Before long, the most important tool for managing your plant may be an internet browser. Here's a look at one "cybermolder" that's already on line.

Surfing the web at work may conjure up images of goofing off. Yet for processors invested in computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM), the internet is poised to take on a far more productive role. Software capable of running over the internet--or on a private "intranet" that uses the same technology--can handle virtually all the CIM tasks that many processors find indispensable. Everything from managing customer relations to monitoring process, production, and inventory data to managing multiple plants can be addressed by web-enabled systems that use the internet as their backbone and ordinary browsers as their interface.

While plastics processing has seen few commercial examples of this trend so far, vendors of plastics-oriented information systems report a growing interest in web technology (see sidebar). And they predict that the World Wide Web, as well as localized intranet versions of it, will supplant today's proprietary CIM networks to become the dominant platform for managing manufacturing information in the future. "The web is really the best way to get information out quickly," says Rob Hirschfeld, a consultant who has added web capabilities to plastics process and production monitoring systems.

In the vanguard of this impending web revolution is Intralox Inc. in Hanrahan, La. A subsidiary of Laitram Corp., Intralox injection molds plastic links for a proprietary line of conveyor belts. Its 50 molding machines range from 55 to 600 tons.

With that many machines and over 2000 kinds of parts to make, the company could easily get bogged down by the reams of data amassed every day by its monitoring system. Instead, Intralox found a way to make its manufacturing data both accessible and useful. Over the past year, the company implemented a web-based reporting system that automatically generates a variety of reports and gets them to the company's decision makers. The system, which updates itself every minute, continuously reads out the production status of each job, including details such as parts or hours left to run.

Users throughout the plant access the system, which runs on the company's intranet and an ordinary browser such as Netscape or Internet Explorer. "The system has no interface other than the web," notes Hirschfeld, who wrote the software for Intralox.

Web-based reports

From the user's point of view there is a single point of entry to an extensive line-up of reports. "Everything is simple enough that anybody can understand the reports with minimal training," says Ned Dudoussat, project coordinator for the system.

Most important among these reports are those concerning plant efficiency, which the company tracks almost obsessively. At Intralox, "production efficiency" is a catch-all standard that consolidates all the molding machine, tooling, and other production factors that influence overall productivity.

For a quick idea of how things are going out on the shop floor, managers can glance at a simple, color-coded table of production efficiencies by job. But the system also lets users drill down into the data and create reports on the individual components of production efficiency, such as cavity utilization, cycle times, scrap rates, downtime, and adherence to production schedules. "With our previous system, we could look at the production efficiency but not at what contributed to it," notes Dudoussat.

Other key reports come from the system's mold-tracking software. It keeps track of the cycles each tool runs and twice a week posts the updated cycle count to the reporting system. This information is used to automatically trigger tool maintenance, and it also prevents the company from scheduling any out-of-service tool. For each of the company's 300 molds, the system also creates an "activity table" containing a history of all repair and maintenance work. "We used to say, 'That mold sure gives us trouble.' Now, we have real data," says Dudoussat.

Watching presses on the web

Much of the information that makes its way into the reporting system originates in the company's Shotscope process-monitoring system from Branden Technologies. "The web reports increase the impact of the Shotscope system," Hirschfeld notes.

Beyond using its intranet to cull data from the shop floor, Intralox also ensures the integrity of that data through a custom application, written Hirschfeld, that validates the performance of the Shotscope system. Called Watchdog, it continuously polls each machine monitor for its current status (up or down) and checks for faults such as unplugged cables, data not writing to the database, network faults, or power problems. The status of each machine's monitoring system is displayed on a color-coded screen on the supervisor terminal. Watchdog has boosted the company's confidence in its data and the system that collects it. "Without Watchdog, this whole system wouldn't operate as reliably," Dudoussat says.

Making information available

Intralox's intranet carries not only manufacturing reports, but also company news and training information. Having 10 or 15 users logged on to the web reporting system at one time is not uncommon, notes Jimmy Roussel, a customer-service representative in the company's information technology department. Not all the users are supervisors: "Our people can access the system from anywhere on campus and use it to solve problems for themselves," says Roussel.

Supervisors, meanwhile, use the system for troubleshooting and to monitor worker performance. "We track downtime extensively," notes Dudoussat. "We can tell exactly how long a stopped machine had to wait for a set-up or maintenance technician. In the past, we collected data that indicated only total downtime and a single general cause. With the new software tools, we can dissect that downtime--for example, time spent waiting for a technician to arrive, time for the technician to diagnose the problem, and then time for him to fix it."

Here Comes the Web

Asked about the coming impact of internet-based information systems, representatives of three major vendors of plastics business software--Rusty Russ from DTR, Terry Kline of IQ Management, and Amir Raza at Mascon--all predict that web-based features will begin to appear in their software by the end of this year. "It's inevitable that web-based technologies will start to take over," says Kline, adding that internet security and transmission-speed issues are quickly falling away. These sources agree that the internet represents the most open, expandable, and cost-effective platform for managing manufacturing data and business processes.

These suppliers all cited three areas as likely first applications of internet technology:

Customer service. Instead of manually tracking down customers' order status--a fax here, a phone call there--the web will offer a faster alternative. Customers will be able to log onto a web site themselves and check an up-to-date display of their order's production status. Mascon's Raza notes that captive or mold-to-stock molders could use similar software to check their inventory levels. Especially brave processors could use similar technology to allow customers a view of real-time production data hot off the shop floor.

Running multiple plants. The T1 phone lines that today connect plant sites via a wide-area network can cost thousands of dollars a month. Internet technologies, aside from providing a unified view of data from all sites, will tie plants together for the cost of a monthly internet connection.

Purchasing. While some users may be reluctant to shed existing proprietary EDI (electronic data interchange) networks, the three vendors all report interest among large customers in web-based EDI solutions.