With all the excitement about online procurement and sales, it would be easy to think that the production floor has no role to play in e-business. Enter Mark Fondl. He's betting his career on the opportunities he sees in helping production respond to the challenges of e-business. Fondl, now vice president of the Automation Business Unit of Lantronix Inc., Irvine, Calif., first saw the e-business implications for manufacturing last year when he served as vice president of worldwide marketing for Schneider Automation Inc., North Andover, Mass. At the time Schneider was formulating its Transparent Factory initiative, a framework for linking plant-floor automation with enterprise- business systems. As part of the Paris-based Schneider Electric SA, the unit was organizing a suite of products and services to link plant floors with enterprise-business systems such as SAP R/3. The scheme ranged from raw electrical power and distribution through device sensors and actuators, programmable logic controllers, and network and integration services. Fondl became intrigued with the Lantronix Device Server that Schneider Automation implements as part of its factory automation solutions. He saw the Device Server's potential as a way to link the millions of devices on plant floors that run on software yet are not capable of being connected to Ethernet, the emerging lingua franca of factory networks. If you've concluded that e-manufacturing is all about the increasing need for communications to and from the factory floor, you're in total agreement with Fondl, who joined Lantronix last year to lead its Automation Div. efforts in that direction. But his view makes him a pioneer of sorts. In fact, surveys indicate that most companies haven't even considered harnessing Web technology to improve manufacturing operations. "The need for an e-manufacturing response begins as soon as a company decides to accept an order from the Internet," says Lanny Metcalf, Schneider's Transparent Factory product manager. "By doing that, you've initiated the process of totally changing your whole philosophy of doing business. And to succeed, the entire business process needs to be reevaluated-including manufacturing. "Overlaying some Internet technology is not enough. Strategic errors are being made if the presumption is that the business impact of the Internet stops with buying raw materials, collaborating with business partners, and delivering customer products and services," adds Metcalf. Serving the customer E-manufacturing is driven by the new prominence of the customer, says analyst Leif Erikson, research director, manufacturing/e-business, AMR Research Inc., Boston. "The customer is still king, but manufacturers need to realize that in e-business the king has far more power and [providing satisfaction] requires much greater responsiveness from the production floor. For example, there's got to be some way of determining instantaneously, in real time, the ability to fulfill an order profitably. In e-manufacturing, capacity and inventories need to be visible to the supply chain. Manufacturers need systems that can reveal available capacity, status of orders, and quality of a product -- not just after it comes off the line, but while it is in process." "Since e-business is really about connecting more closely with customers, operations across the enterprise, including the plant floor, must be synchronized," says Dick Hill, vice president of ARC Advisory Group, Dedham, Mass. "Due to the collaborative nature of e-business strategies, the plant floor has to be a full collaborative partner in the entire e-business architecture. Otherwise, ineffective plant controls quickly become the visible bottleneck," he adds. Metcalf emphasizes e-manufacturing's competitive significance: "An e-enabled plant has as much or more strategic potential to cut costs and improve efficiencies as any innovation in purchasing or sales. Making that possible is a new generation of Internet-compatible equipment, including everything from PLCs with embedded Web servers to power-monitoring systems that can identify cost-effective-manufacturing locations for big orders." He recommends beginning the e-manufacturing journey by recognizing the need for creating a seamless flow of information from the factory floor. He suggests an opening question: "What are the number of interfaces that exist between your business systems-such as planning and inventory systems? If the answer is one, the enterprise is well on its way to the kind of integration that's needed. If there are five different systems with five different interfaces, then you're just beginning. Each interface represents potential for data corruption mistakes to occur." Metcalf suggests emulating the cost-cutting justification used when purchasing departments adopted electronic procurement. "Plants have an equally strong cost-saving story to tell, particularly in terms of predictive maintenance, remote diagnostics, and utility cost savings." He explains that many devices with an embedded Web server are able to communicate proactively. That means that if it