Case Study Info

Manufacturing Execution System Extending

The Challenge

The on/off Group is a leading provider of automation and information technology across a broad range of business partners from the engineering to the pharmaceutical industries. As a partner in the process manufacturing industry they offer solutions customized to the client’s needs, whether it be instrumentation or fieldbus technology; Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA); Partitioning Communications Systems (PCS); or Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES). Any or all of these solutions can be designed to be Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) compliant, if the client requires it. One of their most popular products is InfoCarrier, an MES which enables high degrees of automation across a wide range of manufacturing processes.

Constant product development and enhancement is the key, not only to retaining the trust and good will of an existing client-base, but to expanding that client base by ensuring that every potential of each product is exploited, and every possible use examined. In the ever-changing world of Information Technology this can often be an enormous challenge, particularly if in-house IT assets are already fully stretched with current operations, leaving little time, space or capacity for horizon gazing. This is the challenge that faces The on/off Group, and one which prompts them to turn to Softage for assistance.

Solution Overview

The on/off Group is keen to increase the utility of InfoCarrier to their existing clients and to expand its use to a broader client base. They team up with Softage in January 2012 and ask us to assist with product development and integration for InfoCarrier. We immediately allocate a team of three Quality Assurance engineers and three developers to work closely with The on/off Group’s own IT specialists.

Our people spend a full two months working with specialists from within the on/off team, examining and investigating this complex system with its many interactions. The systems our developers and engineers are faced with are extremely complex. There are huge databases containing vast quantities of information, enormous numbers of linked objects, and complex calculation and estimation rules.

Once the initial investigation phase is complete, we begin work on a raft of improvement and development tasks which are developed and rolled out throughout 2012.

Main Features

Softage’s collaboration with The on/off Group can usefully be divided into a number of discrete projects.

Project 1: Recording route in connection with offline data acquisition.

Softage is invited to assist with the development of an extension of the highly successful InfoCarrier MES which will enable the administration of offline data acquisition routines and associated tasks. This requires handheld scanners to be configured and loaded with a particular set of data which in turn allows them to lift data from offline recording devices, such as electric and gas meters, heat meters, water meters, steam meters, or any other type of measuring device not connected to a PLC or PCS. It will also have utility in configuring any type of necessary control points for regular checks, and for recording results.

These administration functions work in conjunction with an application called Scanner Application for Offline Data Acquisition, an application originally created by the team of .Net developers at Softage, and is designed for scanners such as the Intermec CK3 which use the Windows Mobile 6.1 Classic Edition. It works by loading a predetermined route (essentially a set of points at which data is to be recovered from the measuring devices) from an XML file, then recording the required values from the measuring devices. Each route consists of one or more groups, and each group comprises one or more recording points. Communication between the applications on the handheld device and the MES is performed via XML data files using the special Import and Export modules which enable both the export of the recording routes and the import of the data retrieved from the devices.

The application allows the operator to read energy meters or other offline measuring or control points using the handheld scanner, and then transfer that information to the parent system which downloads all of the collected data via a docking station. InfoCarrier displays the recorded points as measuring points, and the data collected can consist of numerical or other values. Depending on the type of measuring point, the system opens an automatically adapted recording screen with fields for the operator to populate.

Supported by the scanner application, the user works his way around the route, identifying each recording station by reference to a unique barcode which has been allocated to it. The operator simply scans the barcode and then enters the meter reading, measured value, or monitoring result. Once the route has been completed the scanner’s is docked with the system and transfers the data stored on the scanner to the InfoCarrier database where it is then available for analysis.

The scanner application is also designed to guide the operator through the recording process; to perform a plausibility check on the data entered to ensure that it is within expected or acceptable limits; and to provide support in the form of special functions to allow for a typical events such as meter exchange or meter overflow.

Project 2: A daylight savings time migration.

Originally, the InfoCarrier system had not been configured to cope with the change to and from daylight savings time twice a year, and this unexpectedly led to a loss of data among samples scheduled to be taken each hour. In the winter, a sample schedule for the ‘extra hour’ was overwritten with one taken from the ‘missing hour’ for the summer, because, in the original database format, these values for those dates were equal. In addition to this loss, the system is unable to cope with data created during the ‘missing hour’ and operators are unable to enter data collected during the ‘extra hour’. This leads to data corruption, missing or duplicate data, and to errors in management information and representation, including charts and graphs, which suffer inbuilt errors as a result of this configuration.

Softage is asked to rectify this problem and our team immediately sets about identifying and implementing a change program to migrate the system to a new date and time model compatible with daylight savings time. This necessitates a very large number of changes in the system. Every single object in the database is changed to reflect the revised date and time format. In addition, many calculations and estimation algorithms also must to be changed to overcome the problem.

The Softage QA team makes a detailed analysis of the date and time controls and the testing procedures, prepares documentation for the client on how to check and resolve issues connected with daylight time saving, and carries out tests on each individual object and communication level in the system. Migration to the revised system is successfully completed in just 4 months.

Project 3: Building a Desktop launcher.

