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Same As It Ever Was

23 Mar

A few thoughts on the promise and peril of the next generation ERP/PLM/MES alphabet soup.

There is cause for optimism, for sure, when we look at the cloud and mobile technologies being developed and deployed.  Working as the head of client services for a SaaS eProcurement vendor with 98% cloud-based implementations, I could sit at my desk (or in my home office), and diagnose (and fix) client issues, sometimes before the client was aware of them.  The only clients that actually had to do any of their own maintenance were the handful of clients that hosted the solution behind their firewall.

Not to minimize the impact of these technologies in eProcurement, but complex manufacturing is a totally different animal.  In much of the reading I’ve been doing lately on ERP/PLM/MES, I am seeing the same issues discussed that were the hot topics in the 1990’s

  • eBOM and mBOM synchronization (not to mention ‘as-planned’, ‘as-maintained’)
  • Streamlining of quote generation
  • Supplier quality management
  • Intelligent data exchange from MRO/Manufacturing back to the engineering department

Have we really advanced all that far?  I believe there are three issues that stand in the way of actually solving these problems, and none of these issues are new:

1 – Legacy systems never die.  Major manufacturers still have ties to systems developed in the ‘dark ages’, and the ERP/PLM/MES vendors wind up having to either integrate, replicate or mimic these systems in order to keep products moving out the door.  At one aerospace & defense firm I worked with, the IT staff had completely turned over since the ‘legacy’ BOM system had been developed, so any time there were changes to be made that impacted this system, it was trial and error.  Run a series of test transactions and see what comes out the other end.  The complexity of the code combined with the lack of knowledge of the rules governing that application’s behavior made it virtually impossible to replace AND virtually impossible to maintain.

I know of companies that were buying Digital VAX parts on eBay to keep some of their legacy environments running!

2 – Many firms implement new systems by looking in the rear-view mirror. In a previous company, we had the opportunity to replace a legacy process planning system with our newest offering.  When the project was done, we were asked to expand the application into other areas of the business.   One of our new ‘prospects’ asked their internal project manager if there was anything they would have done differently when they put in our system.  She said:

“Our biggest mistake was looking at this application as a replacement for the legacy application.  By doing that we restricted our scope to what the old product did, and did not take advantage of some of the features of the new product.”

Other well-known examples of ‘backward facing’:

  • Systems with field size limitations that can be traced back to the 80 column restriction in punch cards.
  • The ‘floppy’ icon that is still used as the ‘save’ icon, years after the death of floppy drives.
  • The use of ‘Files’ and ‘Folders’ in computing environments.

There is some comfort from adopting familiar symbols and approaches, but this makes the paradigm shift even more difficult.

3 –  We’re only human. (OK, quoting TWO songs from the 80’s).  Regardless of technology, be it mainframe, client-server, PC, tablet, smartphone, cloud, the person actually “cuttin’ chips” has to be engaged in the process.  We’ve all heard stories of carefully designed and documented engineering changes, approved, planned, released to the shop, and summarily ignored by the machinist who has been making this part the same way for years.  There is an aerospace supplier in central Connecticut that had a titanium ring as a planter in the landscape in front of his shop.  The engineer had specified 100 holes equally spaced around the ring, where the mating part had 101 holes equally spaced.

We do make mistakes, and while technology can alleviate some of these issues, it can also amplify them.

I’m not here to throw cold water on IoT, SaaS, mobile, social, etc.  This is truly an exciting time for manufacturing technology.  We just need to remember people and process as we charge forward.



It’s All About Your Niche, Do You WANT to Leave There?

9 Apr

Back to reading my original blog muse, Oleg Shilovitsky.  In a recent blog (“Ugly vs. Cool”) he took PLM vendors to task re: their product user interface.  It got me thinking:

What do my previous company, CIMx Software, and my current company, Vinimaya, have in common?

Although there are many differences, and many other reasons for their success, both software companies are, in part, successful because of the failings of another industry’s functionality and user interface.

Ask any PLM vendor and they will say that they support manufacturing.  Truth be told, they have products designed and built for the design engineer and management of design projects.  The user interface is designed by engineers and for engineers.   The schemas and taxonomies of the PLM system do not support the workings of the manufacturing shop, and the user interface is way too complex for the casual user.  In the case of CIMx  Software, there have been numerous attempts by the engineering organizations at CIMx customers to ‘standard ize’ on the PLM environment for manufacturing and shop floor.  At one particulart customer, there were close to 1/2 dozen ‘pilots’ of the PLM system in manufacturing engineering.  They all failed to provide what CIMx had out of the box.