breaks-or reaches certain preset parameters that indicate it is about to break-it can ask for help." His examples: LVDO circuit breakers from Schneider Electric's Square D brand include a contact-wear indicator that alerts operators before the breaker fails; and the company's motor starters keep track of bearing wear, temperature fluctuations, and vibration levels. Valuable capabilities What's possible today, says Metcalf, goes beyond sounding an alarm or an indicator light. The possibilities include initiating e-mail or signaling a pager at the OEM, the maintenance department, or contractor to describe the specific problem and request service and parts. Still, manufacturers either are not aware of these capabilities or they haven't been sold on their value. For example, consider the experience of Cincinnati Machine, Cincinnati, a unit of UNOVA Inc. The company, a manufacturer of CNC machine tools, has had a remote access feature on its Cincron cell controller since 1998, yet only four or five customers have specified the option, says Ken Wichman, product manager for cell and small horizontal machining centers. The beta site for the feature was Winterville Machine Works, Winterville, N.C., a subcontractor for Caterpillar and similar companies. Aerospace companies also are using the feature. Called JACK, an acronym for Java Access to Cincron Knowledge, the remote access feature is used by Winterville to eliminate the need for running down to the plant floor every time information is needed from the cell controller. "Without leaving their respective offices, the plant manager can generate a utilization report, a foreman can check the status of a hot job, and a maintenance technician can check a machine fault," says Wichman. Users can have access to a wide range of process information and report functions. These include graphical, dynamic cell-status display; graphical in-cycle time display; and Cincron reports on fixtures, NC programs, source routes, stations, tools, and workloads. JACK also allows users to import/export NC programs, tool data, workloads, and routes. Operator-to-operator messaging also is possible. Up to five PCs can be "talking" to a Cincron cell simultaneously with the JACK feature. Although the option can be used for Internet/intranet access to a machine tool from outside the plant, Wichman knows of no implementations. JACK operates off Microsoft Internet Explorer. The browser is the gateway to the Cincron cell controller, adds Wichman. The machine tool company also has a telephone-based maintenance service called Interactive Techsupport. At the request of the machine tool user, it allows the Cincinnati technical support specialist to connect with the CNC unit via a standard modem. Video, voice, and data are transferred bidirectionally to allow a fully interactive session between the machine-tool user and the technical-support specialist, says Wichman. Also leveraging the Internet for real-time data-collection and remote diagnostics of machine tools is Manufacturing Data Systems Inc. (MDSI), Ann Arbor, Mich. At Chicago's International Manufacturing Technology 2000 Show in September, the provider of open-architecture CNC software featured Internet connectivity to machine tools. The booth demo by solution partner Uptime Electronics Inc., Whittier, Calif., included live video and Web-based production monitoring via Open CNC. Jim Fall, MDSI's president, says the company's mission is to be a software-based control alternative in an industry dominated by proprietary hardware. He says even high-end, multiaxis CNC machine tools can be controlled entirely from software-without any motion control cards or proprietary hardware-all from a single operating system (Windows NT) running from a single processor. During National Manufacturing Week earlier this year in Chicago visitors were able to monitor the real-time operating performance of a motor control center in Montreal, switchgear in Nashville, and motion controllers in North Andover, Mass.-all from a Schneider Electric booth. How much is e-enabled maintenance worth? Consider chip making and the cost implications of downtime. By one estimate these facilities, which cost in the billions of dollars, are down 30% of the time. For all manufacturers, the average is said to be 10%, says Metcalf. When breakdowns do occur, Web-enabled equipment also allows OEMs to remotely monitor and repair their machines, reducing response time and travel expenses. Management tools While electronic management of manufacturing functions such as maintenance offers big cost and time savings, the greater strategic value may lie in the new options electronic information provides to executives. For example, collecting plant data centrally also facilitates the ability of managers to assign work based on which plant can deliver the quickest response time or the lowest cost of production at a particular point in time. Consider how you could improve the handling of the increasing turbulence in electrical utility rate structures, says Metcalf. By pushing data from circuit monitors and PLCs scattered across