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Kepware user touts gains from IoT server linking ERP to machines

MacLean-Fogg engineers say IoT server makes ERP easier to use on the plant floor and gives supervisors and machine operators analytics on production rates and inventory.

Engineers at fastener manufacturer MacLean-Fogg, an early adopter of the Kepware KEPServerEX internet of things gateway, have learned a thing or two about what it really takes to collect useful data from production machinery and to make practical use of it.

The takeaway: Deciding what data you really need, then having a detailed plan for analyzing it and making it understandable to users, is essential to deploying IoT to truly improve business processes.

MacLean-Fogg, based in Mundelein, Ill., has had IoT live since spring in its headquarters plant, at which machine operators use dashboards to report production and to track inventory. Other plants will soon get the Kepware IoT server, along with the Oracle JD Edwards EnterpriseOne software that is gradually replacing legacy ERP systems across the company.

Leaders of the IoT effort at MacLean-Fogg are finding that IoT can reinvigorate ERP systems by making them easier to use.

"Coming from an ERP perspective, most of us know what it's like to go to an ERP screen and try to do something as simple as enter production," Scott Masker, a MacLean-Fogg business systems engineer involved in the IoT projects, said. "You might have to navigate through six or eight screens."

In contrast, the new system allows operators to use barcode scanners to enter the information, enabling employees to spend far less time on computers and more time on the machines that make fasteners. This superior convenience has IT managers thinking about dropping PCs altogether, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Kepware IoT server is the interface between machines, ERP

Like many manufacturers, MacLean-Fogg was already collecting data from its machines, most of which are equipped with a programmable logic controller (PLC).

"When we gathered the data from the machine, there was no real interface to the business platforms," Chris Misztur, a business systems engineer who runs the IoT effort with Masker, said. "So we started looking at ways we can get this data out and cross over so that managers and everybody can see some real manufacturing data."

Then, they came across the Kepware gateway.

"Kepware's original protocol stack was really designed for the industrial environment and for the programmable logic controllers, but now, what the gateway would allow us as IT to do is actually go and get that data, and not only just read the data from the machines, but also be able to write the data back to the machines," Misztur said.

An IT administrator already had a subscription to Splunk, so that became the analytics engine.

"We're kind of, on purpose, limiting ourselves [in] how much data we can process because we don't want to end up in a place where we're collecting terabytes of data per day that's never going to get looked at and is not useful," Misztur said.

The data comes from a variety of equipment, including hand-held scanners, scales, PLCs and test equipment -- "pretty much anything that gives off a serial signal or a digital signal," Masker said.

Forging new relationships to make data flow

To get the data from machines flowing into the Kepware IoT server, IT, Kepware and an outside integrator had to work closely with the controls engineers who program the controllers.

"They're not IT people," Misztur said. "They know how to do their ladder-logic programming to make the machine do what it needs to do -- to run the motors and to put the right numbers in the right registers. So we really work closely together to come up with the different data structures.

"Some of these machines are really old. Even though they might have a PLC, it's not really something that our controls engineers want to go into or modify. So we have to find other ways, like retrofitting with inexpensive PLCs, to kind of be the gateway between Kepware and the machine to get the data that we need."

Masker, a JD Edwards programmer, said the Kepware IoT server encourages better working relationships.

"We can now reach out and touch a PLC controller in the shop and not have our controls guy worry that we're going to shut the machine down because we're hitting the wrong thing," he said.

The PLCs are connected to MacLean-Fogg's wired network, and the Kepware software runs on premises on a large server running VMware virtual machines.

"We're working on splitting it up -- at least for now -- logically, to where the industrial data flows on the specific subnet of networks and then all the other data, like internet traffic, flows on some other [subnet] so we can prioritize different data," Misztur said. "It would be nice to get to a separate physical network so that the industrial stuff can run out of band [from] internet traffic."

The Kepware IoT server combined with the new ERP is giving machine operators and supervisors a whole new view of production, Misztur said. Now they can see transactions in graphs on Splunk dashboards and do things they couldn't do before, such as detect scales that are out of tolerance.

MacLean-Fogg weighs goods to estimate inventory and can use the more precise data to determine why inventory is off, Misztur said. The new system could also allow the company to switch to piece counting for 100% accuracy.

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