MES

Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform

                                                                                    May 2020

Headache Relief in Times of Crisis

Manufacturers today face extraordinary challenges as the world is plunged into an unprecedented crisis. Even as we see efforts to recover, everyone was and is affected, though not necessarily in the same way. Some industries were completely shut down while others (think software and professional services) could close offices and still remain at least somewhat productive. Manufacturing lies at both ends of the spectrum. Obviously you can’t make industrial or consumer products from home – at least not at scale. But within the realm of manufacturing, we see a widely diverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, depending on what is being manufactured. Cloud computing and advanced technology that supports connectivity, collaboration, automation and agility have eased the burden for some, while others struggle (still) amidst shelter-in-place orders that caught many flat-footed.

Those companies operating on the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform are among the more fortunate, whether they are manufacturing products deemed “essential” or not. Of course no piece of software can fully address the crisis of needing to completely shut down production. But even those businesses still have cash to collect and customers to support. As administrative and support personnel were locked out of their offices, Plex’s native Software as a Service (SaaS) deployments allowed employees to start working from home immediately. And as many manufacturers have had to pivot their businesses, efforts from Plex over the past several years to provide automation, collaboration capabilities and an added level of agility are all paying off.

For anyone who still questioned the value of cloud, SaaS and digital transformation at the beginning of 2020, the words of Plex Systems CEO, Bill Berutti, should ring true. “This crisis is shining a whole new light on the power of technology and the power of smart manufacturing, to make us more agile in times of crisis, to allow us to adapt.” Let’s take a look at a few of the ways Plex’s solution provides some relief from the headaches that come along with this crisis.

SaaS Proves its Value

Let’s start with the obvious. The capability to access anytime, from anywhere is inherent in software solutions that are accessed via the cloud and delivered as a service. Mint Jutras has been extolling the benefits of cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS) for many years now, but in spite of all the hype associated with cloud and SaaS, we still see evidence that many don’t fully understand the difference between the two or the benefits SaaS can bring. Whether you run a solution on your own premises or in a private or public cloud, the ability to access anytime, from anywhere is a significant advantage and web-enablement opens the door for the kind of connectivity you need as workers work from home. The ability to connect is critical, but how you connect is equally important. This issue surfaces when suddenly office workers became remote, work-from-home workers.

One of Plex’s customers, Accuride, provides the perfect example. Accuride primarily makes steel and aluminum wheels for the heavy trucking industry. As a global company that made a recent acquisition in Europe, Accuride runs the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform in some of its divisions, but not all. While workers in the locations using Plex were able to start working from home almost immediately, it took several days of frantic work to support remote workers where solutions were still on premise. The recently acquired division in Germany is still running an SAP solution on premise. It needed to upgrade from 100 VPN connections to support 250 newly remote users very quickly – not an easy task. This only served to validate Accuride’s strategy to move to the cloud and SaaS.

Trojan Battery is another example. A longstanding Plex customer, it completed its shift to SaaS at the end of 2018. It not only runs Plex, but also Dropbox, RingCentral, Workday and Salesforce. But the company was subsequently acquired by C&D Technologies, which still uses on-premise solutions. While Trojan Battery employees were able to take their laptops and mobile devices or just sit down at their home computers and have full and immediate access to the same data and systems they had in their offices, those from C&D Technologies that were still using on-premise applications had a much different experience. They needed access through a VPN, which proved to be a significant pain point, especially for those employees who had never before been issued a laptop (having no need for one). As IT Director Matt Irey points out, “We can’t open our corporate network up to unsecured machines, so they’ve got to be using company equipment.”

This also raised the issue of network performance. Mr. Irey goes on to say, “There’s limited bandwidth — guaranteed Plex, Workday, Dropbox, have a heck of a lot more bandwidth than I do going into my location.”

Plex was an early pioneer of SaaS. It has offered its solution exclusively as a multi-tenant SaaS solution since 2001, long before cloud and SaaS were even part of the vocabulary of the typical manufacturer. Back then most manufacturers weren’t even knowingly and willingly considering SaaS. And so, for many years, the company was successful in spite of, rather than because of its pioneering efforts in SaaS. The key to this success lies in offering a more complete solution for manufacturing, stretching beyond the typical boundaries of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP).

The 4 Pillars of Smart Manufacturing

This has led it to its current offering, the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform, a rather unique combination of ERP, Manufacturing Execution (MES), Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM), supply chain management, industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and analytics.

