The Virtualized Plant Floor

Feb. 23, 2009
Improving operations without production disruption

In today's economic climate, manufacturers face increased pressure to control spending without sacrificing their competitive advantages. They cannot afford inefficiencies in areas such as production processes and product development. For many manufacturers to stay competitive, it requires the ability to rapidly deploy and upgrade specialized engineering applications. If they cannot do this cost effectively, the result can be lost productivity and delayed time to market.

To address these challenges, virtualization technology is benefiting manufacturers in a number of ways. Virtualization was a cornerstone of IT projects in 2008 and will continue to be in 2009, as identified by IDC in its December 2008 report, "Worldwide System Infrastructure Software 2009 Top 10 Productions." Different types of virtualization technologies enable companies to consolidate server environments, standardize computer terminals and set up multi-version access to hundreds of software applications.

Application virtualization is a technology that is beginning to specifically impact manufacturing operations and engineering. It will be a primary piece of technology in developing the next generation plant floor and design systems.

Innovation on the Plant Floor

It has long been understood that manufacturers are hesitant to upgrade their existing production systems -- even if it's only an application update and not a complete system overhaul. As a manufacturing facility, operational efficiency is measured by the number of hours a plant is in service. In a standard working environment this is 24-hours-a-day, five-to-seven-days a week.

To update plant floor software and computer systems, causing a possible disruption in production, may not appear to be a wise move for manufacturers. It may seem safer to continue using the systems already in place. However, as we all know, technology is constantly evolving -- making it difficult to avoid software updates over the long term. To ensure that older software is compatible with newer applications, regular system upgrades need to be performed.

The benefits of keeping software applications updated are sizeable, such as increased security, improved application compatibility and enhanced performance. However, if you replace the benefits of upgrading plant floor systems with the possibility of a production disruption, it's not hard to understand why more than 80% of manufacturers continue using their legacy software systems -- a system identified as 20 or more years old.

Facing the Challenge

Fear of plant floor disruptions should no longer be keeping manufacturers from updating their critical production systems. Technology has advanced beyond the days of the green screen, and virtualization, specifically application virtualization, is breaking down the remaining barrier. No longer does a specific application need to be tested at length, deployed in phases and then put into full production.

Instead, application virtualization creates a remote and secure connection to a central server where users access their applications. From here, a user will have on-demand access to their applications from any computer terminal on the plant floor. Though the applications are not installed on individual computers, users do not have to change how they interact with the desktop. The application functionality is the same as if it were installed local on the computer.

Engineers working remotely using laptops will also experience the same usability as those connected directly to the network. Once an application is opened from the desktop and when the session is closed, the application code settings and document profiles are saved on the laptop in a virtual "sandbox." This allows users to access the program even when they are not connected to the network. Once the laptop is reconnected to the network, updates made offline are automatically delivered to the application and saved.

For the plant floor, application virtualization means any version of a manufacturing execution, automation and production system can be deployed to a single piece of equipment without causing disruptions. For example, the operating software on a large format lithographic printer may only be compatible with version 1.0 of the automation system, but an automated specialty folder gluer may benefit from version 2.3 of the same automation system.

In this situation, a manufacturer may be inclined to use only version 1.0 of the automation system and forgo the benefits of version 2.3. This decision by a manufacturer will have a direct impact on the operational efficiency of the plant floor and create system compatibility issues for product engineers. However, if the manufacturer did decide to upgrade the automation system without using application virtualization, the IT department would have to conduct intensive regression and application compatibility testing -- undoubtedly causing delays in delivering the product to market.

Furthermore, the design software used to set up the corrugated box construction points for the specialty folder gluer may receive updates on a regular basis. This will require upgrades to the equipment's production system, which in turn will require retesting of the software to ensure compatibility with other plant floor systems (i.e. automation, execution and production).

Simplifying the Process

Application virtualization drastically simplifies this process and replaces it with a centralized structure where applications are sequenced and virtualized in a controlled environment. With application virtualization, a company can have an infinite number of software systems in production with no risk of interoperability issues.

This is accomplished by the design architecture of the technology. Application virtualization is designed to host each application individually and be accessed remotely. This keeps the hundreds of applications independent of each other while being used at computer terminals across the plant floor.

By keeping software application install packages hosted on the server instead of a local computer terminal, IT departments, plant floor managers, along with product engineers are able to work together effortlessly. Instead of product engineers having three computer terminals on their desks for each version of AutoCAD released over the past three years, they will have one computer that can simultaneously execute all three versions of the AutoCAD program.

Leading the Pack

A good example of a process manufacturer using application virtualization is BASF and its subsidiary BASF IT Services. Using Microsoft's Application Virtualization, BASF has improved the operational processes at its manufacturing facilities. As a result, the company is now able to take waste material at one plant and use it as a raw material at another plant.

To obtain such operational benefits and manage the processes between facilities, BASF has established an Engineering & Maintenance competence center where BASF Engineering manages the design and building of new chemical plants. This team of engineers is charged with establishing new plant production processes, optimizing old ones and improving the efficiency of asset allocation. The primary tool BASF Engineering uses for this is aspenONE Process Engineering.

BASF Moves to Application Virtualization

AspenONE offers BASF engineers a good balance between easy-to-use models and advanced process simulation tools for evaluating its plant floor systems and supply chain management processes. However, as with all software products, BASF engineers need the newest version of aspenONE to drive greater efficiency.

Before using application virtualization to roll out aspenONE updates, BASF IT Services regularly faced compatibility issues with other software applications on an engineer's desktop. This meant months of regression testing and trouble shooting to guarantee the newest version of aspenONE would work with an engineer's other programs -- causing costly delays for BASF.

To resolve the problem, BASF IT Services implemented application virtualization to put aspenONE on a centralized server for remote execution using application virtualization. Consolidating the application enabled BASF IT Services to centrally install and locally provision the application to the engineer's desktops without the risk of application conflicts.

Engineers could now access the program, make changes and save documents through their local desktop, as they had done in the past. The only change recognizable to the engineers is the speed in which application updates are delivered. Now with application virtualization, BASF IT Services can deliver updates for aspenONE automatically.

Through application virtualization, BASF IT Services has been able to reduce its average 9 to 18 month software deployment time by up to 90%; remove the need for engineers to develop application workarounds; create a platform for engineers to operate multiple versions of an application from a single desktop; and build a standardized desktop for application updates and rollouts.

Change for Tomorrow

Application virtualization is the pathway for manufacturers looking to replace their legacy production, and automation and execution systems without risking the production delays that can hinder order fulfillment and market success. As the competitive landscape in manufacturing continues to tighten, it will be critical for manufacturers to have the right technologies available for its employees. The global economy may be following the law of physics, "what goes up must come down," but the reverse is also true. To stay competitive in an eroding marketplace and to be ready for success in a boom requires the right technology. Application virtualization can positively impact plant floor operations to help manufacturers weather the tough times and thrive when economic conditions improve.

Tyler Bryson is the General Manager, U.S. Manufacturing and Resources Sector for Microsoft. The U.S. Manufacturing & Resources group at Microsoft represents more than 900 enterprise accounts across six industry segments: Automotive & Industrial Equipment; Chemical; Consumer Goods; High Tech & Electronics; Oil & Gas; and Utilities. The group is focused on helping manufacturers improve supply chain and operational performance, speed product development and open digital communication channels with customers.

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