This particular part of the overall project is prompted by the oft-repeated wish from on/off Group’s customers to have an alternative and more easily used start-up platform for InfoCarrier applications. In conjunction with the needs for Energy Management systems and terminals that run in kiosk mode, it is decided to develop a new launcher platform which would:

  • Allow start-up of applications from a form instead of a menu.
  • Support opening of desktop objects.
  • Be configurable by end-users.
  • Support touch-screen terminals.
  • Support kiosk mode.

The application is a stand-alone program providing a configurable panel of buttons, which allows the start up any of InfoCarrier as well as other user-defined applications. The launcher can also pass parameters to these applications. The entire functionality is integrated into the InfoCarrier security system.

Project 4: Expanding the task management system. 

The on/off Group wants to expand InfoCarrier to enable handling the administration of energy efficiency measures. This requires the development and re-engineering of the existing task management system, which is essentially a device for recording events during each work shift. Undertaking a thorough review of the existing application and its functionality, the Group asks our team to simplify the task generation process and to add new functionality, for example the partial integration of MS Excel. Excel is chosen because of its status as a the best known and best understood application for means of carrying out arithmetic calculations.

Softage’s team is able to deliver exactly what the Group is looking for, and more. We make some changes to simplify the user interface so the operator is able to master the application more quickly, use it more efficiently, and thus spend less time learning and manipulating a management tool rather than actually being engaged in profitable activity.

The changes made to InfoCarrier are quite extensive, and so a program of full and rigorous testing by our Quality Assurance team is required. They focus their attention on three specific areas of concern. Firstly, they carry out exhaustive functionality testing to ensure complete compliance with the specifications and functional requirements that the Group stipulated. Secondly, they conduct a thorough usability inspection to uncover any problems that might have been inadvertently introduced by the changes made to the application’s interface with the operator. Finally they conduct in-depth regression testing to make certain that none of the changes made InfoCarrier accidentally introduced any new faults.

The development team’s work passes all of these tests with flying colors.

Project 5: Mobile Forklift Terminals

The on/off Group also wants to develop an application assisting forklift drivers with their work, increasing efficiency, speeding task completion, and reducing errors. The application is to be touch operated through the use of touch sensitive screens and scanners and therefore needs to be as simple and intuitive as possible. In addition, it must be possible to operate the system while wearing gloves, which demands that the buttons themselves should be large, but the number of buttons presented to the operator at any particular time should be as small as possible.

The Softage team sets to work developing, designing, and delivering an application based on a Citrix Server. The application presents the operator with a range of commonly used functions. These include the facility to scan labels for necessary information and  scan instructions on what action the operator might be required to take. These might include instructions to load or unload the container, or to move it to some other part of the warehouse or factory. Having carried out those instructions, the operator is then able to print off new labels carrying updated information.

The Softage team developes and exhaustively tests this application, but still is able to roll it our within two months.

Project 6: Extending packaging management.

This part of the project refers to an extension of the existing functionality of InfoCarrier, allowing it to be used to manage the movement and control of bespoke packaging, thereby simplifying collection and delivery of these often high-value containers and removing inefficiency by making best use of them. It involves applications such as”Receptacle Management” and “Delivery Note” but requires the introduction of a new component, “Receptacle Collection Picker”.

Throughout the development of this project our QA engineers carry out extensive testing to ensure that functionality, usability, optimum look and feel, and regression test results are all of the highest possible level and reflect the high quality of the product. They check the integrity of the created objects, the ability of the application to meet the client’s specification for functionality, and the proper execution of the business process.

Project 7: Extensions for reporting manager.

Reporting Manager is a tool which allows the user to create any report based on an SQL query. The user can define the report layout and choose what data will be included in the report, and to select the method of presentation or export. The client wants to extend the functionality of Reporting Manager, and asks our team to look at the feasibility of such an extension.
Our team of developers go to work on refining the client’s requirement, which is expressed to them as a wish to extend the application to:

  • Automatically schedule the execution of reports as a background tasks.
  • Activate or deactivate periodic execution of scheduled tasks.
  • Enable post processing of executed reports by printing, saving to a file, or by sending by e-mail.

When these extensions are added by our developers, the revised application is tested by our very experienced QA engineering team to ensure that functionality, usability, look and feel, and regression test results are all of the highest level.

Project 8: Domoware XML Interface (XDI)

Domoware is an Manufacturing Execution System (MES) linked to a Warehouse Management System(WMS) which thus allows not only for effective manufacturing management, but also precise and detailed inventory and stock control. It also includes a planning tool to manage production and transportation.

The on/off Group wants to create an interface for communication between the InfoCarrier and Domoware systems so that events recorded on reported on InfoCarrier become visible on Domoware. For example, if the type of packaging required by a particular client were to change, and this change were to be reported on InfoCarrier, the information would become available on Domoware, allowing the appropriate manufacturing and stock control changes to be made without a need for manual intervention.

Our developers are able to design special triggers using an XML Connector Import application and integrate these effectively into InfoCarrier. These triggers allow InfoCarrier to generate an XML file in response to certain defined parameters which can then be read by the Domoware system. Our QA team conducts a full test cycle to guarantee the high quality of this product.

Tools & Technologies

InfoCarrier is based on Oracle and so our team of developers and QA engineers is called upon to use their vast knowledge of that product the help develop the application. They also need all their well developed skills in C++, .Net and SQL