What makes the platform a “Smart” platform is data, often described as the “new oil” or the most valuable resource of today. Plex recognizes that the four pillars of a Smart Manufacturing Platform are:

  • to connect and integrate to data sources (including machine data)
  • to automate (processes and data collection)
  • to track (and trace)
  • and analyze that data

In addition, the system, along with the data, must also be available, reliable, scalable, secure and agile. Over the years Plex has excelled in areas like availability and reliability. Its service level agreement (SLA) promises 99.99% availability and it has delivered 99.996% availability over the last four years, with an average of just 22 minutes of unplanned downtime each year. With those statistics on the books, along with an impressive track record of security, last year it decided to focus more heavily on agility.

The Increased Need for Agility

The need for agility has been on the rise for the past several years. We live in disruptive times.

Figure 1: How much risk do you face in your industry being disrupted?

Source: Mint Jutras 2018 Enterprise Solution Study

Back in 2018, the Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study found 89% of manufacturers believed they faced some level of risk in their businesses and/or industries being disrupted by new innovative products, new ways of selling or pricing existing products or services, entirely new business models, or some combination of all of the above. And then of course there were (and still are) the more traditional disruptive factors like expansion and growth, organizational restructuring and regulatory changes, just to name a few. And now… a global pandemic.

While different industries and individual companies face an incredibly diverse range of challenges, there is one constant today, and that is an element of uncertainty. No one really knows what the “new normal” will be. Some Plex customers have already had to pivot their businesses very quickly.

As noted earlier, this global crisis has impacted different industries in very different ways. While some making products that are not deemed “essential” have been forced to close, others are struggling to keep up with higher demand. Select food, beverage and personal care products are experiencing a boost in demand. Manufacturers of medical supplies and equipment (think ventilators and face masks) are facing increased demand that can far exceed capacity. Others making industrial or non-essential consumer products are forced to re-tool and ramp up production for new and different products. We see hair care manufacturers making hand sanitizer and automotive suppliers making ventilators or personal protective equipment (PPE).

Each option brings its own set of challenges, often requiring new supply sources and processes that include shop floor redesign or limiting capacity to create social distancing. Some are responding quickly, but many are not, as evidenced by shortages of staples like toilet paper, disinfectants, flour and other necessities. We’ve seen evidence of brittle supply chains and manufacturers that remain rigid and inflexible. While enterprise software solutions can’t (all by themselves) overcome all these hurdles, they certainly can contribute to the pain or ease the burden as innovative companies undergo a paradigm shift.

One Less thing to Worry About in Shifting Gears

Creative Foam, another Plex customer, is one manufacturer that has quickly pivoted its business. The company turned 50 years old this year and specializes in foams, nonwovens and adhesives in industries that include transportation and healthcare. Creative Foam engineers seek to create products that are quieter, stronger and lighter.

But in the wake of the crisis, the company was able to quickly shift gears. Tareq Falah, Vice President of Information Technology and Information Systems tells us, “Nobody had a crystal ball. No one could have predicted anything that is going on now during this COVID crisis – not when, not who, not how. Before, we had always asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to win business?’ But in response to this crisis, we went through a paradigm shift. Now we ask, ‘What else can we do to help?’”

Essentially Tareq was talking about helping the front-line workers in the field of medicine. They began with PPE, face shields to be more precise. This meant sourcing new materials, coming up with an initial design and then refining that design. And throughout this pivot, office workers went home to work. While there were many issues to resolve like getting people laptops and rerouting phones, according to Tareq, “We didn’t have to worry about Plex. Support of our business has been phenomenal.”

Another success story in responding to this global crisis is Olde Thompson. Founded in 1944, the company started out manufacturing houseware products, including salt and pepper mills. Today 80% of its business is in the powders that might go into the original products, including salt, pepper and a wide array of spices. While other businesses have slowed or stopped production, Olde Thompson has doubled its monthly output in response to increased demand.

Plex’s inventory management capabilities and its supply chain planning tool were key to Olde Thompson’s ability to respond to this spike in demand while its competitors simply could not react as quickly. When India shut down all spice manufacturing, Olde Thompson was able to locate and engage with other suppliers. This opened the door to acquiring three new customers. Being able to quickly bring on new customers using Plex’s new Smart EDI, a more scalable and flexible approach to onboarding new customers, meant this new business was not just a short-term blip, but the beginning of long-term relationships with three new customers.

