manufacturing intelligence

Technology: Opening the Eyes of Industry

March 7, 2013
Manufacturing Intelligence brings new visibility -- and new opportunity -- into the heart of production.

Last year, Hillshire Brands -- formerly Sara Lee (IW 500/116) -- uncovered a bit of a problem at its Newbern, Tenn., facility.

At the end of a line, after the plant processed and wrapped its Jimmy Dean sausages, the plastic-wrapped meat came to a binary junction with the checkware system that determined its fate. After all the work was done, it all came down to weight -- product that measured in range was passed on to shipping, anything else was trashed.

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The problem there was a subtle one. "There was no real visibility into the system," explains Jonathan Riechert, senior project engineer at Hillshire. "We had no insight into where the weight fluctuations came from or what our actual giveaway of meat was in each package."

Furthermore, he says there was no way to capture or record any fluctuations on a consistent basis -- meaning staff had to be on-hand to watch the checkware if they wanted to get anything out of it. And even then, there were few insights to draw; there were simply good products and bad with no mechanism to determine the cause.

This isn't a unique problem, of course. This same scenario is playing out in manufacturing plants all over the world as companies unleash new intelligence platforms to drive them forward. 

But until last year, this wasn't even a problem. For over a decade Hillshire's system had kept the sausages rolling through production perfectly well, just as it had in many similar plants.

The fact that it is a problem now says a great deal about the plant and, indeed, the industry as a whole. It says that progress is being made, that manufacturers are examining their legacy systems and pursuing real insights and visibility into their processes. It says companies are no longer satisfied with yesterday's success. 

Suddenly, in this age of intelligence, in this age of visibility, it seems these legacy systems just can't cut it anymore.

Manufacturing Intelligence Shines a Light

Looking at systems through the lens of today's technology -- of all the real time analytics, the graphical displays and mobile interfaces, the unprecedented visibility they offer -- it starts to seem like manufacturers have been operating in the dark until now. 

And that is exactly the effect modern, IT-driven manufacturing systems are designed to provide.

"The whole idea of manufacturing systems like Manufacturing Intelligence is to tap into all of the information from the factory floor, all of that data, and turn it into something that will help you run your plant better," explains Bob Honor, vice president of Information Software at Rockwell Automation.

The point, he says, is to shine a light into the manufacturing process to help manufacturers make better decisions. 

Doing that, of course, requires a break from the past, from the days of isolated production operations cycling endlessly in the dark.

"Connecting manufacturing information to really optimize what you do with production, that's the vision of the future," states Sujeet Chand, Rockwell's CTO. "These technologies are enabling a convergence between plant level information and business information, giving manufacturing leaders the ability to drive more optimization of their products."

"The limitations of the past, technology has taken away," he says.

The dashboard from FactoryTalk VantagePoint, which Hillshire Brands has brought into its Newbern plant, provides real time performance visibility at all levels of the organization—from the operator all the way up to the corporate office. Graphic: Rockwell Automation

A New Era of Visibility

Hillshire's Newbern facility offers a perfect example of this development. Armed with machine historians and a newly implemented MI software suite, operators will soon have access to all of the weight fluctuations, giveaways and even meat temperature they could hope for, which is far more than the simple good egg/bad egg system that brought the company up to today. And that is a big jump into a new age of manufacturing.

"We expect the Newbern facility to be able to improve their processes much more quickly than the other plants because of the visibility they will gain into their processes," Riechert says. "They should be able to see the issues and identify them and find a way to fix them. That's the big thing: as long as you can identify the problems, you can point people in the correct direction to find what they are looking for and what is causing the problems." 

About the Author

Travis M. Hessman | Editor-in-Chief

Travis Hessman is the editor-in-chief and senior content director for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He began his career as an intern at IndustryWeek in 2001 and later served as IW's technology and innovation editor. Today, he combines his experience as an educator, a writer, and a journalist to help address some of the most significant challenges in the manufacturing industry, with a particular focus on leadership, training, and the technologies of smart manufacturing.

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