Today’s factories generate vast quantities of raw data, capturing information about everything from output to downtime to worker productivity. That data, when put in the proper format and the appropriate hands, can become useful information to improve business processes both within manufacturing and in other departments, like accounting and human resources.

But to truly leverage the data needed to improve performance, engineers on the plant floor and experts in the information technology (IT) department need to work in tandem, breaking down the barriers that have traditionally divided the two groups.

The benefits of convergence can be enormous and exist at enterprise, plant, department and individual levels. Companies that have moved toward converging IT and controls engineering report lower costs and higher efficiency of these departments. They enjoy better business continuity, reliability and disaster recovery. Project timelines are shorter and response to issues is better. In general, these companies have a competitive advantage that will work for them shift-after-shift and year-after-year.

Convergence-or at the least collaboration-between plant controls and IT also can be a logical means to succeed with goals such as globalization, product proliferation, outsourcing and broadening value to customers.

The key to unlocking the benefits of plant-to-enterprise integration is not the technology; if it were, manufacturers would have already made great leaps forward. The major obstacles lie in mindsets and communication. These two work groups are often not well-aligned, and may even feel some tension or antagonism toward the other because of core differences in objectives and mindsets. IT professionals and manufacturing engineers emerge from different educational backgrounds, possess contrasting skill sets and speak different languages in the workplace.

Yet each has important knowledge and invaluable experience to help energize the enterprise. Business works best when team members understand and value each other’s attitudes, perspectives and cultural differences. When that relationship works, the whole enterprise is enabled to leverage what the technology can accomplish, and create major wins for business operations. To do so, the two groups must develop a better understanding of the other’s roles, business pressures and unique contributions.

In 2007, we set out to explore the challenges and benefits of IT/Manufacturing convergence by interviewing more than 20 managers from both sides of the issue. Through these interviews, we found a common set of issues that should be considered when embarking on any level of cooperation or convergence.

Change starts at the top

Increasingly, executives who run manufacturing companies want instant access to information. Having IT and controls engineering work together more closely enables greater transparency and consistency in how plants report their data. While visibility into operational data may be used to pressure personnel in the plants, it also fosters sound decision making and greater predictability of financial results. For example, one company reports that cycle time and gross profit improvements resulted from a manufacturing enterprise system (MES) effort that brought together IT and controls data. Consequently, some managers now better realize the potential for reducing waste and making better use of both human and technology resources.

Clearly, effective leadership is crucial to creating convergence. First, a good leader will recognize whether the classic divide between IT and control engineers exists in the organization. If so, then it’s time for action. Bring top members from the two teams together for frank discussions and brainstorming. Help create partnerships and relationships among the two teams by including them in planning and strategy meetings, training and staff development, and team-building events.

At every stage of the convergence process leaders need both organizational skills and personal characteristics such as communicating and listening well. Those traits are key to creating trust among team members and critical to ensuring that everyone’s expertise is leveraged.

Another way to integrate the two groups is to create formal reporting structures. One person alone could focus on facilitating and taking advantage of convergence. In other cases, a group could be dedicated to this liaison role. Some companies will create a converged organizational structure in which one department reports to the other or one technology group includes both IT and controls engineering.

One supervisor who became the sole liaison for an integration process reports, “In the past, our working relationship was dependent on the personnel rather than procedures or standards, which is what we are trying to fix. All of those groups report dotted-line to me now. It’s not total control, but I’m in a position to influence.”

Finally, top leadership must remember that convergence of IT with process control is not “an event” that can be mandated by management, but rather a process by which an organization evolves. So, as the process moves forward, executives must continuously foster the strategic alliances between manufacturing and corporate IT to ensure that each group’s viewpoints are addressed.

Teamwork conquers differences

Sometimes, the people in the trenches-the mid-level managers in manufacturing and IT-recognize the need for greater collaboration and communication. But while IT and controls engineering are highly trained individuals, many practitioners on each side of the fence have pre-conceived notions about what the other group does and how effectively it works.

Many controls engineers view IT as an organization that is so tied up in documentation and standards it cannot take effective action. Also, project-oriented engineers (who often are called in when a problem is hurting production) sometime view IT as impossibly plodding and overly complex. What they may not recognize is that IT projects are often rolled out or standardized globally, so the impact of issues ripples.