But the real key to winning this new business was in Olde Thompson’s ability to ramp up production quickly. And the key to that was integration – pulling data out of machinery and automating machine setups using data within Plex. Process improvement is a key focus looking forward and Olde Thompson will be relying on Plex to provide visibility to their yields and support continuous improvement and long-term growth.

Speaking of Supply Chain Planning…

Plex also recently made another announcement that will assist customers in reducing the risk associated with market volatility, a subject that can strike fear in the hearts of many manufacturers today. On May 14,2020 it announced the release of the Plex Market Forecast Manager, now part of the Plex Supply Chain Planning Suite. Creating and maintaining a viable forecast has always been hard, but the uncertainty introduced with the COVID-19 makes it even more difficult.

According to Plex:

“Plex Market Forecast Manager enables manufacturers to integrate internal and external data points alongside demand plans to drive more accurate inventory decisions, gain market share, and evaluate and scale the supply chain. The initial release will provide automated access to IHS Markit’s Light Vehicle Forecast, helping automotive manufacturers form more accurate and timely forecasts. IHS Markit is a world leader in critical information, analytics, and solutions for the major industries and markets that drive economies worldwide.”

While the initial release of this new module specifically targets the automotive industry, perhaps Olde Thompson will not immediately benefit, but we suspect it will be able to at some point down the road. One of the industries IHS Markit follows is agribusiness, which of course supplies the food, beverage… and spice market.

Focus on Automation

Beyond the ability to connect, another of the four pillars on which the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform is built is automation. Certainly, automation also plays a key role in alleviating some of the pain associated with the COVID-19 crisis. For decades now manufacturing has been investing in automation on the shop floor. Automation can speed production, eliminate variability, improve quality and reduce costs. An unfortunate side effect has been that it has also cost some jobs. But in all fairness, it has also created jobs, although these new jobs require different skills.

Now in the midst of a global pandemic, when the health and safety of workers is top of the list in terms of priorities, there is a silver lining in the reduction in workers required to keep production running. If you simply need a handful of employees to monitor automated production, those employees are more likely to be able to maintain acceptable social distancing and product continues to be produced. And now as this automation (think robots, PLCs, mechanical devices) are increasingly connected to the Internet, taking advantage of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), perhaps production can be monitored remotely. Even remedial work might be done through augmented reality, with limited staff on site.

Plex’s engineering team, led by CTO Jerry Foster, is constantly investigating and experimenting with leading edge technology including augmented reality (think hands free and/or remote monitoring and even remote repair). Those investigative efforts also led to the acquisition of DATTUS in 2018 to accelerate IIoT adoption through connectivity, data management and data analysis.

But there is more to automation than machines and robots on the shop floor. There are many processes that must occur in the back and front offices of manufacturers that can be streamlined and automated, freeing office workers from repetitive tasks. And therefore, on May 14,2020, Plex announced Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can now be added on to the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform through a new partnership with business technology solution provider Thirdware

An early adopter Plex customer Stant Corporation, a tier-1 automotive supplier of thermal and vapor management parts, worked with Plex and Thirdware to implement RPA to manage its invoice delivery. This was a labor-intensive and error-prone process, spread across multiple technology solutions. With the help of a bot on the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform, Stant has been able to reduce its invoice backlog from three weeks to four days, with 100% data entry accuracy. Now, 80% of invoices are able to move to processing without intervention, enabling the Stant team to focus on more valuable problem-solving activities. And of course, a bot never has to move to a remote working location during a global pandemic.  After this first (successful) application of the technology, Stant went on to work with Plex and Thirdwave to create more. It now uses multiple bots for accounts payable, accounts receivable, customer service, and supply chain processes.

Summary and Recommendations

Manufacturers across the globe face many different challenges as the world tries to emerge from a global pandemic. Depending on where you live, the worst may be over. Or not. And even as we see signs of recovery, there is a high likelihood that things will never go back to exactly the way they were before. These factors combined reinforce the one common theme that confronts us all: uncertainty.

One thing is certain. As the communication and interaction around the world continues down the path of becoming more digital and more virtual, cloud computing and advanced technology that supports connectivity, collaboration, automation and agility step out of the realm of “nice to have” and become table stakes. Those manufacturers operating on the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform are fortunate in that the solution that runs their businesses allowed them to immediately support workers remotely.  Plex also continues to innovate to bring more automation, to connect and integrate, to track and analyze.

