Improving Manufacturing Performance with Information Management Mobile Applications

April 032012
Improving Manufacturing Performance with Information Management Mobile Applications

April 2012
By Dan Roessler, AspenTech

Background
Information management technology has changed and evolved at an extremely rapid pace in the past 30 years, becoming a prominent part of how companies perform daily business functions.  Today mobile devices are everywhere and are considered critical tools for doing business, which was not the case just 10 years ago.  Mobile applications now exist for almost anything you can imagine. 

The challenge for many companies is finding the right way to use mobile devices and applications in manufacturing environments.  Mobile applications enable users to control thermostat settings at home or set home DVRs to record remotely.  Does this mean that manufacturers should adopt this technology to control a reactor agitator speed in a chemical plant?  Many would argue that this is not the right way to apply mobile technology at this time, but that does not mean that mobile applications cannot be leveraged to provide benefits to manufacturing companies.

A logical manufacturing application for mobile technology is improving access to critical process and business data to improve response time and enable better decision-making.  Plant information management systems collect and store vital process information that is used by many job functions across a manufacturing organization, making them a natural foundation on which to build meaningful mobile applications. 

The adoption of mobile technology must be a conscious decision by manufacturers and take into account several important factors:

  1. What are the business challenges that create a need?
  2. What are the key implementation requirements for an effective solution?
  3. What are the expected Performance Management benefits?

In the remainder of this paper we will examine these areas to understand more about how to best apply mobile technology to deliver benefits in a manufacturing environment.

The Need for Mobile Technology in Manufacturing
Lean staffing, driven by the competitive nature of industry, means that resources often have responsibilities for numerous production units or sites where they may not always be physically located.  To monitor a site remotely often requires an engineer to log in via a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or some other protocol to access the plant information management system in order to monitor performance, troubleshoot issues and perform other critical job functions.  Logistics can make this time consuming and may result in delays in identification of issues and more importantly implementation of corrective actions. 

Many managers today are required to travel across multiple sites and regions.  These managers may be called on to make critical business decisions while traveling and often must do so without firsthand access to key production information and metrics, without any data at all, from second hand information, or with outdated or stale data.  Alternately, the manager may postpone decisions altogether until data is accessible and a full assessment of the situation can be made.  Either way, the decision is neither as timely nor as informed as it could be for the best business results.

In both of the scenarios above, improving the accessibility of data is an important business need.  With information management mobile applications, data is made available on demand regardless of physical location, providing real-time insight into operational and business performance.

Figure 1 Real-time Process Information Anytime, Anywhere

In manufacturing, abnormal operating events that require action can occur at any time and it is important that the right resources are aware of these events as near to real-time as possible to minimize the impact on profitability.  For example, consider a production engineer who is responsible for introducing a new catalyst into the production process.   She has been working late hours all week monitoring production with the new catalyst which has been performing well, so she takes the weekend off.  On Saturday evening while she is out to dinner with her husband, the catalyst line inlet to the main reactor plugs with solids.  When the operator sees this issue he begins to try numerous methods to unplug the reactor line, but being inundated with alarms and trying to keep the system up, he doesn’t get around to calling the production engineer on her cell phone for over an hour.  The system is eventually shutdown including the main reactor, meaning costly downtime. 

Increases in temperatures or pressures might have been early indicators of a problem prior to the plugging of the catalyst line.  If these indicators violated an alarm limit, event notifications available in information management mobile applications could have triggered an automated email notification to the production engineer’s cell phone.  She might have seen the issue within a minute or two of the event and been able to offer some suggestions to avoid the shutdown.  Real-time event notifications that are pushed out to key personnel via mobile devices can help improve production performance and avoid costly events. 

The overall business need for information management mobile applications is to improve the flexibility of data accessibility so that performance management can take place anytime, anywhere – optimizing employee effectiveness and leveraging resource expertise.

Key Implementation Requirements
The implementation of an information management mobile application will help drive success within the user community.  One of the first requirements is to leverage existing infrastructure and tools.  If the mobile application requires the installation of additional costly information management servers, clients or other hardware, then it adds to the complexity of the solution and begins to diminish the return on investment (ROI).  In addition, applications must be designed to work with a broad spectrum of mobile devices and browsers in use today so that users are not required to purchase new mobile devices or browser software.

Security is also a critical concern that must be addressed.  A system that allows users to take advantage of existing industry standard security technologies and protocols will be easier to implement and maintain.

The solution should also provide the ability to establish user privileges by roles.  Because so many different resources throughout the enterprise access information management systems to perform their particular job functions, the administrator should have a flexible interface for assigning rights based on roles.  For example, a maintenance technician assigned to Production Unit A doesn’t want or need the same access that the site manager who has responsibility for all four production units at the site would need. 



Figure 2 Easy configuration of user preferences increases value

As an extension of this, the user should have the ability to configure settings to make the information they receive the most valuable to them.  If a production engineer is running a test, he might want to monitor alarms that he normally would not include in his regular performance management activities.  He needs the ability to quickly access and enable these alarms to his mobile device.  A shift supervisor needs to have the ability to configure his alerts so that event notifications are inactive during his week off.  Empowering users with a flexible configuration capability to manage event and alert notifications is essential to maximizing the application’s value for individual users.

Another implementation consideration is the structure and hierarchy of information.   A corporate process engineer who covers four sites within a region, each with three production units, wants to be able to quickly find information parsed by site and then by production unit.  The flow of the menu structure in the mobile application is essential to enable ease of accessibility.

Flexible visualization is another key requirement.  A maintenance technician is probably more interested in individual tag trends whereas the site manager probably wants to look at summary key performance indicators (KPIs).  To maximize the application’s value, the visualization capabilities must be able to accommodate a variety of views such as tag trends, KPIs, data value fields, and event notifications. 

As mobile applications in the information management space continue to expand, giving thorough consideration to the implementation approach and ensuring that the mobile application selected has the right flexibility to meet specific manufacturing business needs will be essential.

Performance Management Benefits
Performance management involves using analysis and visualization tools to convert raw process data into meaningful and actionable information.   Placing information in the proper context and delivering it in the right format on a real-time basis moves decision making from reactive to proactive.  Mobile applications are a good platform to enhance information access, driving increased employee efficiencies by delivering real-time data access anytime, anywhere. 

Information management mobile applications improve data accessibility, resulting in numerous manufacturing advantages:

  1. Faster troubleshooting and corrective action
  2. More timely and better informed decisions
  3. Early identification and proactive management of production issues

All of these advantages support crucial manufacturing benefits such as improved asset utilization, reduced variability and increase profitability.

Summary
Mobile application usage in manufacturing is expected to continue to increase.  The upside benefits are tremendous and can help drive bottom line results.  Early adopters of these mobile applications will help identify new ways to leverage this technology and shape future direction of development efforts.  Information management mobile applications provide users with production insight twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week regardless of their physical location.  This expanded data access helps leverage expert resources and improve employee effectiveness.  As a result, it is anticipated that mobile technology applications will become an essential part of manufacturing operations infrastructure moving forward.

About the Author
Dan Roessler is the Chemical Industry Manager for AspenTech’s Manufacturing Execution Systems software portfolio.  Dan has over 18 years of experience primarily focused on process industries.  Prior to his current role with AspenTech he worked as a controls engineer for a major polymer company, managed projects and local office operations for a system integration company, and worked as a consulting business developer for a global process automation vendor.  Dan holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin.
 

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