These days everyone buying manufacturing equipment or software wants the same thing, regardless of what it is they are buying - integration with other systems. The problem is that integration means something different to everyone, and needs will vary wildly from one manufacturer to another. Here are a handful of questions to think about before you begin on an integration project.
Integrate what and between whom?
First you should be thinking about which systems should be working together and what data should be shared between them. Are you looking for feedback and feed-forward between printers, placement, and inspection? Do you want to synchronize real time inventory counts and locations between smart storage, ERP, and MES? Do you simply need to reconcile scrap on a weekly basis?
Start answering these questions by looking at your current pain points and bottlenecks. Are your inventory counts always wrong? Do you have issues with traceability or handling of moisture sensitive devices? Are you struggling to accurately place microscopic or fine-pitch components?
You can even try to rank the impact of these problem areas in order to prioritize different integration projects. Regardless of how your list looks, every integration feature should be working to eliminate at least one of your problem areas.
Real-time or report-based?
Next consider how these problems might best be alleviated or eliminated by data sharing. Do you need real-time feedback between printing, placement, and inspection machines in order to make micro-corrections throughout a production run? Or do you simply need a batched report detailing any problematic inspection results? Does your MES need a better handle on where every SMT reel is at any given moment? Or do you just need a list of all the lot codes used on a particular work order?
Real-time transactions are great; it's why we love to use web services when integrating with other systems. A real-time system can accomplish all the same things as a report-based system, but if a simple file-based report will fulfill your actual needs then a real-time web service interface is probably overkill. Identifying how your problems could be solved in this way can also help to identify low-hanging fruit as you balance your priorities with the work needed to solve any particular issue.
What is actually possible with your systems?
Once you have identified why you need integration, which systems should talk together, what data they should share, and when they should share that data, you should start investigating how you can bring it all together.
Is your ERP/MRP system designed to be able to integrate easily with other systems? Do you have in-house IT resources who already manage all the data within your various systems or will you need a third-party to help get data in and out? What integration options are available with your software and equipment? Are there restrictions, caveats, things that can't be done? Will you be looking at custom integration, off-the-shelf APIs, something more industry standard like CFX?
The best advice we can give here is to start a conversation with your different vendors outlining what you are trying to achieve. At this stage in the evolution of smart manufacturing, all your vendors should have some experience with various types of integration at various types of manufacturers, and they should have some good insight as to what is easy, hard, and impossible with their systems.
There's more to it than you think!
Integrating manufacturing systems is always a bit trickier than you would expect, if only because you'll need to consider edge cases and error states that come up throughout the process. It's important to lean on whatever expertise you have available whether that is coming from your own team or from your key vendors and partners.
Lastly, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and don't be afraid to take a phased approach. The Pareto Principle is almost always in play here, and it can often be (relatively) easy to make huge gains from a small amount of work.
Don't hesitate to get in touch to ask questions and learn more! We have decades of internal experience in integration projects with customers from all over the globe and in every type of manufacturing industry. Stay tuned for more from the Inovaxe Blog soon!