Intelligent Automation: Business System Integration

Welcome to the fifth post in the Intelligent Automation Educational Series, there are a total of six posts and videos that go along with them. The videos are at the bottom of the post, please let us know if there is anything that we can do to help.

Part one of the Intelligent Automation series can also be found on the blog here, you may want to start with that post to grasp the basics of the series.


Part 4 of the series discussed some powerful data analysis tools useful to understand how a process is operating over time, and to provide actionable information to operators, maintenance personnel, and process engineers. This article will discuss how to bridge the gap between the shop floor and the top floor, and how process information can be integrated with business operations systems to provide a complete picture of a facility or company. The end result is a savings of time and resources by automating the flow of information.

 Planning the process

The first step companies usually take when integrating data from their organization is to use information from the ERP system to more accurately, and automatically, plan production. One common example is using product quality specifications defined in the ERP system combined with Statistical Process Control (SPC) to determine optimal process setpoints each product type. This results in a well-tested set of operating parameters that can be used to generate a recipe of sorts for each product. This can eliminate quality variances due to operators on one shift using different setpoints than another shift, and reduce changeover times when producing different products on the same equipment.

Another common application of ERP integration is to better understand how customer orders and shipping/receiving of raw materials and finished product impact production. For example when a customer order comes in, customer service can log into the system that communicates with the production facility, and 

instead of having to spend the time to track down the production manager, discuss the upcoming schedule, to find out when the order can be shipped, they can enter the requirements and get an estimated completion date based on real-time information in seconds.

Sound the alarms

The flow of information can also go from the process to the ERP system. For example, integrating a computerized maintenance management system with the scheduling makes it easy to immediately alert customer service when a production run will be impacted by downtime. If there will be delays in shipping, the customer can be made aware of any issues as soon as they arise. This approach can also reduce costs associated with spare parts. As maintenance uses parts, the inventory system can be updated in real-time. Purchasing can be alerted when inventory is running low and replacements can be ordered before their absence might impact production.

Data from quality control systems can be easily populated in the ERP system modules used to generate shipping documents and Bills of Lading. Instead of tracking down paperwork, or logging into a different system to manually copy information over to shipping, this can be done automatically, again saving time and reducing exposure to data entry errors.

Other systems that can push information from the process up the pyramid are things like process change management systems to track process changes and their impact on production, as well as things like calculating real-time production costs per unit based on labor, raw materials, and utility resource usage.

See Acronyms Are Hard: ERP

Safety is a number one priority

With the oncoming wave of the Internet of Things, the capability for integrations with things like location tracking beacons can also be included in these process and business system integrations.

One example to improve safety, especially useful in large facilities, is to tie into a security system where staff members swipe a badge to enter a building. This information is stored to understand who is on-site, where they are, and when they are there. Integration location beacons provide better resolution about this information, showing when people are near beacons at a plant. Pushing this data from the business side to the control room, with a screen on the operator interface to the plant showing the location of operators throughout the plant, makes it easier to manage and track people down in case of an emergency. This approach can even be used for things like bringing security cameras up on the operator interface based on where people are currently working.

These are just a couple of the potentially limitless possibilities enabled by integrating different systems, including newly available technology to help improve safety.

Want to know more? Check out THE Ultimate MES Guide where we talk about many different integrations!

Wrapping up

This article covered a handful of ways integrations across an organization can be used to understand and optimize operations across the board. While the number of possibilities can be overwhelming, understanding what systems provide the most value to an organization, and leveraging those in conjunction with one another is a good place to start.

These ideas don’t even require complex or costly tools, sometimes tying together information in Excel sheets or other documents shared on a file server can get the ball rolling on distributing information throughout a company.

The key is to start small, get people used to changing the way things are done, and then empower them to find new ways to integrate and innovate how information is shared, how business gets done, and how things get made.



Part one on Introducing the Intelligent Automation Pyramid

Part two on Process and Control

Part three on Process Intelligence Tools

Part four on Data Analysis Systems

Part five on Business System Integration

Part six on Understanding Process Automation Systems


Alex Marcy wrote this originally for Oil & Gas Engineering