If you are a Plex customer today, our advice is to hold the fort and continue to consume as much innovation as Plex can throw your way. If you are not a Plex customer and you are still struggling to connect newly remote workers, if you don’t have the agility to support whatever the new normal way of operating becomes, you might be thinking implementing a new ERP, MES, or MOM solution is the last thing you want to tackle right now. You could be dead wrong. If business is slow, take advantage of the down time. It’s okay to be dead wrong. It’s not okay to let your business die.

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Plex Systems Delivers Flexible Manufacturing Execution Suite

Available Stand-Alone or Fully Embedded within Plex ERP

Late last year (November 2019), Plex Systems announced its manufacturing operations capabilities were available as a best-of-breed, shop floor-specific offering called the Plex Manufacturing Execution Suite (Plex MES). This cloud-based suite is designed to satisfy a full spectrum of manufacturing needs from MES to manufacturing operations management (MOM). While MES capabilities are not new to the Plex solution, this is a departure from the past when those capabilities were always deeply embedded within its Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) suite. Plex MES can now stand alone, alongside any ERP.

Since 2001, Plex Systems has been dedicated to serving the needs of manufacturers (originally targeting small to mid-size companies and more recently serving larger enterprise organizations), not only in the back offices, but also deep down into the shop floor. Its solution reaches well beyond the typical features and functions of ERP and includes strength in quality, inventory and production management. In the past, some industry observers and competitors made the assumption that many Plex customers simply used Plex as a point solution. That assumption was (and is) just plain wrong.

A good representative sample of Plex customers has been participating in my annual Enterprise Solution Studies for many years. Over the years I have collected data on completeness of solution and employee engagement. Year after year, Plex customers tend to purchase and deploy a more complete solution than the typical manufacturer, and the percentage of employees that use the Plex Manufacturing Cloud (ERP) on a regular basis far exceeds the norm – the average over the past five years was 77%.

That begs the question: If Plex has been successful providing a complete suite, why carve MES out now? Does this reflect a change in philosophy or purpose? I don’t believe so. I think it is more reflective of the changing times and the needs of today’s global, digital economy. For those prospects that fit the profile of a current Plex customer, I don’t think a lot will change. They will continue to reap the rewards of a complete solution. But it allows Plex to satisfy the needs of more manufacturers now, not just when (and if) they ever get around to replacing underperforming ERP solutions. And who knows… perhaps a little (or a lot) of added value might just provide enough incentive to get rid of those old solutions that might be holding them back.

Changing Times

What kinds of changes are we talking about? First, the Internet has changed the world. It has leveled the playing field, bringing unprecedented opportunity to all manufacturers, but it has also significantly increased the risk of disruption and the need for speed. The accelerating pace of business only serves to increase the need for visibility. And yet, even today, the shop floor remains a black hole. While basic capabilities of ERP help with planning production and procuring materials, once material is issued to the shop floor, visibility is  quite often lost.

Larger companies struggle with this when their corporate ERP solutions, chosen for their financial capabilities (think multi-company consolidation), can’t adequately support their (manufacturing) operations. Small to mid-size manufacturers are often saddled with legacy solutions that might have once been “state of the art,” but now simply don’t have the technology needed to provide the connectivity and agility required. Can you significantly improve all of the above, but especially this visibility, without a wholesale replacement of ERP?

The answer is yes, and Plex MES is one way to do it. But is the market ready? To answer this question, we need to re-examine a debate that has been waged throughout the world of enterprise applications for decades: choosing an integrated suite or “Best of Breed” approach. Many ERP vendors have been preaching the benefits of a complete, end-to-end solution and arguing against the proliferation of disparate applications for almost as many decades. This is exactly what Plex has been delivering, but Plex is also changing with the times.

To get a better sense of preferences today, we asked the survey participants in our 2019 Enterprise Solution Study to denote their preference for a “Suite in a Box” – a complete end-to-end solution that is pre-integrated and ready right “out of the box,” or a more “Best of Breed” approach with a strong core, coupled with the ability to purchase or develop additional functionality and easily connect it back to the core. We recognize the choice is not always so cut and dried, and therefore added some options that are more of a mix but leaning in one direction or the other. Best of Breed was preferred more than 2 to 1 over a Suite in a Box (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Which approach is most appealing to you?

