business — producing at the lowest cost and using the best, most current information to achieve that.”

The good news, says Wilson, is that process monitoring is now much more affordable for small processors, and the minimum cost for a completely integrated ERP package is about $75,000.

“We had tremendous interest at NPE in linking all of this — process monitoring with information systems and e-commerce. I estimate ten times more interest than at NPE in 1997.”

So, envision this: you can have your blender email the machine control to forewarn of material shortages. The machine control sends a message to the plant manager’s personal digital assistant (PDA), who forwards that to the purchasing manager, who has already re-ordered, prompted by the resin distributor’s web site which analyzed the company’s purchasing history. The purchasing manager emails the blender with details of order and expected delivery date, to deactivate the alarm status.

The technology already exists. The challenge is bringing it all together.