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The looming impact of integration, WiFi, RFID

Technological advances have already driven dramatic improvements in manufacturing.

But according to Sudipta Bhattacharya, a senior vice president at SAP Labs LLC, based in Irving, Texas, the best is still to come. What’s more, it’s just over the next horizon.

“There are three major things that are happening simultaneously right now that will transform the way that manufacturing is done,” Bhattacharya declares. “We have no doubt that the best years of manufacturing productivity are now ahead of us.”

Bhattacharya’s comments came during an interview with Wes Iversen, managing editor of Packaging World sister publication Automation World at the Sapphire customer conference hosted by enterprise software giant SAP AG, May 16-18, in Orlando, Fla. Not surprisingly, Bhattacharya sees SAP systems and capabilities playing an important role in the coming manufacturing productivity revolution. But there will be plenty of contributions from other vendors as well.

What are the three “major things” on Bhattacharya’s list? All are technologies that are here today, but that are still in various stages of emergence. Their arrival may be staggered somewhat, but all three will achieve mass market acceptance within the next three to five years, Bhattacharya predicts. And their convergence will trigger an onslaught of productivity advances.

The first on the list is shop floor-to-top floor integration. Bhattacharya sees SAP’s xApp Manufacturing Integration and Intelligence (xMII) application as a poster child for enabling this capability. The ability to seamlessly link to any number of shop floor applications for real-time data exchange between factory and enterprise systems will enable new visibility that will greatly improve decision-making, he says, driving big improvements in manufacturing performance and efficiency.

When Bhattacharya’s second emerging technology development—mobile applications—is layered on top of that, the productivity payoffs are multiplied, he says.

Consider the maintenance technician on the plant floor who is able to use a wireless portable device linked to a Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) network for immediate connection to the enterprise backbone. When a piece of equipment goes down, the technician can take multiple actions on the spot, Bhattacharya points out. He or she can “hit the enterprise system” to check on parts availability and location, for example, and to notify the quality and planning departments, and perhaps even the customer or a supervisor, regarding the impact of the breakdown.

Before the advent of wireless mobile devices, all of these actions were done on a fragmented basis. The workforce automation made possible through mobile applications linked to enterprise data will provide a huge boost to factory process efficiency, Bhattacharya believes.

The SAP executive’s third landmark technology is radio frequency identification (RFID). “If I look across the supply chain today, a huge part of my cost is on the plant floor,” says Bhattacharya. There are two aspects to that cost, he notes. One is the fixed costs in the equipment and machines, and the second is the inventory, or work-in-process, that is moving through those machines.

These costs today represent manufacturing blind spots, says Bhattacharya. “If I can get visibility into how these assets are performing, both the fixed assets as well as the variable assets, I can know much more precisely what’s happening on the plant floor,” he observes. “It helps me understand performance better. It helps me do compliance better. It helps me do analytics better, and it helps me to trigger automated workflows better.”

Lifting the veil

That needed visibility is enabled, according to Bhattacharya, “at the moment that I start doing [RFID] tagging. This not rocket science,” he adds. “A lot of companies have already started doing this tagging. And I think that as the price of tags drop, you’ll start to see mass RFID adoption.”

While Bhattacharya sees the confluence of the three technologies as a productivity game changer, he concedes that the first—shop floor-to-top floor integration—is, in fact, the lynchpin, or prerequisite, for it all. “In all cases, you have to be able to hit the enterprise to pull information from there,” he observes, “because if you have a disconnected enterprise application, it’s not going to work.”

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