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Mixed net brings smarts to factory floor

Mixed net brings smarts to factory floor

Big companies that make big products - the GMs, Dows and Boeings of the world - have worked for years toward better factory and back-office integration. But even smaller manufacturers are following this trend.

Lifetime Products in the US manufactures equipment for home basketball courts, as well as other sporting goods and furniture items, such as folding metal tables and chairs. The firm is no giant, with less than 1,200 employees and a plant in China. But the company is taking on some high-end network technologies to make its operations as efficient as possible. These include the basics, such as wiring manufacturing gear with Ethernet, and extending Wi-Fi, RFID and other newer technologies to the factory floor and warehouses.

Lifetime uses a variety of network technologies to tie its campus of 27 manufacturing, warehouse and distribution facilities to its data center, located in an office adjacent to the plants.

Laser cutters, stamp presses and other manufacturing equipment in the factories are hooked up with 100M bit/sec Ethernet, which lets production managers on the floor access CAD images over the LAN and transfer designs to machines in the plants.

This beats the previous sneaker-net method of transferring CAD files to machines, says John Bowden, Lifetime's CIO.

"We used to have an engineer design a part, then carry the plans out by floppy disk to the factory," he says. This created long paper trails "and big messes of floppy disks." Hooking the factory floor to Ethernet let the machines link into the company's product life-cycle management (PLM) system, which integrates the tracking of production with the CAD and other systems.

Wi-Fi is another network technology used to hook into bar-code scanners in the plants and RFID readers on forklifts.

"We're also moving toward what they call 'slap-and-ship,'" where pallets of products are "slapped" with RFID tags that contain information on contents, shipping instructions and other data, Bowden says. As part of this effort, forklifts are being outfitted with Wi-Fi-enabled tablet PCs with RFID readers. When a forklift moves a pallet, the action is recorded and sent to the database instantly, eliminating paperwork. This lets the company move almost twice as much inventory as before with fewer people over a shorter time, he says.

In addition to making its own internal operations more efficient, RFID is essential to Lifetime's relationship with Wal-Mart Stores, which has a corporate mandate requiring RFID tags from all of its merchandise suppliers, Bowden adds.

Lifetime uses PLM software from Prometric, which is the same company that supplies the firm's CAD platform; these systems run on Hewlett-Packard/Windows servers. The other large platform in the data center is a Foresight ERP system, which run on HP-UX servers. All of Lifetime's servers connect to one HP 9300 series switch in the data center via Gigabit links and multi-Gigabit trunks. Since introducing these platforms - which digitize many transactions that were paper-based before - the firm's data has grown an average of 600M bytes per day.

"These systems manage our whole product life cycle from cradle to grave," Bowden says. "We can track a product, from an idea scratched on a napkin (which can be stored as a PDF file) all the way to procuring the building materials, to how that product is being built" and shipped, he says.

Moving to 10G

With so many users and machines accessing the data center, Lifetime is set to move to 10G Ethernet technology in the next few months. Dual 10G bit/sec pipes will connect the data center 9300 switch to the company's other 9300 switch in the core, which ties to wiring closets in the main office and in the factories.

In touring Lifetime's data center, network closets or plant floors, one thing becomes obvious, Bowden says - Lifetime is not a fan of variety. HP supplies all IT hardware; from PCs, servers, tablets and PDAs to LAN switches and wireless gear. (A Cisco Systems router does link the firm to its China subsidiary.)

Bowden says he likes the HP network gear because all the products have a life-time warranty, plus the switches are less expensive than most competing enterprise-class products; Synergy Research Group estimates that HP's average per-port switch price is almost half the industry average. Bowden wouldn't say what kind of discount he gets from HP on the LAN gear.

Buying all its gear from HP eliminates vendor finger-pointing when network issues arise, Bowden says. Going HP-only also gives Lifetime more cachet with the vendor.

"I feel we get better support from HP, being such an end-to-end shop," Bowden says. "We're not that big a company," he says, but the company's deep relationship with HP gives it buying leverage and technical support on a level many larger firms might enjoy.

Bowden admits that relying on one vendor for end-to-end network and computing products has some drawbacks - namely, as your sole vendor goes, so goes your entire network support. Bowden says this was somewhat of an issue over the last few years, as HP sorted itself out after its Compaq acquisition.

"Now that the merger is over with, things are more back to normal," he says. "We feel like we have one company we're dealing with again."

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