The same can be said for ERP ‘eProc’ applications and Vinimaya.  If ERP vendors provided simple federated search across all of their internal and external suppliers with a user interface like Google or Amazon, there would be no need for SmartSearch™.   That’s not the case.  eProc systems tend to have the same laborious click-heavy, multi-screen UI issues as most ERP and PLM functions.

Why is this so?  It boils down to two elements, legacy and domain expertise.

1) Legacy.  One of my favorite quotes about the software industry is “God created the universe in six days because he didn’t have an installed base”.  It is extremely difficult for established vendors in a particular space (ERP, PLM) to completely re-write their large monolithic systems.  They can certainly apply a web ‘veneer’ and update icons and other visual elements, but it’s the same old code underneath.

2) Domain Expertise.  I recall the amazement in the voice of a colleague in the MES space when he had to explain to their PLM partner the  concept of a work order.  You may know the technology behind and engineering bill of materials backwards and forwards, but that does not mean your expertise has any value down on the shop floor.

So, where do you want to live, Mr. ERP vendor?  Mr. PLM vendor?  The more you decide to venture outside of your area of core competence, the more you will have to be concerned about functionality and UI, and the less likely you will be able to compete with the likes of CIMx and Vinimaya.


They’re Doing It Without You!

14 Feb

I owe this inspiration to SAP’s Paul Boris.

There is a long-running dialog on the LinkedIn Manufacturing Execution Systems Group, started by Luigi De Bernardini , entitled “Does any ERP need an MES?”  It’s been up for about two weeks.

BTW: Paul’s answer was

“That question is really like asking do you really need a heart AND lungs ?”

… but that’s not the the inspiration.  The inspiration came from his opening paragraph, which was both humorous and insightful, and I told Paul I would steal it:

“I believe everyone who manufactures anything has an MES – it might be a specific Manufacturing Execution System, Microsoft Excel Spreadsheets or even Many Employees Scurrying around (sorry) – but they have something.”

After laughing out loud, I realized this really brought home something that is key to all software vendors selling in the Manufacturing Space.

Nobody is sitting around waiting for your application, Sparky!

They have stuff to make.  They have to order material, build stuff, cut chips, deal with the day-to-day issues that manufacturers face.  They are lean.  They have no time.  Covey Quandrant 2 activities?  Not so much.

When they finally DO have time to look at your shiny new application, be careful to look at their body language, facial expressions.  What are they telling you, once you are actually paying attention to them?

“… it looks impressive, but how long will my shop be down in order to make this work?  I don’t have ANY time,  so where am I going to find implementation time?  PLEASE don’t tell me I have to ‘re-do’ my old work in your system.”

Why do these shiny new applications fail to generate excitement in the plant manager’s heart?  Because they don’t take into account that the work is being done now without them.

You have two choices:

1) Build a compelling case for why the shop should be disrupted for months (if you can)

2) Build an application that can be implemented without disrupting production

Learn more about option 2  here


Commenting PLM, Workplace Efficiency and my iPod

2 Feb

On the Zero Wait-state blog,  Steve Ammann wrote on the benefits of PLM in creating workplace efficiencies for introverts.  He referred Susan Cain’s recently published book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.”

The author states that open cubicles and meetings cause distractions that can hamper productivity.  Quoting:

“Just how detrimental even the smallest of distractions can be is detailed within Cain’s New York Times editorial “The Risks of the New GroupThink”. Within this piece, she cites research that workers who face interruptions and distractions make up to 50% more mistakes and take twice as long to complete any given task. “

I remember my introduction to ‘meetings’ when I joined the workforce as a freshly minted mechanical engineer in a large aerospace company.  No agenda, no goal, just twelve angry men talking over each other.  90 minutes later, the only agreement was to schedule another meeting.

Even in the small software company environment later in my career, we seemed to gravitate toward meetings.   We had one harried manager in a previous company who felt compelled to attend every meeting, and would visit each member of her team several times a day to see “how things were going”.  She felt that she was being proactive, and supportive/protective of her team.  Of course, she also worked 10 – 12 hour days, because the meetings and visits took all of her 8-5 time.

