A brief history of collaborative manufacturing

Remember when life was simple? ERP was king, and the Holy Grail was integrating the plant floor with your ERP system. But as technology has evolved, new ways of solving age-old problems have emerged.

Remember when life was simple? ERP was king, and the Holy Grail was integrating the plant floor with your ERP system. But as technology has evolved, new ways of solving age-old problems have emerged.

Not so long ago, systems were stratified by function and platform. Business systems ran on mainframes, plant management systems were deployed on minicomputers, and automation systems ran on various real-time platforms.

This structure mirrored top-down company hierarchies and there was little need to integrate or connect the layers, because only a small amount of information passed between the layers to the plant floor.

Inventory management systems such as MRP and later ERP were often integrated with manufacturing by deploying a few terminals on or near the plant floor and in shipping/receiving. More sophisticated systems began to integrate bar code readers via terminal emulation. When it came to integrating with other plant systems, simple techniques were used.

One school of thought held that integration meant putting every piece of data in a central database. More commonly, a few specific data sharing requirements were identified, and then custom, point-to-point connections and data transformations were created. Sometimes, this was accomplished by simple file sharing.

As business systems coalesced into ERP systems and Client/Server architecture displaced both mainframes and minicomputers, many new systems became candidates for integration, and it was generally recognised that the First Generation integration techniques weren’t scalable. Two solutions emerged, both based on the idea of using a central integration point to eliminate the need for the spaghetti connections of point-to-point integration.

One solution was to use an manufacturing execution system (MES) as the central integrating point, because these systems traditionally were layered between ERP and automation systems and because implementing MES typically involved a great deal of integration with other legacy and production systems. The second solution involved Middleware or Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) solutions, which were built on standard messaging systems and incorporated data mapping/transformation, workflow, and connectors to various systems. The value proposition for implementing these systems was threefold. They could be used as an engine for implementing business processes within the enterprise, they simplified the integration of various systems and platforms, and they reduced or eliminated the need to revisit all of the integration connections when applications were upgraded or changed. As manufacturers moved their focus beyond the four walls of their enterprise to include supply chain partners, and as the Internet emerged to become a viable and universal option, the integration problem evolved as well. The techniques of business process integration needed to be extended to value chain partners, as well as expanded deep within the plant.

Recognising that their technology was fundamentally well suited to business- to-business (B2B) integration, EAI suppliers began to build out their products to support B2B requirements. This new form of integration uses plant level production management systems to plan, commit and manage production based on actual demand rather than abstract forecasts. Third generation platforms also take advantage of the Web, using it as a means of sharing information from a variety of systems throughout the extended enterprise, and applying analysis and alerting tools to empower managers and other knowledge workers.

The collaborative manufacturing model

Collaborative manufacturing focuses on ways to gain benefits from the Internet and develop technologies to become more competitive. Collaborative man-ufacturing is about connecting the plant floor to external systems, and knitting together internal manufacturing and business processes together with external business processes. Sharing information throughout the enterprise is more important than ever, but it is just a small piece of the jigsaw.

Collaborative manufacturing is a competitive strategy that uses Internet technologies, fosters collaboration with value network partners, creates electronically driven work flows, and promotes focusing on core manufacturing competencies. This creates an environment for manufacturers to compete as a highly flexible and responsive operation that can meet the expectations of customers and value network partners, but it also demands a level of integration rarely seen before.

The process starts before a Web order or an e-order is placed. It begins with collaboration among value chain members to deliver specified classes of solutions to customers. Such collaboration requires the sharing of information according to agreed rules and mechanisms of revenues, costs, marketing, and business processes involved in creating and delivering customer-focused solutions.

It also involves collaboration in the product and solution design. As orders are received, they must be properly distributed throughout the value network and then driven through the appropriate plants and e-fulfilment processes. As orders are produced, information about progress and quality must be electronically accessible in a secure way. After order delivery, there has to be support throughout the entire product life cycle.

Complicated as all of this is, the business process flows hinted at in the previous paragraph are really just the ‘trivial case’ when everything works. As every manufacturer knows, it is accounting for the exceptions, errors, and nonconformances that are far more difficult – yet important – to automate.

Though it is enabled by technology, collaborative manufacturing is much more than connecting the Internet to the plant floor. It is a fundamental change in the strategic value proposition for manufacturers. It is a collection of systems, processes, and technologies that support and enable manufacturers to more effectively compete through collaboration with strategic partners.

Sidebar: Collaborative manufacturing – the seven fundamentals.

1. Synchronise production processes with business processes

2. Orchestrate the upstream flows of work, information, and material

3. Automate business processes and workflows within the enterprise and across the value chain

4. Give control to managers with plant information and analysis tools

5. Integrate the design process among all collaborating parties

6. Leverage bi-directional downstream information to optimise production for customer satisfaction or other strategic goals

7. Enable collaborative maintenance and support of manufacturing systems.

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