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Manufacturer looks to MES to standardize global plants

MES software helped an engine manufacturer get its sprawling network of plants on the same page while empowering plant engineers to customize the MES for their needs.

Engine manufacturer Cummins Inc. turned to manufacturing execution system (MES) software to help get its global network of plants on the same page and manage its unique manufacturing demands. In the process, it used a modeling engine to make the system configurable by shop-floor engineers without IT help.

Based in Columbus, Ind., the 90-year-old manufacturer of diesel and natural gas engines and filters operates more than 80 plants around the globe, from the U.S. and U.K. to Russia, Brazil and India. It supplies diesel engines to Chrysler for its popular Dodge Ram trucks.

Over the decades, Cummins added plants to an already long list at an average of one or two a year.  Each time, it deployed different software to manage the new plant’s activities, leading to a decentralized and fragmented IT operation.

“We would think, now that we know more, and it’s been a couple of years since we built the last [system], we think there’s these new ideas and better ways we can do it,” said Robert Borchelt, Cummins’ head of IT manufacturing and industrial controls. “We’d kind of start over with a new product, maybe a new hardware or software architecture and ‘try to get it right this time.’ ” 

Having so many different manufacturing systems in place also brought a raft of problems when it came to keeping the systems up and running, he said.

“Anytime we wanted to make an improvement in one of them, we’d get it done, and we’d say, ‘hey, we did this great thing,’ and everyone would have to go and develop it again for themselves in their architecture, on their hardware, and with their software. You wouldn’t be able to leverage your earlier investments.”

That also meant that Cummins had to lean on the institutional knowledge at each facility, which was difficult to support because the plant over-relied on one or two people who knew how to work in a particular configuration of software and hardware, Borchelt said. “Eventually those folks want to retire or move on to a new job, right?”

A mixed model build
In 2006, Cummins began to look at vendors for help, and settled on Apriso Corp., a Long Beach, Calif.-based company that specializes in manufacturing and supply chain software.

Cummins now uses Apriso’s FlexNet suite, including the MES module, to take its products through the entire process, from setting the status of an order to line setting the product, initiating production, manufacturing the product and making sure all tests are completed. 

“Then basically we put the product in ‘complete status,’" Borchelt said. From that point, we hand it back to the ERP system and they handle the shipping, et cetera.” Although Apriso’s system could handle those stages as well, Cummins prefers to use its Oracle ERP.

Besides wanting software that would be a good fit for a wide range of facilities -- plants can be as large as a million square feet with 300 stations or as small as 5,000 square feet and 12 stations -- Cummins needed to accommodate its unique production demands. For one thing, in addition to automotive, Cummins makes engines for a wide range of vehicles in construction, agriculture, marine, oil and gas, and rail, and often in small numbers.

“In our plants, it’s the standard to have one engine completely different from the next engine, and for that to be completely different from the next,” Borchelt said. “The operators are [constantly] facing a different product.”

Some of the busier plants may make 800 engines a day but may only make five of the same type of engine, Borchelt said, with the rest being ones or twos.

“It’s a mixed model build,” he said. “Consequently, we have to give information to our operators and to the machines that they’re using so they know what product is in front of them. Apriso has a capability with their machine integrator that allows us to talk to a lot of different types of devices through an open protocol instead of a lot of standard proprietary drivers.”

Using the business process modeling engine in the Apriso software, Cummins has been able to build numerous standard objects and configuration screens that let manufacturing engineers, control engineers, industrial engineers and quality engineers set up a line more or less by themselves, once they’ve been trained on the software.

“They don’t need IT support to do this,” Borchelt said. “They can configure new stations, map the addresses to the PLC [programmable logic controller], configure fail-safing, structure the parts from the BOM [bill of materials] -- all of that stuff is done by functional people, not by IT.”

Changes -- and lessons learned -- can now be leveraged throughout the company’s network, Borchelt said. The Global Process Manager module in FlexNet allows engineers to package and release changes to the plants and distribute them globally, so the changes don’t have to be made at each plant. 

“But we don't simply ‘push’ the changes into our plant production environments,” Borchelt said. “We have a structure that makes the new code available to the plant, and then each plant takes the new release through a local user acceptance test in their testing environment and then moves it to a staging environment prior to implementing in production.”

Why not Oracle?
Borchelt said that despite moving its plants off legacy systems like IMS Mainframe and Movex onto Oracle -- as well as having a strong relationship with the vendor -- Cummins decided against going with Oracle because MES wasn’t its strong suit. 

“Some of the other competing vendors that we thought about using didn’t really seem to be focused on the space like Apriso was,” Borchelt said. “It was more of a second thought for them, or an additional revenue source, and not necessarily their main business.”

A slow start 
Cummins began testing  FlexNet in 2006 but did not deploy it at any of its plants until 2008.

The initial implementation was slowed by business conditions, including the fact that the plant was running at full capacity and the company wanted to minimize shutdowns.  Cummins also wanted time to document and test its business processes before the launch, Borchelt said.  

“Cummins is a conservative company by nature,” Borchelt said. “We’re not risking one of our plants without quite a bit of testing first.  We did a pilot first, in the conference room only, then we spent another year really crafting it for [our] first plant, and that was in May of 2008. Of course, we all know what happened in about October of 2008.”

The economic recession came, slowing the company’s deployment plans even further. However, Cummins completed deployments at new facilities in India and China, bringing the total of plants on FlexNet up to four, with a fifth planned for later this year.

Deployment will pick up in the coming years and months, Borchelt said, with plans for bringing 20 or more facilities up to speed next year. Other legacy plants will be brought on board based on priority, and FlexNet will be deployed in all future plants.

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