We've been in this industry a long time. It takes a lot to shock us.
Yet, in our work with metals producers, we are getting concerned. Too many metals production processes are reliant on systems that have been obsolete for 10, 20 or even 30 years.
We've found that this is largely due to economic conditions. When conditions are good, there aren't enough resources to manage and implement new technology. But when conditions are bad, there isn't enough funding to procure new technology.
But, the market won't be getting less volatile anytime soon, and reliance on legacy systems is risky.
The workers who support these systems are retiring. Metals buyers are demanding greater traceability. And, product from developing countries continues to be sold below marginal cost. We see some of our customers stuck, banging their heads. But we see others starting to break the cycle.
Modernizing metals production with manufacturing execution systems (MES) can help companies better understand their operations and get more out of their workforce, equipment and materials.
We've seen more and more customers eager to leverage MES, to link business systems like enterprise resource planning (ERP) with real-time, operational, plant-control systems. In doing so, these producers create an information-driven manufacturing process that can help trigger actions or execute operations, activities, rules and more.
The truth is most producers can't compete on cost, but instead need to implement systems that allow them to sell higher-quality, validated product. MES can track bill-of-material information, quality data, line performance and productivity for each order.
Access to this information opens an avenue to better KPIs. In the steel industry, we have customers where energy costs account for 30 percent of the overall operating costs. After we deploy MES and integrate with time-based historian data to provide context, these same companies can monitor machine energy consumption and identify opportunities for reduction. Those dollars go straight to the bottom line and allow metals companies to stay competitive in this difficult market.
Additionally, with MES, metals producers can retain the “tribal knowledge” of long-time workers before they retire – and we are not talking about black books filled with recipes and isolated, individual, operator knowledge. MES-provided instructions and procedures can be customized to each workstation and country of operation, and they can be enforced to reduce the likelihood of errors among newer, less-experienced employees.
Those of us in the trenches know that a large proportion of the metals companies will not progress with their current production systems. It's time for producers to define how they can become a world-class operation.
We've seen how modern MES can help companies achieve this and transition to more advanced materials production, incorporate new equipment and more complex processes, and address emerging workforce needs. We are actively engaged with metals companies that are pushing the bar. They are investing in MES and manufacturing intelligence – even while transitioning legacy controls and ERP systems – to gain a competitive advantage and enhance their operations.
Co-authored by Greg Cantlon, PE, Brock Solutions, a Rockwell Automation Recognized System Integrator.
Published March 9, 2016