Article

Is Flow Another Reporting Tool?

No! Not all reporting tools are equal. Flow understands the complexities that arise in production.

Let’s face facts: there are many reporting tools out there.

Most purport to transform your data into actionable information. Some are masquerading as configurable tools when, in reality, they need a fair degree of customization (read: scripting/coding/IT skills).

So, where does Flow fit in? Is Flow another reporting tool? You be the judge.

What makes a reporting tool a good reporting tool?

It’s one thing to convert data into information. It’s another thing to achieve that goal while:

  • Being performant
  • Contextualizing information using data from many sources, and
  • Preserving the integrity of the data with an audit trail.

Consider these one at a time.

1. Optimizing Reporting Performance

In the real world, where there are so many inputs vying for your attention, you need to ensure that you have the correct information to win the competition. How long one must wait for this accurate information is critically important. 

If a tool has been designed to access data from sources at runtime (i.e., on the fly), reporting performance will likely suffer simply because of the need for retrieval. The user has to wait for the report to render. The problem compounds when you need to aggregate the raw data.

For example, you may need to add data points for 24 hours to compute a daily number. The same issue arises when evaluating KPIs based on raw data from various production units. The reporting performance is inversely proportional to the complexity of the KPI.

Granted, native reporting tools (tools that the provider of the data source built) can harness proprietary data retrieval mechanisms. But when your data resides in multiple sources, some of which are from other providers, these tools are limited.

Also, you need to clean your data before it can be ready for use in reports. Examples of this are what to do with "missing" data points, such as null values while an instrument was offline. Or how to handle spurious data points caused by noise in a signal or totalizer rollover during a reporting interval.

The above scenarios are common, but performance will degrade if your reporting tool corrects these at report rendering time.

Flow mitigates the impact on poor performance by:

  • Retrieving data from data sources as soon as the data is available, and not at report runtime.
  • Using proprietary data retrieval mechanisms, where available, to achieve near-native retrieval performance. Flow is “data source agnostic." It can retrieve data from multiple sources, in a performant manner.
  • Cleaning data at retrieval time, such as the filtering of spurious data points or the handling of totalizer rollover. Flow then stores the cleansed data.
  • Performing aggregations or calculations on the data before you need the results. The user does not need to wait at report runtime for complex calculations to be evaluated.

2. Using Data from Multiple Sources to Contextualize Information

It’s rare to find a facility with a single data source, or multiple data sources from the same vendor.

Best-in-breed tools focus on the genre of data/information in which those tools have the expertise, which is understandable.

For example, you will not expect the provider of an industry-leader in manufacturing of data storage tool, to also provide an industry-leading ERP tool. Possible, but not probable.

You can, and should, expect your reporting tool to collect data from your various data harvesting tools. 

Viewing data from various tools in their "silos" is unacceptable. Instead, you must contextualize your information by marrying data from multiple tools. Without context, you cannot answer some of the fundamental questions an operation must answer. Questions such as:

  • How much did we produce per shift? How much of each SKU did we produce per shift?
  • What losses did we incur last month?
  • Which of the production units performed best, and which were the worst? What were the differences between these?
  • What were our usages (electricity/water/steam/gas/etc.) this week? Were the usages influenced by time-of-day, SKU, or other factors?
  • Why were our usages different? Our people usually know what the issues are – can we include their insights in our reporting?
  • Can we visualize/report the above numbers in dollars? Can we display these dollar values in near real-time on operator displays?

Flow can answer the above questions and more in the affirmative. In addition, by connecting to multiple data sources, Flow can provide you with context-rich information. For example, these sources may contain manufacturing, planning, finance, or human resources data. 

The "human data source" is an imperative one that Flow does not ignore. Operators can capture comments against data points. These comments are then available wherever you report on those data points. These invaluable insights help to focus your improvements.

Flow provides a layer of abstraction away from your data sources and functions as a reporting platform. The report user need not understand from where the data came. Instead, they can view this information if they desire. Or, they can focus on the information they need to make decisions, confident that the underlying data has been reliably extracted and transformed.

Flow can also make this information available to your other systems. For example, do you want specific KPIs displayed on your SCADA systems? Flow can do it.

3. Data Integrity and Truth

To address the challenges posed earlier, some tools sacrifice standardization and governance best practices. 

The example of the ubiquitous spreadsheet tool comes to mind. With a bit of effort, one can use a spreadsheet to consolidate data from multiple sources and even include commentary. There are some caveats, though:

  • How do you prevent intentional/accidental changes to KPI calculations?
  • Even with protection, how do you prevent the creation of different versions of a spreadsheet? Each with their own set of calculations?
  • How do you know who has captured the data points for your reportable KPI?
  • What happens when you need to update/correct a data point?

Besides the above governance-related issues, consider the following standardization-relation problems that present themselves:

  • How do you define an Information Model so that reporting across all your sites is consistent?
  • What happens when you introduce a new asset of an existing asset type to a site? Do you then need to update multiple calculations in your tool manually? Worse yet, do you need to get an external supplier to update your KPI calculations on your behalf?
  • Does your KPI reporting tool understand the new shift pattern when your shift pattern changes, such as in a peak production period? And does it factor these changes into "rollup" measurements, such as daily and weekly numbers?

If your reporting tool cannot achieve the above, you need to ask why! Flow can and does ensure data integrity. 

What you see in a Flow report is a true reflection of the underlying data. Flow tracks and highlights this to the report user where someone has modified that data. It also shows you the updates to the data and who made them. And, if user comments are available, Flow displays that as well. 

In short, Flow generates a complete audit trail to ensure that what you see is the single version of the truth

Is Flow another Reporting Tool?

No! Not all reporting tools are equal. Lenny explains this in more detail.

Flow understands the complexities that arise in production environments and recognizes that you likely have various data sources. You need to bring that data together to give context to your information. And you need to view your information in a performant manner.

The questions posed in this blog are based on fundamental principles upon which we built Flow.

Get in touch, and we'll answer any questions you have and/or give you a no-obligation demo of what Flow can do.  

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