No plant is an island

Shared data in the form of production intelligence can fill the gap between boardroom and plant floor.

Olin Thompson
One of the critiques to surface as a result of the 9/11 report is that our nation's various intelligence-gathering agencies did not communicate effectively among each other prior to 9/11. As a result, the 9/11 committee recommended the appointment of a National Intelligence Director. Whether you agree with the recommendation or not, according to the report, this person would "set information sharing and information technology policies to maximize data sharing."

The fundamental idea is that data-whether it relates to national security or plant operations-should be shared among those who need access to it. Yet in most food plants, a systems gap often exists between the corporate systems (i.e. ERP and SCM) and the plant systems (i.e. MES, LIMS and maintenance). Although many plants may take steps to implement software that improves plant operations, few understand the importance of integrating that information with corporate software systems. Through data sharing, production intelligence solutions enable corporate, plant and production managers to improve production efficiency, performance and profitability by presenting real-time information in a business context throughout the enterprise.

My system, their system

Like a series of islands, systems in the typical plant are not well integrated. The plant often has portions of corporate systems performing production management functions, such as inventory, scheduling and costing. There are also plant level systems-batching systems, quality, maintenance, machine monitoring and control-that perform production execution functions.

At both levels, integration among those systems may not be fully accomplished. In fact, plants often have multiple systems that are poorly linked or not linked at all.

Production intelligence solutions integrate these various systems, correlate the information and provide a variety of services, including aggregation, analysis, reporting and visualization. With these solutions, flow data from the control system can be translated into inventory transactions, quality data can be used to evaluate maintenance needs and work order information from the ERP system can feed the MES system. Multiple sources of data can yield key performance indicators like Operational Equipment Efficiency (OEE), Return on Assets (ROA), energy utilization, production performance and quality trends. By connecting, transforming and presenting information in real-time, production intelligence solutions reveal opportunities that allow the business to increase performance, efficiency and profitability.

Understanding the end goal

At any plant, the objective is to increase profitability, whether that's through improving efficiency, reducing overhead or increasing response time. As a tool in your software arsenal, production intelligence can offer:

  • Increased asset utilization
  • Improved product quality and consistency
  • Reduced waste and compliance with emissions targets
  • Enterprise-wide access to plant data and business systems.

Decision-making can be improved through production intelligence's key performance indicators (KPIs) delivered to a digital dashboard. The system can transform plant-centric KPIs into measures that reflect and support business strategies. Consistent metrics allow plant personnel to align their objectives with corporate decision-making, and ensure consistent measurement, optimization and the drive towards the same goals from the boardroom to the plant floor.

The shared assets

The benefits are apparent both to overall corporate strategy and the nature of day-to-day plant production. Plant KPIs that reflect corporate objectives will enable the plant manager to align his or her plant with the bigger picture. Further, maintenance engineers can view production and quality results as a part of maintenance diagnosis and planning. They can increase asset effectiveness, track equipment statistics, such as run hours and number of overloads, optimize service intervals and reduce bottlenecks and unscheduled stoppages.

Similarly, process engineers can analyze maintenance, quality and performance information to identify areas that require improvement such as quality, diagnosing bottle necks, increasing response time, streamlining scheduling, and analysing equipment failures. Down the line, quality-assurance personnel can understand the production environment to more fully correlate quality with production. They can compare plant production against specifications, analyze quality implications and automate record keeping and reports. Production intelligence can also assist in complying with regulations, including HACCP and the Bioterrorism Act.

The ultimate objective of production intelligence systems is to improve customer satisfaction and financial performance. These can be valuable assets to help bridge the gap between corporate and plant data. To be effective, plant systems and corporate systems must be complementary and leverage each other to provide maximum value. Understanding the value of integration is the first step toward improving overall plant operations.

Olin Thompson is a consultant who specializes in the application of information technology in the food industry. He is the founder of The Food CIO Forum (

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