For businesses with an aggressive growth strategy, integrating information technology (IT) and plant-floor processes is critical, especially when new facilities are involved. Companies can improve operational efficiency by connecting "islands of factories" together into a single integrated manufacturing enterprise. This connection allows companies to drive an understanding of processes and other aspects of operational excellence across various processes, supply chains, and customer networks.The emergence of open systems and off-the-shelf technology, including common PCs, networks, servers, and databases, has helped propel plantwide integration efforts and changed how manufacturers think about what they can and can't connect to the factory floor. Although significant progress has been made over the past few years in the technology arena, many nontechnical issues have yet to be tackled.
Understanding the gaps
One of the biggest challenges is the extensive mindset and priority gap that exists between IT and automation teams. Although both groups are ideally working toward the same overall goal—building the company's success—they operate in two very different worlds. Their day-to-day agendas and deadlines are not in sync, often making it difficult to understand each other's roles in the overall scheme of things. The emergence of service-oriented architecture and industry standards such as ISA-95, which work to integrate enterprise and control systems, is helping to transform the vision of a connected enterprise into a technical reality.
Another obstacle, however, remains: the social aspect of getting IT and automation teams to work together. How well staff members across departments understand and respect each others' roles is crititcal to a successful workflow. Effective leadership is also vital to bridging gaps in team goals and terminology. Each department, for example, may operate under its own "language."
Finding the right mix
Effectively blending IT and automation teams requires the involvement of a wide variety of disciplines, along with the right technology at several levels within the information chain. A company's technology blueprint must be based on past experiences, detailed engineering feasibility analyses, and careful life-cycle planning to ensure that best practices are incorporated into every project. For best results, companies should create strategic alliances between their manufacturing and corporate IT departments to ensure that each group's viewpoints are adequately addressed.
An example of skillful teamwork was aptly summarized by an IT director at a large pharmaceutical manufacturer: "We have seen cases where a poorly architected solution can cause reliability problems. We have overcome those with tightly coordinated activities between manufacturing, IT, and engineering. Working to a well-designed architecture allows us to conduct normal systems maintenance without taking manufacturing down."
An all-inclusive framework gives teams a chance to work more collaboratively to assess the current manufacturing and IT systems environment and begin to set standards for integration, data management, and future technology investments. It's important that companies align every department around a common goal, and find ways to unite IT and automation teams through effective communication, mutual understanding, and the willingness to listen to different perspectives.
Companies should also involve experienced automation and IT partners in their integration projects. Working in concert with internal teams, these partners can lend insight into the best strategies for smooth integration. As an impartial third-party observer, these partners also can play a role in helping to mediate and translate between the two groups.
Keep in mind that the 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. The specific drivers of each integration effort vary from project to project based on priorities or crises, and there is no single ideal model.