Interest in SAP MII implementations up as manufacturers seek better visibility

More manufacturers are seeking manufacturing intelligence tools, and increasingly SAP MII is the pick for SAP shops.

Many manufacturers are seeking better visibility into production operations these days – a goal that USIMINAS fulfilled quite literally.

At the Brazilian steel company, 28 operators sit in a war room of sorts, keeping watch on a 43-by-6-foot video wall that displays their company's entire supply chain -- from incoming raw materials to the delivery of finished product. Each of the operators can send alerts, drill down to see several levels of detail and publish information in real time, at the same time enabling better production decisions and avoiding problems, according to Neoris, the consultancy that implemented the project.

USIMINAS used SAP Manufacturing Intelligence and Integration (MII) as the backbone for this project, with customization from Neoris. At Sapphire, Henry Costa, Neoris' SAP MII technical manager, demoed the project, which is Web-based, on his iPad. He clicked on a building icon that had turned red, indicating a problem. In seconds, data was available on his iPad detailing what was going on there.

"It's a huge plant, 4.5 miles long," said Costa, who headed up the project. "Before this, they didn't have all of the information about production in a single place."

SAP's Manufacturing Integration and Intelligence (MII) tool is seeing wider adoption as manufacturers seek more visibility into operations without having to make a large investment or time commitment in an IT project.

SAP MII aggregates and contextualizes data from siloed, shop-floor systems. Users can view all of that data on a single screen, eliminating the need for production managers and line supervisors to toggle between four or five screens to get production information. The data is also pulled together in real time, enabling them to make better decisions about production-related issues.

While USIMINAS's project was ambitious and took seven months, many projects can be carried out for well under $500,000 per plant and can be completed in weeks, according to Douglas Gattuso, president of Neoris USA, an SAP consultancy.

"Because there is such clear time-to-value, this is, in some sense, lean software," said Roy Wildeman, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "Just as lean manufacturing is about just-in-time, this delivers everything the customer needs just when they need it. They don't take a lot to put in, deliver just what you need, not more, not less."

Connecting plant systems to the business systems is a pain point for many manufacturers, according to ARC Advisory Group vice president Greg Gorbach. Manufacturing systems such as plant historians, manufacturing execution systems (MES), and quality systems have been in place for years and haven't been given adequate attention or money. To get a collected view of what's going on, an employee has to manually aggregate all of this information from the different systems.

SAP MII, which is a combination of middleware and a development environment, automates this process and gives developers a graphical interface to create customized analysis and role-based reports, Wildeman said. SAP MII doesn't actually store any data – it's not a data warehouse. It simply shows what data the systems are collecting.

"The value statement is helping operations be more responsive and addressing quality issues as they're happening," Wildeman said, avoiding the latency of decision support.

Adoption of SAP MII has also been aided by the fact that it's easier to use now, Gorbach said. The tool, based on the  LightHammer product SAP acquired in 2005 and originally called SAP xMII, has since been rearchitected to sit on NetWeaver. In 2008, he said, SAP had a database of MII configurations and started leveraging NetWeaver security and NetWeaver software delivery tools.

"It really has morphed a lot into something a little bit more robust," Gorbach said.

But successful projects depend on finding people with the skills to work on them and managing expectations of the tool.

For one, the skills required to deploy MII usually aren't readily available, Wildeman said, because it's a unique combination. A certain amount of data manipulation is required – everything needs to be assigned a common lot number. In turn, all of the dashboards and the views are Web-based, requiring a certain amount of Web programming skill. Customers can look to consultancies such as Logica or Tata Services for help, he said.

Typically, there's a lot of enthusiasm for such projects. But the business requirements and a data model need to be clear so that developers don't go off and create cool new views of data that really aren't necessary on the business end, Wildeman said. The business needs to experiment with the new report capabilities that SAP MII applications can deliver before they can effectively define what they need. Make sure developers and design teams work with the production managers, line supervisors, maintenance and machine operators to understand what's needed.

"A pitfall," Wildeman said, "is the blank stare from the business."

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