Source: Mint Jutras 2019 Enterprise Solution Study

We combined these results with follow up discussions with many manufacturing companies. While most are interested in a fully integrated, fully functional solution, they also want the freedom and flexibility to implement incrementally, in their own determined sequence. They want the ability to attack their most pressing needs, without creating a nightmare of disparate and disconnected solutions. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it too.

We find many articulate their desire as a “Best of Breed” approach because they equate the suite to a monolithic architecture and an “all or nothing” kind of decision. In some ways that is true, but not entirely so. Most any ERP solution is comprised of modules (e.g. general ledger, accounts payable, inventory management, purchasing, order management, shop floor control, etc.) and certainly some are optional. There is always a preferred logical sequence to implementation because of dependencies in the data. Foundational data like charts of accounts, customers and part or product masters must be established early. But once the foundation is built each company is free to decide what comes next and how far to go. This is certainly the case with Plex ERP customers. Most go live when they have the basics established, but then have further steps planned.

But with a monolithic architecture few, if any of the modules are designed to stand alone. Sure, you can just implement general ledger, or inventory management perhaps, but you can’t just implement the MES that is built into ERP. Or the Quality Management System (QMS). Which is one of the primary reasons why Plex Systems is actively engaged in decomposing its monolithic solution and reconstructing it as loosely coupled components. This represents the first fruit of that labor.

Development platforms and microservices architectures are key to this decomposition. For the reader with a technical background, a microservices architecture is defined as an architectural style that structures an application as a collection of loosely coupled services. This is the process of decomposition to which Plex refers in its roadmap. For those nontechnical readers, think of it as constructing a solution from a set of Lego building blocks. Purists hate this analogy, and yes, it is an over-simplification. But it is an effective analogy that resonates with most business users that don’t have the interest or inclination to dive deep in technical jargon.

Think about how you build a structure from Legos. Each Lego block is made of the same kind of material and is attached (connected) to the other Lego blocks the same way. In many ways they are interchangeable. But by choosing different colors and sizes, and connecting them with a different design, you can make a structure that is very unique. And once constructed, if you want to change it, decoupling some of the blocks and replacing them doesn’t destroy the parts that are not affected. There is far less disruption introduced than if you had constructed it with a hammer, timber and nails.

Plex is actively engaged in developing this type of platform and has already successfully de-coupled MES, but with an eye on integration capabilities. Importing of data and/or access to data from external systems is designed into the architecture. Plus, it is delivering value through other associated technologies, starting with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Plex’s customers aren’t asking Plex to “decompose” its full suite, but enterprise customers that operate Plex in some of their divisions, while also running other “corporate” solutions such as SAP and Workday, see the benefit of being able to insert (Plex’s) MES in other divisions not currently running Plex.

Other Plex prospects are also in the midst of a transition to cloud solutions. This may mean a complete shift, starting with the migration or replacement of an on-premise ERP solution. Or it may mean a more gradual shift, often leaving in place on-premise ERP solutions and surrounding them with cloud-based added apps. Offering MES as a stand-alone solution falls into this latter category, allowing those running on legacy solutions to take an incremental step into the cloud, perhaps leaving on-premise ERP in place (for now).

Summary and Conclusion

All this potential for change and disruption, shifting priorities and technology innovation makes the foundational work Plex is doing invaluable. And so are the new technologies it is introducing to its solution. If you are a small to mid-size manufacturer today, or perhaps an operating division of a large corporate enterprise and you don’t have the operational visibility you want or need to compete effectively today, Plex MES may just be your ticket to a whole new view. And it also may be a good first step in becoming a connected and agile manufacturer.

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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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Plex Systems Hits the Acquisition Trail

Earlier this month Plex Systems announced its first (ever) acquisition. On August 9, 2016, Plex revealed it had acquired DemandCaster, essentially stretching the end points of its end-to-end cloud-based solution for manufacturers. Adding DemandCaster’s Supply Chain Planning (SCP) solutions to its enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution system (MES) means Plex now has the most complete suite of products of any independent cloud-native solution provider targeting manufacturing.

As I noted in a recent post, there are several reasons for one company to acquire another, one of which being to:

Fill a product gap: It can be far easier to acquire functionality than to develop it yourself. This can make the company more competitive, provide cross-sell and up-sell opportunity, or both. But don’t assume there is any M&A pixie dust that will magically integrate products overnight.

This is clearly Plex’s intent here, adding SCP to an already robust ERP and MES offering. But in this case, no M&A pixie dust is required. Plex and DemandCaster have been partnering together for about a year and already 10 out of DemandCaster’s 50 customers are also Plex customers. The integration is complete and bidirectional.

