data management

Plex Systems Accelerates Push Into IoT With DATTUS Acquisition

Customers: Prepare for a Tsunami of Data

On July 31, 2018 Plex Systems, a cloud ERP and MES solution provider for manufacturing, announced it had completed the acquisition of DATTUS, Inc. a leader in Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) connectivity technologies. This is an important step in executing on its product strategy, which includes connecting to more IIoT data for more actionable insights, along with enhancing manufacturing and business processes.

As a solution provider of enterprise resource planning (ERP), the Plex Manufacturing Cloud provides the operational and transactional system of record of your business. But looking beyond business transactions, Plex’s goal has always been to connect the shop floor to the top floor. But that is often easier said than done.

While sensors, machines and equipment on the shop floor have been collecting vast volumes of operational data for decades now, that data has not always been “connected” or accessible for decision making. Indeed the very fact that this data collection has been happening for decades contributes to the problem. Many of the machines and software put in place decades ago pre-date the Internet and therefore have no ability to connect to a network. Retrofitting equipment or replacing it is expensive and most of these machines were designed to last a lifetime. Expensive custom integration projects are beyond the expertise and budgets of all but the largest manufacturers. So what’s the alternative?

Providing an alternative is what DATTUS is all about. DATTUS solutions connect manufacturing equipment and sensors to the cloud. Think of it as the bridge between you and your machines. The platform is a hardware/software combination, which collects data from PLCs, VFDs, industry protocols like MTConnect, and popular enterprise applications including Salesforce, SAP and (of course) Plex.

In addition to this plug and play connectivity, DATTUS also brings IIoT data management and industrial analytics. The data management and analytics capabilities previously offered by Plex were sufficient for managing the volumes of data within ERP. But as customers are empowered to bring almost any data stream into the Industrial Internet of Things, they now need to be prepared for a tsunami of data.

Giving Manufacturers a “Leg Up”

The IIoT is just one of several inter-related digital technologies we continue to watch, and what we most often see is limited progress being made in terms of leveraging these technologies. Our 2018 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution study explored plans and investments in selected digital technologies normally associated with Industry 4.0. We find very low rates of adoption (Table 1) and many have no plans to change that. In spite of all the hype around all these technologies we confirmed many are still sitting on the sidelines of the latest manufacturing revolution.

Table 1: Digital Technologies Plans and Investments in Manufacturing

Source: 2018 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study

*Includes those that expect vendors to deliver at no additional cost

Running legacy solutions based on outdated technology forcibly sidelines some. And others are hamstrung by decades-old equipment on their shop floors. Plex Systems’ acquisition of DATTUS can’t help with the first unless those running legacy solutions are willing to trade up to a more modern, technology-enabled solution. But it can help in connecting those disconnected machines.

While all adoption rates are quite low, we do find IoT has the lowest percentage of manufacturers with no plans and no activity and close to the highest percentage of those that have already made some investment (second only to 3D printing). This tells us manufacturers have at least a grasp of its potential. Indeed manufacturers have been collecting vast volumes of data from sensors on the shop floor for decades. And yet that data has gone largely underutilized because manufacturers fail to connect the data back to the enterprise applications, and the business decisions. And this is where DATTUS can open new doors.

Instead of retrofitting equipment or developing custom connections, the DATTUS platform provides “out-of-the-box” direct connectivity for machines using cellular capabilities. It can capture data from non-networked, discrete industrial assets while remaining agnostic to data type, machine protocol, and infrastructure. It is a hardware-agnostic IIoT solution that can reliably collect and manage data and make it available for further analysis and open doors to several other of the technologies listed in Table 1.

The availability of more data increases the need for analytics in order to make sense of it. The data within an ERP solution lends itself to historical reporting and perhaps even ad hoc queries. Both are designed to answer questions you already have. But where do you turn when it is not intuitively obvious which questions you should be asking in order to optimize production or grow your business?

Therein lies one of the primary differences between reporting and analytics. While reporting answers a series of pre-defined questions, the discovery process and the iterative nature of analytics helps you ask the right questions. Reporting helps you identify a problem. The right kind of analytics helps you avoid it. Reporting seldom helps you recognize an opportunity. Analytics help you seize it.

But as volumes of data start to grow exponentially, you eventually reach a point where the human mind is no longer able to assimilate and cope with that volume. This is where machine learning can add a level of intelligence that is simply not possible without technology. Data sets have grown rapidly in recent years, thanks, at least in part, to information-sensing devices such as those to which the DATTUS solutions connect.

And the shop floor provides us with some of the most often cited use cases for artificial intelligence and machine learning. The ability to constantly scan data collected by machinery and equipment on the shop floor, searching for patterns that have previously led to failures, have saved manufacturers countless hours (and costs) associated with preventive maintenance. By predicting failures, you only need to bring production to a halt to perform maintenance when it is really needed.

Similarly, in environments regulated by strict adherence to specifications, by monitoring sensor data continuously, machine learning can alert operators before out-of-spec product is made. While shop floor supervisors are only able to scan, monitor and cope with a limited amount of data, machine learning knows no such limitations. Machine learning can recognize patterns and correlate data points that a human does not recognize as relevant. And as more data is gathered, it keeps on learning. That is what continuous improvement is all about.

