With all the emphasis on digital transformation and the new cost efficiencies that it brings, manufacturing organizations can’t let siloed systems be the bottleneck for innovation.
Sharing information enables manufacturers to achieve new levels of efficiency. With the Industrial Internet of Things (IIot) revolutionizing manufacturing by leveraging intelligent, connected devices in factories, there are even more opportunities to fine tune operations with better data and process integration.
Still, resistance to change, the level of risk involved and the investment required, are some of the reasons why most IT departments put off system integration projects. When they do decide to move ahead, many managers look to point-to-point (P2P) integrations to save money in the short run. But when additional systems are added, they can end up with higher costs and a system architecture that is a nightmare to manage.
Taking Matters into Your Own Hands
Many organizations have in-house staff who are experienced and readily available, so the temptation is to tackle the integration challenge in-house. When infrastructures includes only a few components, for example integrating an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system with a manufacturing execution system (MES), costs are low at the project level. Since this is how IT historically evaluates success, P2P is still the most common approach today.
However, each new low-cost P2P connection added to the enterprise has compounding effect on the total lifetime cost of the IT infrastructure. Every new connection has to be developed, implemented, and maintained in order to share data with all of the other devices, components, and systems in the network.
With each new module or system that needs to be added, developers are faced with a learning curve of understanding, modifying and then testing each new connection. The result is a spider web of connections that takes longer to adapt to each new requirement, slowing down development times, and forcing IT departments to focus more on integration and less on creating applications that support their business users.
The P2P cost model increases exponentially as the size of the network increases linearly while also introducing security and regulatory risks.
System Integration Is Pervasive
Another reason why P2P integrations fail is that IT organizations are geographically dispersed. Organizational data is no longer centrally stored and managed in corporate data centers. Instead, it is scattered everywhere. This is especially relevant for manufacturers.
Take for example the complexity of IIoT systems where there is a requirement to connect to vast networks of sensors, controllers, beacons, smartphones, tablets and other devices. There needs to be a mechanism to share data seamlessly between CRM, ERP, and back-end financial and manufacturing systems with the ability to scale up to process an increase in volumes of data. Managing all of these connections using a P2P integration architecture would be impossible.
Meanwhile, application developers, line of business (LOB) IT services and business users are increasingly involved with integration work. Gartner calls this new situation “pervasive integration.” This means that more people need access to tools to help empower the process of integrating data.
Third Party Flexibility
Integration platforms provide a better alternative to point-to-point infrastructure, because they provide a more flexible environment that matches the challenges of digital transformation. Third-party tools have the advantage that they are optimised to deal with a vendor’s technology stacks (especially those that have vendor-certified connectors and capabilities), but they are also optimised to integrate between stacks. So if you are thinking of integrating technologies from multiple vendors or want to keep your options open for the future, vendor-agnostic tools can provide best-of-breed capabilities out of the box.
Other crucial components to integration solutions include elasticity, resilience, fault-tolerance, as well as monitoring and performance management capabilities. The need for guaranteed message delivery means monitoring is vital. If a system fails during transmission, the integration tool needs to recognize when it can resend the message. In addition, monitoring capabilities provide systems with the ability to automatically cache transmissions that cannot be sent and extra resources to handle sudden peaks in demand.
Before resisting the need to invest in system integration, both in terms of tools and man hours, it’s helpful to remember that business processes will be improved that can bring significant financial benefits. For example, one pharmaceutical company used an integration platform to trace chemical quantities and lot numbers at each step of the manufacturing process to accelerate compliance with regulations. Integrating specialized equipment with back office equipment also reduced inventories due to better demand forecasting.
System integration projects can be the most difficult to plan, execute and manage. Keeping a focus on long term benefits and putting a flexible infrastructure in place can result in the best ROI over time. Doing system integration for the long run makes IT an enabler, not an obstacle for manufacturers’ digital transformation.