Partnering turned out to be a great way for the two companies to get to know each other and Plex was already positioning (and white labeling) DemandCaster as its answer to supply chain planning, sales and operation planning (S&OP), practical forecasting and demand planning, distribution requirements planning (DRP) and multi-site master production scheduling (MPS).

The solution, which is based on Microsoft technology, is highly graphical and was built from scratch as a multi-tenant SaaS solution. And the functionality is 100% complementary. The company is based in Chicago, but has a team of developers in Bulgaria, which could prove to be an additional plus in being a great entry point for Plex in attacking the eastern European market.

While acquisitions have a tendency to cause disruption, fear, uncertainty and doubt, if there ever was one immune to that disruption, this is the one. The entire staff of DemandCaster, including founder and CEO Ara Surenian, will come on board as Plex employees. Customers should only see a continuation (or perhaps strengthening) of their relationship. There is no sales staff to integrate. Previously DemandCaster was sold online with a “try before you buy” approach, with a little product evangelism thrown in. Plex intends to leave that channel open. Who knows, other (ERP and MES) sales efforts might even benefit.

Plex should also benefit from being able to natively satisfy the needs of larger, multi-national, multi-site manufacturing enterprises. The largest DemandCaster customer already handles over 300,000 individual SKUs. This could help Plex move up market and DemandCaster will also provide an additional entry point into Plex prospects.

Plex will also continue to make DemandCaster available as a “stand-alone” solution. We use the term loosely because DemandCaster alone is pretty useless unless it is tied back to an ERP. DemandCaster handles the integration by placing a very simple piece of software on the customer’s system. No APIs or web services required. Of the 40 nonPlex customers, DemandCaster already successfully interoperates with 18 different ERP solutions. So who knows, this might even be a “land and expand” opportunity for Plex to lead with SCP and eventually replace an incumbent ERP.

As acquisitions go, this one seems to be nice and neat and clean – adjectives rarely used in the same sentence as M&A. Kudos to Plex Systems for starting small but knocking one out of the park!

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Epicor Reevaluates Its Strategy

A year ago at Epicor Insights 2014 the Epicor community was introduced to some new management. The owners, private equity investment group Apax Partners, had brought in a new CEO (Joe Cowan), who in turn brought along a new Chief Product Officer (Janie West) and new General Managers (GMs) for the Americas for both its ERP and Retail businesses. But all in all, not much had really changed. And the promise of “Protect, Extend, Converge” was still center stage.

This has been Epicor’s mantra for many years: promising investment protection and continued innovation that would extend the footprint of its customers’ solutions, while also converging multiple product lines acquired through the years. As I wrote last year,

The “protect” and “extend” part isn’t unique. Many vendors promise the same, although some do a better job of delivering than others. However, Epicor is unique in having delivered on a convergence strategy. The result was Epicor ERP version 9, originally called Epicor 9, reflecting that it was the result of converged functionality of nine different ERP products. The “9” has now become “10,” but that is not because it has merged a 10th product, but is more reflective of a traditional “version” level.

However, even last year it appeared Epicor was diverging a bit from this convergence strategy, primarily as a result of the merger of (the original) Epicor and Activant, which focused exclusively on the wholesale distribution market.

A Little Background

The lion’s share of Epicor’s ERP products target manufacturing. While these products have some distribution, capabilities, this was largely due to the overlap of the two industries. Manufacturers often distribute their own products and more and more distributors might engage in some form of light manufacturing. But Epicor ERP is a multi-purpose ERP, focused primarily on manufacturing, and more specifically discrete manufacturing.

Activant brought multiple products to the party but each was focused squarely on distribution. Not only were Activant products purpose-built for distribution, but also over time each has become even more focused and fine-tuned to specific segments of wholesale distribution.

And then there was the SolarSoft, which Epicor acquired back in 2012. This acquisition brought along an ERP which focused on more process-oriented industries, and also a “best of breed” manufacturing execution system (MES).

And finally there is Epicor’s retail business, which has actually been kept quite separate.

Moving Forward: More Than A Few Changes

So given this state of affairs, Epicor’s CEO, Joe Cowan, has made some changes. The underlying message throughout is that the company is “totally focused on the customer.”

