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Innovative Manufacturing Execution System Reduces Barriers to RFID Adoption in South China

Factory operators are partnering with academic researchers and government agencies to develop an MES that can help overcome concerns regarding high costs and risks, as well as the high level of technical skills required for implementation.
By Kurt Hozak

To help meet those needs, the AUTOM MES unified the methods for accessing the different types of hardware, by providing a common interface with the various devices' unique drivers. The researchers sought to make the solution as easy to use and as flexible as possible, by making device use plug-and-play regardless of the underlying technology and vendor. The devices are accessed via Web services and XML-based rules specifying how data is to be collected and processed. A new operating system being developed by the researchers will manage the various devices and agents.

The AUTOM researchers have tried to achieve the ease of use championed in previous RFID Journal articles (see Lessons Learned From ERP Can Help Drive RFID Adoption and End Users Want an iPod). Huang offers the analogy that just as iTunes greatly simplifies the management of a range of Apple products, the MES' architecture would greatly reduce the technical skills required from end users to easily and effectively manage a wide range of automatic identification devices. He elaborates on his philosophies about usability by stating, "My vision for my team is, 'No documentation or training should be necessary if a solution is well designed according to the business processes and operations'—just like there is no training for e-banking operations and everybody is assumed to be able to use the services through well-designed facilities."

Some of the AUTOM MES architecture described in the academic papers is still evolving and being tested in pilot implementations. For example, the researchers are developing a graphical user interface that businesses can utilize in conjunction with an event-classification hierarchy to easily provide meaning to the data collected by the various devices. A process' real-world activities will be identified as low-level "essential" and "primitive" events that could be identified manually or automatically by RFID-enabled items. The events for those activities will be aggregated into "basic" events that will be used to represent a shop-floor process. More complicated or distributed processes form "complex" events, while those directly affecting decision-making are deemed "critical" events.

Workflows will be graphically defined using the company-specific events, and be converted to XML Process Definition (XPDL) files that will help integrate the real-time data from the shop floor system with higher-level enterprise systems. The AUTOM team is developing what it calls "visibility explorers," which will make possible the principle that "what you see is what you do; what you do is what you see" (see Managing Growth for related discussion about visibility software). The aforementioned hierarchies and workflows will help to ensure that the proper individuals and enterprise applications see the correct data at the right time.

"RFID-Enabled Product-Service System for Automotive Part and Accessory Manufacturing Alliances," by Huang et al., describes additional AUTOM MES and software integration functionality being developed to enable a business model that makes it even easier to overcome the "three high problems" inhibiting RFID adoption. The new functionality will help partner companies to share RFID-enabled resources, services and competencies, allowing them to further lower their risk, reduce investment, decrease the amount of technical skills individually required, accelerate the installation process, and improve the system's maintenance and reliability. For example, companies in an industrial park that are part of a manufacturing alliance or the same supply chain might invest in and share the same software, hardware and technical support specialists. When business events occur that affect the other partners using the system, the appropriate parties will be made aware in real time. This is made possible because the system is being implemented as software as a service (SaaS), centrally hosted as part of a service-oriented architecture (SOA) that facilitates integration. The new functionality will enable greater coordination and collaborative decision-making between the partners, which is especially important when processes in their supply chain are highly intertwined.

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