Why system integration is essential for manufacturers

New investments in the free flow of data between systems in South Africa will enable manufacturers to achieve new levels of efficiency and gain a competitive advantage. System integration budgets in South Africa are predicted to grow to R10,5-billion in 2021, up from R9,4-billion in 2016.

Integrating inventory and customer demand information increases operational efficiency and enables organisations to become more flexible. Demand changes that are recorded in enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems can be fed into manufacturing schedules to ensure that quantities of products manufactured are more closely aligned with demand for leaner and more efficient manufacturing. Most shop-floor machinery is now powered by embedded sensors and control.

System integration can improve inventory management, enabling materials to be ordered before they fall below a certain level, avoiding rush orders, and the degradation of customer service and additional costs incurred by requesting expedited deliveries. In addition, real-time information exchange between the business layer and the production layer can provide management with greater visibility for improved decision making.

Most of these projects require the implementation of the internet of things (IoT) that streamlines and optimises manufacturing processes by collecting information from a network of sensors, controllers, beacons, smartphones, tablets and other devices, and then sharing this data between CRM, ERP, and back-end financial and manufacturing systems. These projects won’t succeed without well executed system integration.

However, there are endless possibilities and before achieving the free flow of data between systems, manufacturers have to overcome several obstacles.

The challenges of system integration

System integration for manufacturers has many complexities. Systems are often created through the integration of subsystems that have been acquired from many different vendors and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). There are several different systems that need to be integrated, including supply chain systems, product lifecycle management, ERP and CRM. Then there is a need to not only integrate with internal applications, but also with the core systems of key suppliers and customers.

When infrastructures include only a few components, for example integrating an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system with a manufacturing execution system (MES), a hand-coded integration can often be the most sensible approach, because it’s possible using in-house staff and the initial project costs are low.

However, when integrating data between several systems, such as data centres at regional centres and at headquarters, or collecting data from smart devices or mobile devices deployed in the field, every connection with each application has to be developed separately. The result can be a spider-web of connections that takes longer to adapt to each new requirement, slowing down development times and increasing operating and maintenance costs.

Middleware provides the glue

Integration platforms that include middleware to provide a common language between systems can provide a better alternative to hard-coded system integrations. They are optimised to deal with specific vendors’ technology stacks (especially those that have vendor-certified connectors and capabilities), and they are also optimised to integrate between vendor stacks.

Other crucial capabilities include elasticity, resilience, fault-tolerance, as well as monitoring and performance management capabilities. Monitoring is vital for guaranteed message delivery. If a system fails during transmission, the integration tool can recognise the error and resend the message. Transmissions that can’t be sent can be automatically cached, and many systems include extra resources that can handle sudden peaks in demand.

System integration platforms can provide a strong ROI, due to quick project deliveries, often as few as three weeks. Also, as a result of integrating systems, business processes will be improved and can bring significant financial benefits. For example, one pharmaceutical company used an integration platform to trace chemical quantities and lot numbers at each step of the manufacturing process to accelerate compliance with regulations. Integrating specialised equipment with back office equipment also reduced inventories due to better demand forecasting.

System integration projects can mushroom, becoming impossible to manage with all the connectivity requirements that digital transformation brings. Keeping a focus on long term benefits and putting a flexible infrastructure in place can result in the best ROI over time. Doing system integration for the long run empowers manufacturers’ digital transformation, enabling them to optimise business processes and provide a better customer experience.

Contact Kerry Hope, Magic Software SA, Tel 011 258-4457, khope@magicsoftware.com

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