Automation: What happens when machines talk to machines?

Is there a role for your ERP system as machines communicate with one another? Infor says yes.

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In the materials handling industry, we’ve been talking about machines talking to systems – better known as telematics – for some time. The modern lift truck, for instance, is outfitted with a ton of sensors that collect and communicate operational data from the truck to other systems and people. As distribution centers become more automated and order fulfillment requirements become more complex, conveyors, sorters, automated storage systems and automatic vehicles are talking to one another as well as the warehouse control and management systems.

In the December issue of Modern, for instance, I’m profiling how Genco is using piece picking robots to unload products from a package sealing machine. In this example, the sealing machine is communicating directly with the robot through a PLC, rather than through a warehouse control system, to let it know there is work coming its way.

Is there a role for an ERP system in this scheme? After all, if you’re like me, you think of ERP as a transactional system that sits at the corporate level, not as an execution system that gets its hands dirty on the shop floor like a WMS or manufacturing execution system (MES).

Warren Smith, the global industry director for automotive and equipment for Infor, tells me that is changing. We’re at the early stages, he says, but he believes ERP will be getting in its own 2 cents in that machine-to-machine conversation.

During our conversation, he described the increasingly connected world we’re all working in today, where machines and products can communicate in real time wherever they are located thanks to the Internet and other electronic communication technologies. He called it “the connected device no matter where it’s connected.”

How does ERP play in that connected world? Smith sees two roles. First, as the system of record, the ERP is at some point the repository for that information. It can then publish that information to other systems in a meaningful way. “My WMS may want to know where a lift truck is located and how many picks per hour it’s doing,” Smith says. “The key is getting that information to the WMS in a way to tell a story about the piece of equipment.”

That leads to the next role, one that is emerging now, which is to develop the analytical tools to handle all of the big data now being collected in the supply chain. “We may be getting 1,000 data points but there are just 50 that we need to monitor,” Smith says. “ERP is developing the tools to filter that data in a meaningful way.”

To do that effectively, ERP has to become more of a real-time system and less of a transactional system. By interjecting itself into the machine-to-machine conversation, that becomes possible, Smith says. The example he uses is production scheduling, something an ERP system routinely does today. However, today, ERP does that based on assumed manufacturing constraints. The system knows that a production line is free and is capable of producing 100 units an hour, so it can schedule 800 units in a shift.

But, what if that machine is having a problem? “By connecting ERP to the machine, we can monitor the immediate operating environment and its trending conditions,” says Smith. “We can use that real-time information as part of production planning now. If a machine looks like it’s not capable of 100 units an hour today, I can adjust my schedule.”

That transition from a transactional to real-time system is underway. The benefit when it is complete is quicker response times and reduced waste. “It allows ERP to be an enabler of lean processes,” Smith says.


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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