Software Puts Your Plant on Fast-Forward

New automation software lets you 'TiVo' your process, while Johnsonville Sausage finds a neat trick to make SAP data more usable in the plant.

By Bob Sperber, Plant Operations Editor

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"If the customer has a problem, such as if a line or asset is down, I can see what was going on at the time," says Nowicki, pointing to a recent process upset. "Let's see what was happening at 2 p.m. on the 17th of the month … now we're viewing and navigating the process exactly as it was going on," he said. And with that, he ran the process as if in real-time using an historical database -- this plant happens to store two years' worth of data on its plant server -- and viewed a "rerun" of the process as if it were running at the moment of the demo.

This capability came in handy when the tumble-drum was cycling on and off repeatedly in one incident, and the plant manager didn't know why. "Our engineer in Dallas pulled up the process user interface screen," says Nowicki, "and by making a correction to one parameter, fixed it remotely. No one had to wait, no one had to get on a plane, and our customer's plant didn't go down."

"It's like being able to TiVo your plant," says Farver, referring to the popular set-top digital TV video recorder. He added that beyond defensive troubleshooting applications, such historical backtracking can be used to identify shifts where the plant was at peak performance, record the exact settings and set new benchmarks.

"We are reorganizing plant automation infrastructure to make information truly ready to be sent up to ERP systems," Nowicki explains. A fully integrated object-based environment eliminates the walls "between one system and another before the data needs to ultimately feed-into SAP," he adds.

SAP (www.sap.com) is one of numerous enterprise resource planning and related business software systems. But as the preeminent such system, speeding the flow of data between plant floor personnel and systems represents perhaps the greatest challenge facing companies struggling to establish IT standards and at the same time empower its workforce.

Johnsonville ERP speeds plant chores
Johnsonville Sausage, Sheboygan Falls, Wis., for decades has fostered a culture of employee empowerment and change management. Also for years, the company has supported that culture with information technology upgrades.

Since 2005, the company has been implementing SAP as its corporate information technology backbone. Implementation of human resources and payroll over the past decade was followed by installation of modules for production, maintenance and other functions across the operation.

A corporate standard can improve data visibility for top management, but integrating data from all manner of existing systems often requires the IT department to program using SAP Advanced Business Application Programming routines, such as Legacy System Migration WorkBench scripts. But Johnsonville found a tool to speed that process using software products from Winshuttle (www.winshuttle.com) Bothell, Wash.

The software is designed as an SAP add-on that takes data from SAP and loads it into a software environment that's easier to work with, such as standard and familiar Microsoft applications. Johnsonville uses Excel, whose standard spreadsheets serve as a staging area for work – and which is more familiar to most personnel than SAP's own forms.

Scripting efforts require no programming. Dynamic transactions are added without coding for various practical uses. Production data from real-time automation systems can automatically populate fields, or values can be automatically loaded into the fields of a technician's preventive maintenance work order, based on the frequency of the PM, the schedule and duration of work and so on. After whatever use that Excel spreadsheet is put to, the information is sent back to SAP.

"We are a lean company and constantly need to find ways to do more with less," says Jason King, master data business analyst. He says the SAP add-on software "can provide us with efficiencies in many different areas by making SAP easier to navigate and just running transactions in SAP much faster than humanly possible. This can give us back some time in our day to get more done, or just keep up with the ever increasing demands on our time at work.”

Johnsonville has used the software for collecting and/or entering data into SAP, such as material and vendor master data, and to simplify, for example, master data creation and maintenance forms. In one example, King says: "We were able to load all our master data and various other pieces of data from the plant maintenance module of our legacy system. This cut hundreds of hours from our data entry time."

In the area of maintenance, using an Excel form can simplify the search for parts in complicated equipment bills of material, and helps quickly bring together more and better data on equipment downtime, failure modes, historical maintenance records and data on mean time between failure and mean time between repair.

"It gives us the ability to look at all that data together, so when we're doing reliability analyses, we're not basing our assessments on tribal knowledge but on an accurate view of past history," says Dana Presley, global maintenance coordinator. With a command of historic data, he says, the company can "do a better job on a regular basis [and] make improvements over the long term."

It's now easy to call up a list of the highest downtime incidents and do a five-year analysis and projections. "And if we have 100 failures, we can identify and act more rapidly on, for instance, a particular kind of bearing that may have been behind a preponderance of the failures," says Presley.

At Johnsonville, the Winshuttle software is used within the IT department to lessen the load on operations. But King says users "from all over the organization have benefited from the automated loading of data that it provides," including "preventing manual data entry errors, which can directly affect food safety and quality." He adds that as Johnsonville continues implementing SAP, the add-on app will continue helping the company take pieces of it "from the vision stage -- a process map on a white board -- to getting it implemented in the plant much more quickly."

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