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Vendors adding manufacturing intelligence capabilities

The growing interest in operational performance management (OPM) is leading many manufacturers to implement best-of-breed ERP systems that offer manufacturing intelligence (MI) software capabilities.

As the discipline of operations performance management (OPM) matures, manufacturers are swapping out manual processes and rudimentary homegrown solutions for new best-of-breed offerings and expanded functionality from their tried-and-true enterprise software providers.

Along with traditional ERP software providers such as SAP, automation giants like Rockwell Automation and Invensys Wonderware are building out their software suites, both organically and through acquisition, to include manufacturing intelligence capabilities. In addition, a set of up-and-coming ERP software vendors -- including ActivPlant, Informance, iGear and myDIALS -- are attempting to carve out a niche in the market for manufacturing intelligence (MI).

ActivPlant, which claims its patented Throughput Analyzer technology can help manufacturers increase plant performance by as much as 25%, focuses on constraint analysis. Based on Eliyahu Goldratt's Theory of Constraints and the Toyota Production System, the ActivPlant technology identifies the chronic constraints that impede the flow of products through the process. The software gathers data in real time directly from programmable logic controllers (PLCs) on the shop floor and employs algorithms to track metrics such as uptime, downtime and quality. "We're pulling in data in sub-seconds, so a line operator or plant supervisor has the opportunity to affect things as they're happening," said Terry Frey, senior vice president of sales and marketing for ActivPlant.

ActivPlant foresees tighter integration between the operational performance management component and traditional enterprise systems, including ERP and supply chain components. "People want to take the plant-floor data and seamlessly integrate into ERP so they're getting factual, real-time data in terms of their performance," Frey said. To date, most companies have rolled up plant data to the enterprise systems at the end of a shift via spreadsheets or manual entry. But, according to Frey, "by automating and making it more real-time, it helps with visibility."

For its part, Rockwell Software, a business unit within Rockwell Automation, is parlaying acquisitions of two companies into what it claims is a new way of looking at manufacturing intelligence.

In April 2008, Rockwell acquired Incuity Software for its real-time enterprise MI application, which can connect to a variety of production and business systems, delivering insight into operations via key operational metrics. Rockwell is now in the process of integrating the Incuity MI application with Pavilion Technologies' predictive analysis software.

By providing real-time visibility and, in some cases, delivering predictive metrics, Rockwell's offering will enable companies to make on-the-fly fixes to problems instead of correcting things in hindsight, based on outdated reporting. Ralph Carter, president of Rockwell Software, said: "We're trying to transform operational performance from a rear-view look to something that is more forward-looking."

Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer.

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