CONTINUOUS INNOVATION DRIVES ERP DEEP ON SHOP FLOOR
Continuous improvement has long been the mantra for many manufacturers. Kaizen and other formal programs like Lean, Six Sigma, and Total Quality Management (TQM) have dominated the manufacturing scene for years. But what about the world of enterprise software for manufacturing? Not so much. Many of the solution providers that serve the manufacturing sector understand the concepts, but don’t apply them to software development. Sure, these software vendors innovate, but not in a continuum, especially when it comes to broad applications like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). Except for one: Plex Systems. Believe it or not, Plex can and often does deliver enhancements to its Plex Manufacturing Cloud on a daily basis. Too much, you think? Not at all; its customers love it!
Why Do Consumers of ERP Expect Less?
Many consumers of ERP are conflicted over innovation and upgrades. On the one hand, when functional gaps or missing features or cumbersome processes are detected, customers demand enhancements. On the other hand, we find manufacturers unwilling and unable to actually go through the upgrade process. So the whole process becomes a Catch 22.
If these enhancements are delivered through the normal upgrade cycle, customers can find themselves waiting a long time. Major upgrades to ERP are typically delivered once every 12 to 18 months, or sometimes over a longer cycle, partly by customer request. They simply can’t accept and consume upgrades any faster. But that doesn’t mean the typical ERP client waits “just” 12 to 18 months for a requested enhancement. If your enhancement request just misses the planning phase of the cycle, you might have to wait for another cycle before it is even considered, which means you might wait two to three years for it to be delivered. And even then, it might not make the cut.
But let’s say it does and your enhancement is delivered with a major upgrade within a year (or maybe two or three). Do you jump right on the release? If you are like most of the manufacturers participating in our annual Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study, the answer is, “probably not.” Only 14% of manufacturers tend to be early adopters of releases (Figure 1). About a third (34%) upgrade on a regular basis but not as early adopters. This means they will likely wait for those early adopters to shake out all the bugs and for the solution provider to smooth out all the rough edges. This might take three months? Six months? Another year?
Or you might be like the 31% that are likely to skip releases. You might not get too far behind, but if you skip a release, and upgrades happen every 12 to 18 months, you won’t experience any real innovation for at least two to three years.
Figure 1: Approach to Upgrades
Why? Largely because upgrades can be disruptive and costly. We asked our survey respondents to stack rank five individual factors in terms of the likelihood each will keep them from upgrading when a new release is available. We used a scale of 1 (least likely) to 5 (most likely). The results are shown in Table 1. As you can see, potential disruption to the business is at the top of the list, but the rankings are very close. Your typical manufacturer understands the cost and effort of a traditional upgrade and will be reluctant to spend the time and money without expecting a significant payback.
Table 1: Ranking of factors preventing upgrades
As a result, although software development is typically a continuous process, the results are not delivered continuously. Most solution providers create enhancements, bundle them up, test them out and issue major upgrades periodically, hence the traditional 12 to 18 month cycle, with just some bug fixes and/or minor releases in the interim.
Plex Customers Have Come to Expect More
While this type of upgrade cycle has been generally accepted and expected by those running traditional, on-premise solutions, Plex customers have come to expect more. Perhaps they were frustrated by delays, got impatient and dissatisfied and were seeking more from their software vendor. Or perhaps they chose Plex for other reasons. Either way, they soon became spoiled by the “Plex way” of innovating.
Of course any solution provider that offers its software exclusively as a multi-tenant SaaS solution has a distinct advantage of only having to maintain a single line of code. Solution providers that deliver on-premise solutions are forced to maintain multiple versions of the software. Very often the software is offered on a choice of platforms and databases, and the vendor must support multiple release levels determined by their customers’ ability to keep pace with upgrades. For every person-day they spend on innovation, they spend another multiple of that day making sure it works across various environments. The more choice they offer, the more permutations and the higher that multiple.
More and more we find vendors riding the cloud wave. They are taking on-premise solutions and moving them to the cloud and offering alternatives for deployment. Some of these moving to the cloud will be multi-tenant; others are single-tenant, delivering more of a hosting option. But even those that offer multi-tenancy will still be forced to maintain multiple versions and will be limited by their on-premise customers’ ability to keep pace with innovation. Only those that offer a multi-tenant SaaS solution exclusively can devote their entire development budget to innovation. That’s the real beauty of having (and maintaining) a single instance of the software, and nobody takes better advantage of that than Plex Systems.
The Plex Manufacturing Cloud is not the only ERP solution that is offered exclusively as multi-tenant SaaS, but it is one of a very few designed exclusively for manufacturers. And of these SaaS-only manufacturing ERP solutions, Plex’s is (by far) the most mature. But not all SaaS vendors take full advantage of the opportunity for continuous innovation. Some do offer more frequent updates and all relieve the customer of much of the burden of the upgrade process. But nobody else (that I know of) does it like Plex.
Daily Updates – Responsibly
Plex can and often does update the solution every day. You heard (or read) that correctly: every day.
Of course Plex doesn’t pull the rug out from under its customers every day. The development team adds all new features in such a way that a customer must “opt in” to use them. Many of its customers evaluate these innovations on a periodic basis, much like a release cycle. But they are never faced with the “all or nothing” kind of scenario so common in upgrading on-premise software. If they know a valuable new feature is coming, they might jump right on it and not wait for that periodic review.
