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.
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.