The company has undergone a major reorganization, including spinning off the retail business. This group tended to address a smaller number of larger customers that were very different from the rest of the Epicor customer base. This provided no real synergies and the timing was good given other changes Mr. Cowan wanted to make. Even spun off, it will remain an Apax company and as Paula Rosenblum (@paula_rosenblum) from independent research firm Retail Systems Research (RSR) notes, this is really a “win-win.”

In addition, Mr. Cowan has simplified the remaining organizational structure and centralized key functional areas. The “old” Epicor tended to be organized around products, resulting in silos within the company, along with some redundancies. For example, support systems across different products used different policies and processes. Under the new organization, they will all be moved to a common support structure headed by Ian Ashby who came to Epicor with the Solarsoft acquisition.. The reorg also consolidates more than 20 data centers down to 8. And it has brought in some new talent, including new CTO, Jeff Kissling, only 40 days into the job as of the event.

But the changes most relevant and important to customers are the changes in product strategy. While “converge” was the mantra before, Janie West told me that moving forward, Epicor will “not be a slave to consolidation.”

One slide up on the main stage seems to have summarized the new approach:

  • Converge where we can
  • Build where we should
  • Partner beyond our core
  • Acquire as required

Of course the advantage of convergence was to remove any redundancies in development. Despite serving different markets, there are core elements Epicor needs to deliver to all its customer bases. For these functions, Epicor will favor the development of external components, which can be used across different product lines. For those products using Epicor’s advanced technology architecture (ICE) this is simply a no-brainer… which is why there had been a push to get all product lines on this new architecture. But Epicor now realizes this may not be a requirement in order to share the results of development efforts to deliver web portals, dashboards, mobile apps and other new features. So it will only re-architect where necessary, and not just for the sake of re-architecting.

While I believe the convergence to Epicor 9 (which is now Epicor 10) was the right approach at the time, I would agree with this new strategy. Where future acquisitions might simply expand the customer base in markets where Epicor plays, convergence makes sense. Where acquisitions (like Activant and Solarsoft) bring Epicor into new markets, it doesn’t. Where products are limited by older technology, it makes sense to replace the underpinnings with new architecture (like ICE) but where they are already technology-enabled, it makes sense to leverage what already exists.

The prior convergence efforts, coupled with more recent acquisitions leaves Epicor in a good position, with a manageable number of product lines – enough to specialize, few enough to maintain focus…on the customer.

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Epicor to Acquire Solarsoft: Expanding its ERP Portfolio While Adding MES and EMI

Last month Epicor announced its agreement to acquire privately held Solarsoft Business Systems from Marlin Equity Partners. Solarsoft itself is a product of acquisitions, with a portfolio of enterprise resource planning (ERP) for manufacturing and distribution, as well as offerings that extend deeper into manufacturing execution. These include a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) and Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence (EMI). While there is certainly some overlap with Epicor’s existing product offerings, Solarsoft will expand Epicor’s reach to include process manufacturing, push it deeper into manufacturing operations and strengthen its print, publishing and packaging offerings developed by Kodak.

OH NO! More ERP Solutions?

That might be the initial knee jerk reaction to this further consolidation of the ERP market. After all, Epicor already has a whole bevy of ERP solutions. However Epicor stands out in the field of acquisitive companies as the first major ERP solution provider to deliver on a promise of convergence, while also extending functionality and modernizing the underlying technical architecture.

That modern technical architecture is Epicor ICE, which combines a second-generation Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) with Web 2.0 technologies. This technology provided a good framework for the convergence of nine different ERP solutions, (originally called Epicor 9, now known as Epicor ERP) but its continued evolution has also resulted in the evolution of Epicor’s product strategy.

With the acquisition of Activant last year, a company dedicated to serving wholesale distribution, the focus on converging multiple ERP solutions shifted slightly. In the short term it is now focused on convergence of technology and bringing the benefits of ICE to a broader portfolio of solutions, including the products acquired with Activant (including Prophet 21, Eclipse and Prelude and several other legacy applications). While Epicor ERP is a multi-purpose solution, these products will continue to serve more specific micro-verticals in the wholesale distribution industry, verticals such as distributors of fasteners, ceramic tile, electrical supplies, etc. as separate products for the near term.

However, Epicor didn’t just wake up one day and change its mind (and its strategy) with the acquisition of Activant last year. The evolution of ICE was also a significant factor in evolving the overall Epicor strategy. Over the past several years, ICE has been further strengthened to allow Epicor to build new features, functions and applications on a modular basis without touching the core of ERP. This means Epicor can continue to add new (converged) functionality or supplement or replace existing features without requiring its customers to implement an entirely new ERP.