DATTUS adds capabilities for analytics on data-in-motion, quickly providing insights in support of decision making on the shop floor. This includes:

  • Anomaly detection (quality control)
  • Custom event rules
  • Real-time production and efficiency reports
  • Performance forecasting
  • Predictive analytics
  • Machine learning

As part of Plex Systems, we also see the potential of applying these industrial analytics capabilities to the business side of the equation within ERP for supply chain planning, financial planning and budgeting, forecasting and more. The possibilities are endless.

Mint Jutras believes these digital technologies are destined to be absorbed into the enterprise in general, and manufacturing in particular, in much the same way as technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP) have insinuated themselves into our personal lives.

Think about it. As consumers, we didn’t loudly voice our desire for AI or NLP. But that didn’t stop Apple from delivering Siri on an iPhone. Pretty soon Microsoft delivered Cortana on Windows 10; Google delivered Google Now; Amazon delivered Alexa and now Bixby is on your (newer) Samsung Galaxy. We see these digital technologies being absorbed into the manufacturing landscape in much the same way, as long as solution providers like Plex and DATTUS continue to innovate and push them into the mainstream.

Conclusion

While the technologies in Table 1 are typically outside the scope of ERP, in order for them to be truly transformative, they must interoperate and/or integrate with the enterprise applications like ERP in the front and back office. When purchased separately it is often a daunting task to connect back to ERP and in turn, the business itself. But without this connection, factories don’t get any smarter and neither do the leaders making business decisions. And that’s the real goal of digital transformation in manufacturing: a smart factory and smarter business decisions. And therefore this acquisition makes perfect (and practical) sense.

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What SAP’s Technology Announcements Mean to the Businessperson

On April 10,2012 SAP let loose with a barrage of announcements, all focused on development, data base and technology. It was enough to make a business person’s eyes glaze over as their attention turned away to more pressing business matters. So it is perfectly understandable that those business people should ignore SAP’s technology announcements. Sure it is…just the way it is understandable they should ignore the electrical wiring in their homes. After all, it’s behind the wall. They don’t really understand it. They can’t see it or feel it. They hardly even know it’s there. Until the lights or the appliances don’t work. Or until they want to install a hot tub or upgrade their lighting fixtures, and they can’t. Or until fixing problems with the wiring becomes exorbitantly expensive, leading them to believe it would be easier just to rip it all out and start over. Hmm…maybe it isn’t so wise to ignore database and technology after all.

You’re a Business Person. Why Should You Care?

Unless technology is your business, if you are managing a company, or even a division, a department or a group, you aren’t interested in technology for technology’s sake. Technology is only as valuable as the business value it brings. Business value can be measured in cost savings and performance improvements. Value can be derived from the ability to support data-driven decisions that lead to profitable growth, sustainable business and shareholder value. How do improvements in development tools and technology translate into delivering more business value? Let’s take a look at some of the underlying components of SAP’s announcements and answer the question, “Why should you care?”

Performance Counts in Data Management

One of the general announcements from SAP was the unveiling of a unified strategy for real-time data management. That statement itself won’t mean much to the average businessperson. But that’s not unusual. SAP’s management and many of its customer-facing staff often speak in terms that are only really meaningful to other software vendors and technology press and industry analysts. Or they speak in abstract terms leaving business people to figure out how that relates to their businesses and their problems. It is a problem they are attempting to remedy by listening more closely to their customers, but it’s still there.

“Real-time insight that combines our customer demand and marketing promotion with supply chain visibility on a rock-solid enterprise-class data platform is a must in our industry. With SAP HANA, we see tremendous opportunity to dramatically improve our enterprise data warehouse solutions… drastically reducing data latency and improving speed when we can return query results in 45 seconds versus waiting up to 20 minutes for empty results…“

Weijun Zhang, deputy director, Shanghai Volkswagen

The bottom line: SAP intends to become a leader in the database market by leveraging its own development efforts, as well as products and expertise it has acquired. Most of its customers probably don’t care whether it achieves this goal or not. Even those with a distinct preference for doing business with “market leaders” already chose SAP, at least in part because of its leadership in enterprise applications, not databases.

Over the past few years the company has invested a lot in its own in-memory database SAP HANA which is designed for both high speed and high volume. Even mind-numbing volumes of data will no longer present barriers and early benchmarks are producing processing speeds that are not just incrementally faster, but multiple orders of magnitude faster.

But SAP also acquired Sybase, and with Sybase came its own set of data base products. And the prior Business Objects acquisition also included enterprise information management (EIM) capabilities. Acquisitions often provide more cross sell and up sell opportunity for the acquiring company than bundled or embedded value for the customer. But a “unified strategy” means full integration of all these technologies and should eliminate layers of complexity. It should also mean customers will be able to run their existing systems more efficiently while also being able to take advantage of new capabilities and (hopefully) there won’t be a hefty price tag attached.

