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SOA starts with BPM at probe card manufacturer FormFactor

Rich Seeley, News Writer

Until last July, semiconductor testing manufacturer FormFactor Inc. was doing integration the old-fashioned way. Company employees typed in information from a legacy manufacturing execution system (MES), then copied the data into FormFactor's ERP system.

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Then the manufacturer decided to chuck the archaic double-entry method and pursue a service-oriented architecture (SOA) project. Nilay Banker, senior director of IT and business process engineering at FormFactor, doesn't have ROI numbers yet for the Web services integration of those two systems, but he said it is saving three workers from the boring job of copying all that data by hand.

It was also the company's first step in an SOA implementation driven by business process management (BPM). "BPM and SOA go hand-in-hand," Banker said of the approach being used at FormFactor, which designs and manufactures probe cards used by semiconductor makers to electrically test integrated circuits. "We are adopting an approach where we first start with BPM and then leverage SOA technology."

A project starts with the business process, and SOA becomes the enabler for automating it, Banker said. Integrating the legacy MES system into the ERP system was a classic case of automating a manual business process, but it also had a strong business productivity driver. "As our volume grew and the complexity of manufacturing increased, it became non-scalable," he said of the manual keying of data that was the only link between the systems.

The manufacture of probe cards is a complex process. Because each lot of cards is unique, different manufacturing methods are required, Banker said. The cards must not only meet the exact specifications of the customer, but also meet delivery deadlines in the fast-paced business of producing new integrated circuits.

So it is critical that the departments overseeing probe card manufacturing know if there are any problems in the three-week process needed for finished cards. Has something been ruined so a new one must be started immediately? Has one been sent back for re-working? These questions can make or break a delivery schedule.

A best-of-breed IT shop, FormFactor uses Oracle e-Business Suite as its ERP system, covering manufacturing planning, inventory management, shipping and receiving, asj well as material requirements planning (MRP), according to Banker. The Oracle products were already Web services-enabled, but the manufacturing system on the shop floor was not.

The PROMIS manufacturing execution system (MES) from Brooks Software (acquired by Applied Materials Inc. in November), was developed back in the 1970s using Fortran. The MES manages all manufacturing execution and routing instructions to the workers on the factory floor.

That data, however, was urgently needed by the MRP system that drives the planning process. The MES data was so crucial it was worth the time of those three workers who came in around 3 a.m. to manually copy it over so the MRP system would have it when the workday began.

Before last year, integrating the two systems would have been hardwired, point-to-point, Banker said. But last year, FormFactor's IT and business organizations decided to attempt that integration with Web services as a first step to building an SOA infrastructure. "We realized that to achieve flexibility we had to adopt a service-oriented architecture approach," he said.

While the MES system pre-dated XML, Banker's development team found that it had an operational data store (ODS) where data on events, such as shop floor delays, were sent. This was the information the MRP system needed to provide alerts on problems to managers overseeing the manufacturing process.

"So what we did was we built our own Web services adapter using triggers on the operational data store," Banker said. "Looking at the data that was generated in the operational data store we figured out the events that are triggering the data to be pushed to the ODS and based on those events, we developed Web services."

Building the Web services for the legacy data in the ODS took about two months, he said. The entire project took eight months. The system went live inJuly, and now the legacy data generated due to problems by the MES on the shop floor become alerts for the managers, so decisions can be made and actions taken to get the probe cards manufactured and delivered on time.

This first project laid the foundation for BPM-driven SOA, said Banker, who plans further SOA integration projects in the next 12 months to integrate CRM with ERP and Product Data Management with MES. "That," he said, "is when we will truly have a service-oriented architecture with a business services repository and will be leveraging the true power of SOA."/p>


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