To help integrate design and manufacturing data structures, a range of ‘middleware’ — sitting between the two extremes — is available. Charles Clarke reports.

Production software can mean different things depending on where you work in an organisation. The design side deals with geometry, and production software is covered by


, CNC or DNC. Manufacturing is all to do with workflows and/or transactions, and production software usually means things like MES and ERP.

Because the data structures supporting these two activities are, by necessity, completely different, there is a whole raft of software — usually called middleware — that sits between these two extremes to make them work.

Unfortunately, in many cases new PLM and/or ERP customers fail to understand the extent of their potential reliance on essential middleware when they buy their new systems. In both cases salespeople tend to minimise the potential challenges.

Oracle has considerable experience in making CAD information accessible to ERP systems. The data integration problem is exacerbated by the fact that lead times are getting shorter and there is very little time left in design and manufacturing programmes for sorting out data incompatibilities. Even SMEs can have 14 or 15 different manufacturing systems, and every time a change is made to the bill of materials all of these systems have to reflect the change.

To ease the pain the company has introduced an application called Product Information Management (PIM Data Hub). This sits between CAD and ERP and sorts out all the diverse requirements of all the systems in the design/manufacturing chain whether they are low-level applications such as MES, shopfloor control, SCADA or the higher level applications like CAD, PDM or ERP.

Generally, the cost of ownership in all these systems precludes manufacturers from scrapping them and starting again. Diverse can also mean diverse in vintage — manufacturing systems evolve, very rarely starting with a ‘big bang’ on day one. Consequently the middleware has to reconcile the data requirements of software from many different eras.

The hub is an open standards-based application that has been specifically developed to be a rich environment for specifying products, to meet all the data needs of the diverse systems associated with it and all the regulatory requirements associated with today's increasingly complex manufacturing compliance issues.

New government and industry regulations, such as Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), as well as retailer mandates around the use of UCCnet and Global Data Synchronisation Network (GDSN) standards, are forcing companies to centralise management of all product information.

The object of the hub is that a piece of data is maintained once rather than having it spread, each time in a slightly different form, across many systems. It is not a transaction system but merely an environment to maintain data and make it comply with whatever regulations are currently in force.

The hub is part of an Oracle product suite called Fusion Middleware. This is made up of a series of components dealing with various aspects. One is integration, others are concerned with business process execution language (BPEL) and business activity monitoring (BAM). These lean far more towards separating the process and the data and automating the process as much as is possible in an effort to take people out of the relationship between companies, so that processes happen — irrespective of who’s driving them.

Separating the data from the process allows it to evolve without having to change the way data is structured, managed or gathered. The trend today is for the middleware to become more of a dominant environment, mediating between the squabbling siblings of CAD and ERP.

These kinds of applications are complemented by more practical manufacturing applications such as WinTool from Datos in Switzerland. This provides a quick and easy solution for technical tool documentation for CNC manufacturing. Tool components, assemblies and lists are stored in a central database that can be accessed by users in engineering, production, and/or administration.

It interfaces directly to CAM systems, presetting gauges and ERP devices providing integration with existing company solutions. With WinTool it is possible to build your own component library in record time and generate systematically, a material-specific cutting data library.

The application generates graphic tool assemblies quickly, including exact collision dimensions.

It is accessible by all users, and tool data is no longer stored in isolated applications. It allows the automatic generation of detailed set-up sheets, tool graphics and job-specific instructions. Direct integration with CAM and presetting gauges eliminates communication errors and queries. Fast tool data collection from online supplier catalogues and DXF-generation of tool drawings speeds up the whole process.

Ironically in all of this, because energy prices are going through the roof, manufacturers are paying more attention to supply chain issues than the nuts and bolts of manufacturing product. The bad news is that rising energy costs exacerbate already thinning margins. The good news is equally clear — supply chain improvement projects can be easier to justify and sell to senior management.

In a study by US consultant Industry Directions, the top supply chain impact is on transportation and logistics, followed by sourcing and procurement.

Many manufacturers are reassessing offshore manufacturing strategies. The real question is whether low-cost labour is offset by high-cost transportation, longer lead times, and the resulting additional inventory uncertainty and supply chain rigidity.

The chances are that energy costs will stay high, so companies must address the issue not only effectively, but also strategically. The most critical aspects of success in today’s manufactured goods markets are not low cost or even efficiency.

Supply chain success rests on the ability to respond to short and long-term change and disruption, as well as creating mutually beneficial relationships between trading partners.

Supply chain strategy shifts can offset energy costs. To benefit over the long term, companies need to make changes after considering all the consequences, and create sustainable supply chain improvements in costs, responsiveness, and adaptability.