There are a variety of tools that support operational excellence initiatives in manufacturing and the process industries. Many of these tools are industry specific and many have overlapping functionality. Most are underutilized and a fair number are misapplied based on their strengths but using them will help meet business goals.

The purpose of this article is to list ten great tools that will help every manufacturing and process company better support operational excellence initiatives that include LEAN, Six Sigma, 5S, and more.

In no particular order here are my Top 10 Tools that Support Operational Excellence Initiatives.

10) Ethernet I/O Systems: Don’t wait until you can change out or update old controllers or control systems. The tools in the rest of this list need to know what is happening in the process and on the manufacturing floor. You can easily and inexpensively get this information today by using Ethernet I/O Systems or inexpensive PLCs as data collection only. You can even series the transmitter loops going to existing controllers through the new I/O system and read that old data through Ethernet.

9) OPC Servers: OPC-DA, OPC-HDA, OPC-UA, etc are standard communication I/O servers to get data from existing controllers, historians, databases, etc and make that data available to new systems like human-machine interfaces, historians, manufacturing execution systems, manufacturing and business intelligence systems and more. OPC makes it possible to get data from almost any legacy system into great tools for Operational Excellence!

8 ) Web-based HMI: Traditionally the human-machine interface system (HMI) sometimes referred to as a SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) gets data from I/O systems or directly from the operator. It displays real-time and trend information from field instrumentation to the operator for decision making. NEW web-based HMI systems can also get data from relational databases or any process historian and to make operational web-based dashboards for manufacturing managers. Our tools not only alarm locally but can text or email alerts. These modern, inexpensive tools are our new operational excellence dashboards for management.

7) Process Historians: These guys read the real-time data from continuous processes like level, pressure, temperature, conductivity, etc. They can read the value, time stamp it, and store it in a compressed data file for fast retrieval. These tools replaced the old pen and ink chart recorders and now power the trending that runs the process and utilities. They also provide the data warehouse for much of the data that is generated in manufacturing and process industries.

6) Open OPC Client Tools: If the control systems and Process historians communicate via OPC standards then there are now hundreds if not thousands of OPC Client Tools available to industry. These include HMI, Loop Tuning, Trending, Reporting, SPC Solutions, and many more that can be used with any other vendor. Open OPC Client Tools are a class of software and represent the interoperability of solutions to give the end user the best tool for his/her need.

5) Alarm Management Tools: I tell people that the electronic control systems invented in the 1970s that came of age in the 1980s and 1990s actually created the nuisance alarm. Today, all HMI products have alarming and an alarm database. Many companies inundate operators with dozens of alarms per shift and many of them are not critical but fit in the “I think you should be aware of this” category. Nuisance alarms, rate/number of alarms, time to acknowledge and clear alarm conditions are all manufacturing KPIs that should be tracked. Alarm management software makes it possible for the engineer to search the alarm databases and begin to find and correct bad actors.

4) SPC Tools: Statistical Process Control is a long recognized operational excellence tool. The problem was the amount of work in getting data for analysis. Today, SPC solutions can capture data automatically from controls and user tools can initiate alerts, emails and pop-up standard operating procedures. SPC is a great performance management tool.

3) LEAN Pull Tools: Lean pull is a well defined concept in manufacturing. Many facilities have implemented and work to use a Kanban pull methodology. The problem is that simple manual Kanban systems may not work well in high mix manufacturing. Today, software tools are available that work with ERP and factory floor systems to allow using the right Pull methodology (Kanban, CONWIP, Drum-Buffer-Rope) to keep the process lean in all manufacturing environments.

2) Visualization Tools: This is huge. Today we have a choice on the plant floor of using Ethernet LED Marquees, inexpensive large-format LCD computers, thin-clients or configurable appliances to get real-time performance and manufacturing intelligence to and from the plant floor. Everyone should be working off the same version of the truth and it should be calculating the Key Performance Indicators in real-time and broadcasting this via the company intranet so the user only needs a web browser!

My number 1 tool – Real-time Operational Management Systems/MES: This class of software is growing at an exponential rate. Real-time Operational Management systems scale from line OEE/Downtime solutions that show performance by shift/job to fully capable solutions that show energy management, labor, material consumption, electronic batch records, alerting, and reporting on via a web browser. Real-time operational management tools are used by everyone in the business of manufacturing a product. They gather data from real-time sources via OPC and databases, calculate KPIs and important events based on a configured model, store the data in the system model to produce real-time and historical reports of performance for immediate correction as well as root-cause analysis. The best of them have very good web portals to display data from their system but can also display data from process historians and databases directly to the visualization system!

There it is – my top ten tools for improving and sustaining operational excellence in manufacturing and process industries. Feel free to write and tell me what you think about the list and what I missed!


Kevin Totherow is a Business Development Manager of MES for Schneider Electric and a consultant for helping manufacturing clients manage their operations better. Kevin has been a controls engineer, consultant and president of Sylution Incorporated. He can be reached at (864) 252-6819 or by email at

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