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In Search of Perfection

Perfection can be elusive. The New England Patriots, arguably the best football team of the season just passed, learned a painful lesson on Feb. 3. Perfection can be just within your grasp, but then can slip away by a hair's breadth. You can build and build for months and then lose it all in a couple of minutes. And then you have to start all over again. There's no finish line when it comes to perfection.

 

But that doesn't stop us from trying. In a way, establishing perfection as a goal is necessary to enable any person or group to achieve more — more than the usual, more than the expected, the edge that leads to the realization of a dream.

 

And so it is, too, with manufacturing. We set the goal of achieving perfection in how we handle an order, process an invoice, create a customer experience, procure material, or fulfill a warranty. Achieving perfection in conducting an individual business process is hard enough, but now there are some who want to extend the goal to running an entire factory or plant. Is this a bridge too far?

 

A very determined group of technology suppliers and service vendors — consisting of SAP, computer hardware maker Stratus, MES supplier Visiprise, supply chain execution specialist Acsis, asset management company Meridium, and service giant Tata Consultancy Services, among others — does not think so. In fact, these vendors think the idea of a "perfect plant" is not only a realistic goal, but also one that is achievable now.

 

The group's stated mission is to "bridge the chasm" between the shop floor and the top floor by delivering what it calls "plant-to-enterprise-ready business processes" that enable

operational excellence and lower costs for manufacturers. As part of this mission, the group is addressing four key processes: production, inventory, quality, and asset management.

 

"The modern manufacturing plant is a complex, interrelated system," say Vivek Bapat of SAP, OSIsoft Chief Executive Pat Kennedy, and consultant Paul Kurchina of KurMeta in the introduction of a new book they have authored called In Pursuit of the Perfect Plant and scheduled to be published this spring. "... To really make a difference in improving the operations of a plant to meet its owner's goals, you have to have a comprehensive vision of what the plant should accomplish and how every part of the plant can help in the face of continual change. This vision is what we call the perfect plant."

 

The book will serve as a framework for how manufacturers can move toward the idea of a perfect plant, but the group's real value-add is in pulling together all of the technology vendors and orchestrating an approach to solving the integration problem.

 

This sort of collaboration should be welcome news to manufacturers struggling with integration problems, at least on the technology level. Many manufacturers still have to deal with vexing cultural issues associated with integrating their plant floors with enterprise business systems, as numerous MA reader surveys have shown. Until both the technology problems and cultural issues are solved, we won't make much progress on the integration front.

 

But try we must. Maybe, just maybe, an orchestrated technology approach like the one proposed by SAP and its partners will lead the way in solving the larger issues. And maybe, just maybe, that finish line will finally be in sight.

Source: Editorial from the March 2008 issue of Managing Automation,  In Search of Perfection,  by David R. Brousell, MA Editorial Staff

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