Conversely, many IT employees view control engineers as somewhat undisciplined cowboys who go out and fix problems, or conduct projects without regard for future consequences. IT shudders at the high ongoing maintenance costs, as well as the risk of not replacing obsolete equipment just because it’s running a production process. One IT manager says, “Engineering drives out a problem, then moves to the next one. They do not necessarily have a vision of what they need and how to attain it over time. They are very reaction-oriented.” What IT may not realize is how essential control engineers are to keeping the plant running and how expensive even short periods of downtime can be for the company in profits and customer good will.

While the people may be different, technology is often a unifying force. Today’s control systems are grounded in the same operating systems and networking technologies common in IT. The practice of controls engineering departments “hiding” their computers from IT is thus becoming not only more difficult, but also less productive. On the other hand, IT needs to gain a better understanding and appreciation for the unique demands of manufacturing-centric information systems. Most production employees have a disaster story relating to IT standards and maintenance practices wreaking havoc in a manufacturing environment.

An example of skillful teamwork was aptly summarized by an engineer working at a leading manufacturer: “I showed a team of IT people, internal auditors, production people and accounting staff that most of the information they needed already resided in the control system on the plant floor. We discussed how I could take that information and transfer it into existing databases where people were currently hand-keying information. From that point forward, the changes were driven by all involved parties. That was the key to making the whole project successful.”

Collaboration can help speed common goals, such as assessing the current manufacturing and IT systems environment and setting standards for integration, data management and future technology investments.

These projects often carry the added benefit of creating a more nimble organization. Most companies find that each team member should retain specific roles so that everyone knows who to call for various issues. However, they should be cross-trained for flexibility and so that any team member can take on any issue that arises.

Some of the keys to success for implementation projects by cross-functional teams are common to nearly any project and team. These include good specifications and clear project plans, sound project management, leveraging best practices and management buy-in on the value proposition and total cost of ownership.

And remember, sometimes building unity inside an organization requires recruiting outside help. Consider the value of involving experienced automation and information technology partners in your convergence project. Working in concert with your internal team, these partners can bring insight and perspective to the process, along with integrated automation solutions. An impartial third-party who understands IT and automation terminology also can play a key role in helping to mediate and translate between the two groups. F&BP

SIDEBAR: Maximizing the return on plant-floor information

A good example of how plant-floor information can be leveraged throughout an organization can be found at PepsiAmericas Inc., the second largest canning and bottling group within the PepsiCo organization.

While the facility has a strong record of operating efficiently, it was experiencing unexplained interruptions on its canning line. This resulted in large blocks of downtime that began to drive up labor costs and prevented PepsiAmericas from meeting its high throughput goals. In an industry where an hour of downtime represents about $300 in labor costs and $10,000 hour in lost product, several hours of idle production can result in significant losses.

To optimize its performance, PepsiAmericas realized it needed a clearer picture of what was happening on the plant floor from start to finish. The plant had been using a paper and pencil system to record performance data for each shift on the canning line. This was a cumbersome and unreliable system that gave management little insight into the beverage-making process and left PepsiAmericas playing a never-ending guessing game as to how to improve operations.

To eliminate those, PepsiAmericas installed a data-acquisition system that gathers production data and presents it to management in a usable format. The Line Performance Solution from Rockwell Automation provides a deeper view into a production line’s operational process by aggregating and contextualizing key performance data to help correlate the many variables that impact overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).

“The Line Performance Solution offered everything we were looking for in terms of functionality, data gathering capabilities and ease of use,” says Dave Bramow, production manager of PepsiAmericas. “It was essential for improving our overall visibility, tracking and control of the line’s performance, so we could maximize its capacity and ensure product quality.”

The systems’ marriage of control and information is what helps PepsiAmericas identify shortfalls and attack production problems-a key component of the company’s strategy for ongoing improvement and cost reduction. From blending raw materials to packaging, the system helps the plant respond to increasing regulatory, retail and consumer demand that places a heavy premium on the company’s ability to remain flexible, responsive and cost efficient. In fact, since the installation of the Line Performance Solution, the team at PepsiAmericas has achieved a 6% increase in efficiency, which equates to more than $120,000 in savings annually.

The integration of these systems in many ways mirrors the collaboration needed to build unity inside an organization. “It’s the people who should really receive the recognition for the plant’s exceptional performance,” says Bramow. “What has made the solution a success is the people here who use it every day. They’re the ones who make these improvement initiatives work and help solve the problems. Production is a real team effort, from start to finish, and our employees take pride in doing their best.” F&BP

SIDEBAR: Tips for successful collaboration

1. Ensure top executive support

2. Form cross-functional teams

3. Allow ownership

4. Develop guiding principles of design

5. Standardize architectures

6. Create merged reporting

7. Formalize control-system change processes

8. Audit results

9. Hire for mindset