User Interface Refresh
Plex’s new, redesigned user interface (UI) is the perfect example of this. Plex is methodically updating every screen used by its users, including the navigation screens used to perform back office functions, as well as the control panels used on the shop floor. As each of these are completed, they are introduced into the live product, but the old screens and the old navigation methods are still there.
Of course Plex is only converting those functions its customers are actually using. Over time, newer and better features and functions may have replaced some of the screens, inquiries and transactions. Eventually people stop using the old functions and Plex can then get rid of them. In an on-premise environment, solution vendors have no visibility into what is actually being used and what is not used. So, once code is delivered, it tends to live on forever.
But because all customers are using a single instance of the software running in the Plex Manufacturing Cloud, Plex has full visibility into not only what is being used, but also how often it is used. While this might seem to be a bit big brother-ish to some, customers don’t seem to mind. And it puts Plex in the unique position of being able to eliminate code. In fact the development team recently deleted 30% of its existing source code. And as Jim Shepherd, Plex’s Vice President of Corporate Strategy noted, “If we couldn’t get rid of code, ours would get as big and unwieldy and ugly as everyone else’s.”
You know how good it feels when you finally clean off your desk at work, or clean out your closets at home. Think how good the software developers felt when they could clean out 30% of the code, making that much more room (figuratively) for all the new features, functions and innovation they continue to work on. And indeed the development team has been busy. Combine that with the fact that Plex perfected rapid application development processes more than a decade ago and you get a regular cadence of new features and new offerings.
Here’s an example of some of the areas they have been working on:
Investment in process manufacturing
In order to address the market sitting right outside its doors in nearby Detroit, Michigan, Plex got very good at addressing traceability. The strength of the traceability functions built for automotive discrete manufacturers have led Plex into a fair number of food and beverage and similar process-related industries. Further investment in lot management, lot attributes, lot tracing and unit of measure management will be made in 2015. That investment will also continue into the future with even more sophisticated unit of measure management, costing, yield management, recipes and pricing/promotion management, as well as further work on compliance and FDA validation.
Plex has already released its Advanced Production (Finite) Scheduling modules, but work continues to bring attribute-based grouping (e.g. watch out for allergens!) and sequencing and sequence-dependent changeover time determination (better go from light to dark when applying coatings), and labor-driven capacity determination (knowing how many machines is not enough).
Plex Enterprise Edition
Plex Enterprise Edition is a suite of applications built to support complex, global, multi-plant manufacturing organizations with multi-entity financial and supply chain management requirements. It was first introduced at PowerPlex 2014, with finance and accounting capabilities (accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger and cash management). But work continues throughout 2015 on centralized sales and purchasing functionality, along with inventory work in progress. The team will then move on to enterprise manufacturing (engineering, scheduling, production) and enterprise asset management (fixed assets, treasury management and human resources).
Tech Gadgets and Automation
These are just a few examples of the types of feature/function development that has been underway at Plex. In addition, the team has also been busy experimenting with new technology. This team is led by the ultimate “gadget guys.” But this is not frivolous work. The team also “knows” manufacturing and is always in search of new ways to make manufacturers more efficient and productive. This means new ways of capturing data, automating processes and engaging with ERP both in the back office and on the shop floor. The shop floor was the prime focus of a very interesting demo the Plex team put together about a year ago, but has recently updated.
The demo a year ago was an interactive demonstration of a manufacturing process that took you from the receipt of material through to shipping of a finished product. It was, and still is, a good example of new and different ways of engaging with ERP. You see, we didn’t use a keyboard. But we did use scanners and sensors, a light curtain and yes, there was even a blue button that you might call the “easy button” that signaled an operation was complete. Never once did we go through a traditional menu structure. Each work center looked and felt a little different, and even the devices used for data capture varied, because the work being completed was different. This was a far cry from early days of ERP and confirmed my belief that the best user interface (UI) is really no UI at all.
And this year there were some new “wearables” on the (simulated) shop floor, some of which were just being prototyped. Plex is participating in the new Google Glass @Work program including Google Glasses built into safety goggles. It is experimenting with smart watch and blue tooth technology and beacons that recognize when someone wearing these devices comes within range of a work center. The goal is to make data capture as easy, automated and hands-free as possible.
Manufacturers are widely known for their pragmatism. Unlike some consumers today, they will not go out and buy the latest new gadgets just to look cool or simply because they can. These devices need to add real value and that is exactly what the Plex team is searching for in this experimental phase.
Not Slowing Down Anytime Soon
With a history that spans almost 20 years, and a product that has matured significantly, you might think innovation might be slowing down at Plex. Quite the contrary. The Plex development team has nearly doubled over the past couple of years. Even though it is already a complete manufacturing ERP solution, with particular depth in functionality in manufacturing execution (MES), there is still lots to do. Along with the wearable technology and the refreshed user experience, it is also working on a universal search capability, master production scheduling, advanced manufacturing intelligence, along with the additional process manufacturing, finite scheduling and multi-national, multi-location capabilities mentioned earlier. And much more.
As an industry analyst, it is my job to stay objective. But every once in awhile a company comes along that does something very unique. Plex’s combination of rapid application development, cloud delivery and commitment to customer satisfaction is the prefect trifecta for this uniqueness. And on top of that, Plex does it very well. Kudos to the Plex team for taking a page from the manufacturers they serve so well and delivering continuous innovation.