Ultimately SAP needs to deliver differentiated performance in order to achieve its database leadership goals. And its customers should benefit from added speed, the ability to handle unprecedented volumes of data, including a lot of types of data they might not even be considering today.

Whether You Know it or Not, You Probably Have a Data Problem

Most businesses today suffer from a data problem, yet might not necessarily recognize it as such.  But …

  • If you feel like you are buried under a mountain of data, or
  • If you know the data is there somewhere, but you aren’t sure where to look, or
  • Data is scattered all over the place, or
  • You have plenty of data, just not the right data, or
  • You can see the data but it’s just not in a format you can use, or
  • You lack the discipline to collect and store the data consistently, or
  • You have multiple versions of the same data, or
  • You don’t trust the data you have, or
  • All of the above

…then you have a data problem. You most likely have data in multiple applications, including reference and master data, as well as transactions. And you are starting to see the value in bringing other sources of data to play in decisions. A lot of this will be unstructured data from automated data collection, sensors, the Internet (e.g. Google alerts, news feeds, stock watches, etc.), from social media, captured conversations, etc. etc. etc. There has to be some “magic” that brings this altogether and makes it actually useful, “magic” that saves you time and effort in gathering and processing it for effective decision-making.

That’s the value of a unified strategy for real-time data management.

More and Better Apps

In presenting these new announcements, Steve Lucas, Global Executive Vice President and General Manager, SAP Database and Technology, posed the question, “What good is a new next-generation platform without new apps to take advantage of it?” SAP wants to be a database player, but it has been in the enterprise applications business long enough to realize the applications drive the demand for databases. And in turn, it is business needs that drive the demand for applications. Indeed, SAP’s announcements included an application development play, but a very specific one: mobile application development.

Enabling Mobile Application Development

 

Mobility was also a big factor in the Sybase acquisition, along with its SQL Anywhere product, used for mobile database management. For more than a year now, industry influencers have been hounding SAP to make it easier for communities of mobile application developers to develop apps with its mobility platform. SAP appears to have been listening. The announcements on April 10th included partnerships with Adobe (PhoneGap), Appcelerator and Sencha, as well as the intent to acquire Syclo, a provider of mobile enterprise apps.

For more information on these partnerships please see the full announcement: SAP Drives Openness and Choice for Millions of Mobile App Developers

Without going into detail that the typical business person won’t care about, each of the partnerships bring a little something different to the party, but the overall intent is to provide an open platform that supports third party development environments and tools. The goal is to have millions of developers developing millions of mobile apps. Why so many and why is this good news for business people? Isn’t part of the data problem a proliferation of enterprise applications? Yes and no.

Yes there has been a proliferation of enterprise applications and this proliferation can cause data redundancy that threatens data integrity. Just think how many different applications store data about your customers. Do they all use the same master files? Do you know if two divisions have the same customer? But just because you have multiple applications doesn’t mean the right people have direct access to data needed for decision-making. And therefore, no, even with all these enterprise applications, you still don’t have enough data and enough access.

Let’s face it, most senior management – those making decisions critical to company profitability and growth – don’t have direct access to applications like ERP, CRM or analytics. If you are one of these executives, chances are you rely on subordinates or a surrogate, thinking that is faster or better. You don’t have the cycles to learn/use/directly access solutions.  Part of the problem is that these applications are multi-purpose and multi-function. Perhaps with more intuitive user interfaces today they don’t require a lot of training in terms of navigation, but users do need to understand the structure and the processes involved.

Contrast these general purpose, large scale applications to your typical mobile applications. They are small, easy to download, easy to understand and easy to use. They are designed to perform a single function and solve a specific problem. So if each is focused and purpose-built, you need a lot of them to do everything you need to do.

And of course everyone has a mobile device these days. Interestingly enough, as we become more unwired, we also become more tethered to our work. We are always connected whether we are traveling for work, at our child’s soccer game or even on vacation. So now that we’re connected but remote, it becomes much more of an inconvenience to rely on someone else for access to data when we need to take action or make a decision and move on quickly.

If you also consider the fact that these mobile devices can be addictive then you have created the perfect storm where demand for access to data, the desire to solve a particular problem and the acceleration of application development converge.

The acquisition of Syclo further emphasizes the focus on delivering mobile apps. While Syclo does have its own mobile platform, make no mistake, for SAP this acquisition is all about the applications. Syclo not only brings industry-specific solutions, but also domain expertise in bringing enterprise asset management (EAM), field service, inventory management and approvals and workflow to mobile devices.

For more information on the acquisition please see the full announcement:

SAP to Acquire Syclo, Extends Leadership in Mobilizing the Enterprise

Summary

SAP has stated that its vision for database and technology is to be “the leader in business technology and data management innovation and help its customers to maximize business results with minimal IT landscape disruption.” This should be music to the ears of a businessperson. The key phrases are business results and minimal disruption. While there is so much talk about “disruptive technology” today, it is important to distinguish this from business disruption. A disruptive technology might prompt you to change the way you do things, presumably in a good way. But it should never disrupt your ability to conduct business.

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