Bridging the gap on the shopfloor

You may not be familiar with the term 'middleware', but the concept has been around for a while. Emerging in the 1980s when distributed client server systems became popular, middleware has been reinvented in various shapes and forms – but only recently has the concept proven its worth in the manufacturing realm.

If you use mobile applications or cloud computing in your company, you are already using a form of middleware, allowing your mobile to talk to your control system and then report the goings-on in the plant.

Similarly, if you have implemented a software system to synchronise your Manufacturing Execution System (MES) and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, you are also already using middleware.

"It is often referred to as 'the dash in client-server' as it provides the software layer that lies between an operating system and applications and its goal is to reduce the complexity of developing, running and managing applications," IBM Australia and New Zealand business unit executive for Websphere, Adrian Albert, told PACE.

"Middleware software supports business applications and is increasingly becoming more intelligent and enabling organisations to develop enhanced products and solutions.

"IBM typically hosts workshops with clients and prospects to scope out a prospective solution that addresses a client's particular need," said Albert.

Manufacturing operations today can be very complex and inflexible, which adds cost, lengthens delivery time and increases project risk by threatening business agility. However, as managers realise the benefits of developing visibility across their operation, more companies will turn to middleware.

Middleware for manufacturers can provide functionality such as automated decisions, service-oriented integration, business process management, information security, event processing, reporting and systems management.

It can also incorporate portal technology used to build private and public information about employees and customers, as well as business intelligence such as real-time reporting tools.

According to Oracle ANZ Fusion Middleware principle product manager, Alex Peattie, middleware can provide a competitive advantage for manufacturers by creating an automated and managed end-to-end system.

"A manufacturing organisation's ecosystem typically consists of individual applications to manage production, supply chain execution, sales and operations, logistics and transport. Middleware orchestrates each of these components, passing the relevant information between them to optimise the overall outcome," Peattie told PACE.

According to Peattie, middleware can be a comprehensive family of products, which allows you to adopt the solutions as you require them. "But it is imperative its components are seamlessly pre-integrated to help you create, run, and manage agile and intelligent business applications," he warns.

"Manufacturers may want to develop mobile interfaces to existing control systems on the shop floor. Middleware integration and user interface technology could be used to enable this type of solution, enhancing control systems to provide updates, alerts and reports to a user's mobile device.

"Middleware event management systems can allow manufacturers to handle the vast amount of sensory data that can be collected from SCADA systems. Event processing middleware can define complex patterns of events and monitor live sensors to warn of pending issues, faults, safety concerns or the general wear and tear of equipment."

The Integration Gateway from Rockwell Automation, connecting manufacturing operations to the ERP system.

Manufacturers can either purchase out-of-the-box middleware solutions or seek the help of personalised consulting services. Since every company faces unique challenges, each middleware solution will be different.

Solutions can range in price from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on licenses and engineering services. Importantly, many companies that sell MES or ERP can also provide a middleware solution to link the two areas.

Rockwell Automation South Pacific Information Solutions sales executive, Serena Moreno, says most traditional manufacturers run production systems in isolation, sometimes linked tightly to control.

"Middleware is the glue that binds the different levels of the ISA 95 Communication Standard (global standard for info communication in an enterprise) together. It provides the ability to automate the link and write the points of interaction that you want between the layers (for example, layer 0 to 5). Middleware helps you link everything up," said Moreno.

"The power that can be leveraged by tightly coupling your ERP, MES and control layers translates to significant operational savings and performance improvements. The ERP layer provides business system information and the MES layer provides visibility into the shop floor through production management, materials management, quality and compliance.

"Tightly coupling these functions with the control layer provides real time information from the manufacturing plant level. Coupling these layers through middleware is the key to operational efficiencies."

Moreno says that although packaged solutions are available, in her experience differing customer requirements make it necessary to engineer a solution.

"In a vanilla middleware implementation, the majority of the functionality is out-of-the box, but in our experience we have found that there will be a 20 to 30 percent customisation based on individual requirements," he added.