Controlling manufacturing via the Internet

From OE Reports Number 202 - October 2000
01 October 2000
By Peter Gwynne

Imagine that when you want to buy a car you visit a manufacturer's website rather than a showroom. Sitting at your desk you decide on the model you want, select the color, choose the options, and agree on the price, all without human intervention in the process. Then you give your mouse a final click. That sends the instruction to start assembling your custom automobile directly to the manufacturing plant.

Through computer and information technologies, the Diesel Combustion Collaboratory aims to reduce the geographical barriers to information transfer and increase the utilization of computational models and visualization.

You can't send your order directly to an assembly line yet. However, auto manufacturers Ford and General Motors have recently teamed up with electronic commerce firms Oracle Corp. (Redwood Shores, CA) and Commerce One (Pleasanton, CA) to develop systems that will eventually permit car buyers to send their orders via the Internet to the factory where their cars will be assembled. Development of such a system depends heavily on improvements in the ability of manufacturers to use the Internet to feed information directly to the factory floor.

Automobile executives aren't alone in hoping to avoid the middleman by using the Internet or private intranets to control manufacturing. "Manufacturers have always wanted everything connected so that there's no passing around of paper, no dependence on the person who answers the phone at the factory," said Nina Berry, senior member of the technical staff at Sandia National Labs (Albuquerque, NM). "They want their manufacturing system to be a huge circle with everything connected."

Electronic commerce has provided the major stimulus for using the Internet to control manufacturing. "E-commerce is so successful that manufacturing companies have seen the potential," said Mihaela Ulieru, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Univ. of Calgary (Alberta, Canada). In addition, the need for paperless, bureaucrat-free manufacturing has increased as industry has grown more international. "In the global economy it becomes harder to beat your competitor," Berry said. Controlling the process of manufacturing via the Internet or an intranet can help to provide a crucial edge against competitors.

Obtaining that sort of control won't be easy. Researchers must overcome several technical and business barriers before they can confidently organize factories that produce anything in response to remote commands. Solving those problems is relatively simple in cases where manufacturing is controlled through a corporate intranet. But when the Internet is involved, difficulties arise in such areas as the compatibility of computer systems that must link up to ensure smooth manufacturing. "The software industry has not solved the problem of language of different domains," Berry said. "At present, it's like French and English speakers trying to communicate." She said architectures are also an issue. "Designers have to create components that will work together."

Security presents an even greater problem. Sending commands to manufacturing plants via the Internet involves breaching firewalls set up to prevent unauthorized entry to corporate information systems. Whenever a company punches a hole in its firewalls to let in its collaborators, unwelcome visitors can also gain access. "I would argue that security is perhaps the weakest issue in progressing to Internet manufacturing," Berry said. Carmen Pancerella, a principal member of the technical staff at Sandia, agreed. "A lot of companies have been fearful of the Internet because of security issues," she said. "They have even been dubious about intranets."

Despite those difficulties, several organizations are moving steadily toward remotely controlled manufacturing. R&D teams have made substantial progress in two key areas: distributed computing and software agents. And holonic manufacturing, a particular approach to the use of agents in manufacturing, is progressing toward actual use in factories within a few years. "I have done research in this area for years," Ulieru said. "But I am still surprised at how fast it is moving."

Distributed computing

Distributed computing creates the foundation for manufacturing mediated via intranets or the Internet. "In its simplest form, distributed computing is having two or more computers connected by a network working to solve the same problem," Pancerella said. Real manufacturing is more complicated. "You can think of a shop floor environment in which each of the machines has a separate controller. There has to be some coordination and synchronization to get the job done."

Should the work be coordinated by dictatorship or democracy -- by a single controller or by collaborative agreement among the operators of individual workstations and computers? So far, no single pattern has emerged. "It depends on the type of manufacturing and the company," Pancerella said. The fact that firms involved in distributed computing must often work with corporate partners also plays an important role in deciding how their networks should be controlled.