multiple plant sites to a central location, companies now can do a better job of assigning energy expenses to individual cost centers, analyzing energy usage trend data, and assigning orders to plants to take advantage of hourly fluctuations in utility rates. Metcalf cites the example of a major consumer products manufacturer that expects 10% to 15% annual energy savings via Web-enabled information gathering. A side benefit is the improved allocation of energy costs among individual process lines. Another Metcalf example is a major tier-one automotive supplier that is using the Internet to automatically collect and log all utility data-including water, air, gas, electricity, and steam-in a single integrated database. Data is collected in 15-minute intervals and automatically uploaded to a centralized data warehouse where it is manipulated and analyzed by the local utility as a value-added service. Among the reports the manufacturer now receives from the utility are statistical energy-usage reports, totalized flow analysis, costs by energy source, aggregation of multiple meters, and a monthly report on total energy costs per facility. E-manufacturing calls relentless attention to connectivity challenges and it should come as no surprise that automation vendors translate this into opportunity. Two vendors, GE Industrial Systems and Cisco Systems Inc., were inspired by their respective factory-automation and Internet-networking prowess to form GE Cisco Industrial Networks. Their rationale was neatly captured in the June announcement by Lloyd G. Trotter, president and CEO, GE Industrial Systems: "While companies have connected their office systems, partners, and customers, the factory floor-the heart of manufacturing -is disconnected from the rest of the enterprise." GE Cisco's operating presumption is that "all the proprietary protocols that are out there will ultimately one day be gone and be replaced with Ethernet-based, open standards architecture that will enable everything to talk to everything else." GE Cisco serves a purpose similar to the one Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. had in spinning off their parts-making operations. Independent of GE and Cisco, the company can ally with other automation vendors to solve the connectivity problems. The joint venture also compares itself with firms performing enterprise integration. But instead of performing it from the top down, GE Cisco defines its mission from the controls standpoint-from the bottom up. Its vision is to start at the control layer, and then work up through I/O, controller, human-machine-interface (HMI), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), and then into the IT infrastructure where those functions will meet the big consulting firms (the system integrators) coming down. GE Cisco describes its corporate mission-connectivity-as an ingredient that every successful e-business needs from some source. "The factory can no longer function as an island" of information, says board member Lorrie Norrington (also president and CEO, GE Fanuc Automation). "E-business also means that the production area has to explore new technologies and extend beyond the traditional comfort level. Companies will not succeed in our new electronic environment with outmoded equipment." Culture change Success in Web enabling the factory also hinges on the work culture's familiarity with e-business, adds Metcalf. A company that isn't using the Web for purchasing, for example, is unlikely to embrace the idea of e-enabling its plants. Manufacturers should start small and build the success that will bring support. GE Cisco thinks the greatest culture challenge will be in closing the cultural chasm between IT and the production floor. Don't downplay this challenge, advises Norrington. "They don't speak the same language, they've got different budget dollars, and they have different agendas." Metcalf suggests building the strategy on IT's need to demonstrate that what they do supports the corporation's business objectives. Security is the issue highlighted by ARC's Hill: "Many plant managers and engineers believe the plant floor must be kept ultra secure. The thought of an e-business implementation bringing instructions from outside the plant via the Internet can seem very foreign." The challenges of e-enabling manufacturing also are changing automation vendors. One example is Rockwell Automation, Milwaukee. "Ten years ago we would have been categorized as a product company, but today the products happen more as a result of solving a business problem," says Joe Kann, vice president, global business development. "By accelerating control and information integration projects, our manufacturing customers are requiring more and more consulting services," says Randy Freeman, vice president, global marketing. "With the emergence of e-business we're having to relate technology and products to enterprise-wide strategies. We're in boardrooms explaining how we can solve business problems as much as we find ourselves sitting in the plant manager's office just talking about manufacturing."