ICE provides a bridge that connects the existing application with new, modular functionality. And it allows Epicor to “build once” and deploy across multiple solutions, freeing up resources that would otherwise be required to satisfy those requirements in each product line – freeing them up to work on more targeted functionality which has the potential of helping its customers in select industries achieve a measure of competitive differentiation.

So how do the Solarsoft products fit into this strategy? First of all, Tropos, its solution for process manufacturers, allows Epicor to address a whole new segment of the manufacturing market. While discrete manufacturers typically manage components and production in discrete, numeric quantities, process manufacturers often must handle ingredients and produce batches by weight or volume. Discrete manufacturers create bills of material. Process manufacturers deal with recipes and formulas and quite often have specific requirements for material traceability and regulatory reporting. These special requirements typically require special features and functions.

So the sequence of events that must occur to determine exactly how Tropos will fit into the convergence strategy is one of the decisions that will be required once the acquisition is complete. Yet even in the meantime, there are certain features and functions that are common across all sectors. Once the Tropos solution has been enhanced to work with ICE, the investments Epicor has made in evolving ICE should also ensure that Tropos customers have earlier access to much more innovation than Solarsoft itself could have delivered.

Other niche markets covered by Solarsoft such as retail packaging and corrugated manufacturing will reap the same type of benefits and further expand Epicor’s addressable markets. The addition of aVP and bVP, both serving the packaging industries will also further strengthen Epicor’s partnership with Kodak (announced in 2010) to better serve the print, publishing and packaging industry.

Manufacturing Operations

In addition to broadening its market, the Solarsoft acquisition also strengthens the depth of manufacturing operational functionality Epicor can bring to manufacturers in many different industries. Prior to the announced acquisition by Epicor, Solarsoft itself had made two strategic acquisitions: Mattec and Informance.

Mattec MES – Production Control

Mattec provides real-time production and process monitoring allowing manufacturers to gain control of their shop floor and achieve significant improvements in efficiency and product quality. It includes:

  • Real-time production monitoring
  • Process control
  • Dynamic Job Scheduling
  • Statistical Process Control
  • Scrap and downtime monitoring
  • Preventive maintenance management
  • Operator tracking
  • Real-time alarms and alerts
  • Open communications and machine interface

Because its primary role is to control the shop floor, there is of course some overlap and contention with the shop floor control (SFC) functionality already available in some of the ERP solutions Epicor (and even Solarsoft) offers. Yet this kind of overlap between MES and the SFC module within ERP is quite common. MES tends to provide an added level of “real-time” over SFC, as well as a higher degree of interoperability with machine and process automation. So each manufacturer (including Epicor and Solarsoft customers) must make its own decision as to its own specific requirements. And indeed Mattec may be quite a welcome addition to some existing customers, like those running Epicor iScala, which has nothing to compare or compete, or other customers for which SFC provides only a good start to a complete manufacturing operations solution.

Informance EMI – Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence

The Informance product previously acquired by Solarsoft may in fact be more universally appealing across a broader spectrum of the Epicor and Solarsoft customer base.  The Informance product can be categorized either as EMI (Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence) or MPM (manufacturing Performance Management). Whichever way you look at it, the overriding goal is to improve the performance of manufacturing operations. In fact, using the Informance software, along with the permission of its customers, Solarsoft has been able to benchmark performance of these operations and determine “best-of-class” standards. It publishes a number of benchmarking studies each year to demonstrate how best practices impact manufacturing performance.

Unlike MES, which adds a level of shop floor control, EMI serves to aggregate data from a variety of sources (man, machine and software applications) and provide a level of analytics and intelligence that cannot be gleaned from any single source.  As such, it does not replace any ERP functionality, but complements it. Today there is nothing in the Epicor product portfolio that competes in terms of this type of functionality, so this part of the acquisition should be entirely accretive.

Conclusions and Key Takeaways

What’s the bottom line here? Epicor expands its addressable market to include process manufacturers and strengthens its position in print, publishing and packaging. Epicor manufacturing customers benefit from added solutions that dive deeper into their operations. Solarsoft customers will benefit from ICE and the “Build once, deploy everywhere” philosophy behind it.

Yes, there is soon to be one less ERP solution provider, but the solutions themselves aren’t going anywhere except forward.

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