What is clear is that distributed computing will grow. "I'm very optimistic that all kinds of manufacturing companies will see the value in distributed computing," Pancerella said. "Many companies are using the Internet and intranets quite extensively, and most manufacturers see this as the future. It you were a company setting up, you would have to design your building and your work space to support distributed computing." Pancerella's team at Sandia is helping to shape the future through the Diesel Combustion Collaboratory. This is a project designed to provide the diesel industry with tools for collaboration in distributed computing.

Distributed computing has its problems. "It has issues of interoperability," Berry said. "You can get your own systems to work together, but getting them to work with someone else's is another matter. Simply locating a piece of software that you don't own can be complex."

Agent technology

A key to solving that problem is agent technology. Agents are intelligent software programs that can travel through intranets or the Internet to gather information on purchasing, design, production, planning, resources, and other factors in a manufacturing supply chain, and to bring together all parts of the process at the appropriate time. Different types of agents specialize in different components of manufacturing. Some seek design data. Others deal with scheduling and planning. And still others specialize in auctions; they dicker with other agents through the Internet to obtain the best prices for supplies that manufacturers need or for products that consumers want.

Douglas Norrie, a colleague of Ulieru's at the Univ. of Calgary, pointed out that agent- based approaches can optimize manufacturing in several ways, from increasing enterprises' responsiveness to the market's requirements to allocating resources most effectively to increasing the effectiveness of information exchange and feedback.

Like distributed computing, agent technology is undergoing rapid development. The Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents (FIPA) works on technical standards for agents. Canadian telecommunications company Nortel Networks already has an FIPA-standard system, while British Telecom is working on its own version. The Intelligent Manufacturing Systems Consortium, a group that brings together companies and universities, aims to develop technology useful for industry.

In addition, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a branch of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, is working on a "next-generation testbed" for agents in manufacturing. "We have established it for analyzing and improving agent systems as they apply to manufacturing," said NIST's Nenad Ivezic, who oversees the project. "We are in the final stages of this analysis capability, where various users and research groups will be able to connect to our website, download problems, solutions, and metrics, and do interesting analysis that will hopefully drive further development. This will provide an opportunity to share knowledge and have a tool to test."

Holonic technology

One promising means of using agents and distributed computing is holonic technology. Arthur Koestler, the late Hungarian novelist, science writer, and philosopher, defined the idea in terms of living systems. A holon, he said, is an identifiable part of a system that has a unique identity, consists of subordinate parts, and is also part of a larger whole. The Holonic Manufacturing Systems (HMS) consortium, an international group created in the mid-1990s, seeks to translate Koestler's idea into concepts useful for manufacturing.

"The consortium has done a lot of research on the application of intelligent cooperative agents in manufacturing," said Jim Christensen of Rockwell International (Seal Beach, CA). "We're moving into a phase where we want to systematize and standardize the results and show their practical application in realistic, industrially relevant situations. We're working with FIPA to standardize interfaces between agents. That could help to make the FIPA protocols more robust."

After a four-year research study, the HMS consortium has started a three-year phase of developing and testing standards for cooperative agents. "We'll probably see physical installations for testing within 12 to 18 months and actual testing in the 18- to 24-month time frame," Christensen said.

The work has sparked interest beyond the consortium. "We're seeing higher levels of interest as demand for more flexible, lower-cost, higher customization supply chain management manufacturing occurs," Christensen said. "This technology is just beginning to emerge from the research phase into a precompetitive developmental phase."

Illustrating the appeal of Internet-mediated manufacturing, industry giants GE (Fairfield, CT) and Cisco Systems (San Jose, CA) recently joined forces to create GE Cisco Industrial Networks (Charlottesville, VA). The new company, states a joint announcement, "will assess, design, and build network infrastructures for manufacturing plant floor and industrial environments that will that will enable enterprise-wide communication." That, Berry said, "is perhaps the most impressive thing I've seen in the field so far."

Peter Gwynne
A former science editor of Newsweek, Peter Gwynne is a free-lance science writer based in Sandwich, MA.

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