Her ‘team’ would come to me and complain…

“Why won’t she leave me alone so I can do my job?” 

While I would never be called an ‘introvert’, I do find that my best work is done with my office door closed and my iPod just loud enough to block any background noise.  I find my mind wanders if it’s too quiet; I need to have something to listen to.  I wind up joining conversations that are going on outside my door.  Next thing you know, I’ve lost an hour or three. 

I have coworkers that are just the opposite, a radio/iPod would wreck their concentration.

What intrigued me about this blog was that I had never thought of PLM as a technology that would enable introverts in this way.  Never ‘connected the dots’!  Great insight!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to close my door, crank up my iPod, and get some work done.


Commenting on Cloud Cartels

31 Jan

Interesting technology blog over at the New York Times today.  The blog is commenting on a Forrester business and technology outlook report for 2020.  … and 2020 is not too many years away!  In summary, the Times blogger said

“The short version is that cloud computing will come on quicker than you think, it will be controlled by a very few companies that will fight for the right to own your data, and businesses need to think about what software they can write that will differentiate them from all the other customers of these giants.”

The only thing constant here is change.  Here’s a few names for you:  Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Data General, Sperry Univac.  The titans of the computer industry.  I personally attended a DECWorld extravaganza in Boston ‘back in the day’.  DEC took over Commonwealth Pier in Boston,  leased two ocean liners (the “Queen Mary” and the “Norwegian”) as floating hotels.  Digital is now a footnote in computer history (though we do have customers that still run legacy applications on DEC VAX hardware, in some cases buying spare parts on eBay).

There’s an old saw in the software business:

 “God created the universe in 6 days because he didn’t have an installed base”. 

The bigger the installed base, the tougher it is to continue to innovate.  Support of old versions of hardware/software drain resources.  This is the cycle that will continue.  Some may be agile enough,  following the Wayne Gretzky philosophy of business (skate to where the puck is going to be), others will fall by the wayside.  While the Times and Forrester state:

“The substance of the report, however, is plain: cloud and mobile computing combined will rapidly improve, dislodging many incumbents in enterprise computing, and vastly empowering a few others, becoming what Forrester calls “computing cartels” that control millions of servers in data centers around the globe. These cartels, the report says, will include Amazon, Cisco Systems, Google, I.B.M., Microsoft, Oracle and a few competitors.”

I can’t help but wonder…

In 2022 what will the “Forrester business and technology outlook report for 2030” be saying?

Will someone like me be writing, “remember Google?”



Commenting On The Adventures Of Process Man

31 Jan

I read a HIGHLY entertaining blog today from Stephen Porter (Zero Wait-State PLM) “Forgotten Hero-Process Man

In this blog, Stephen describes how Batman had a distinct disadvantage to other ‘super friends’ as he had no super powers, only gadgets.  He morphs that conversation into the ‘forgotten’ superhero “Process Man” who is vital to the success of any project implementation. 

We have a long-time customer that has used our legacy product for over 15 years.  A number of years ago, they acted as an internal reference for another site.  The manager of this site asked “What would you do differently if you put CIMx in today?”.  Our customer answered [paraphrasing],

“I wouldn’t have treated it as a replacement for our old system.  That mindset really limited our use of their technology.”

I remember at the time thinking how profound a statement this was.  We had always prided ourselves in being customer centric.  In fact, our slogan when we started CIMx in 1996 was “customer driven solutions”.  Is just doing what the customer asks enough? 

By the way, this same customer, after funding an enhancement to our product that we had cautioned against, said in frustration:

“How could you let us talk you into that?”

Sounds like a job for….  PROCESS MAN!!!

Over time, we learned that the most important part of the ‘sale’ is the assessment.  It’s not about the tools, it’s about the process.  As I learned in Dale Carnegie Sales Advantage training. 

“Millions of twist drills are sold every year, but people are buying the ability to make holes.”

So let’s hear it for Process Man!  Process Man truly is the unsung hero. If you don’t understand the current and future process, you are missing the benefit of the technology you are investing in.

Companies that choose to merely automate their current process are doomed to make crap faster.


Reality-Based Software

23 Jan

The ongoing discussion started by Jim Brown (Tech Clarity) re: “A Maturity Model for Product Data Accessibility?” at the PLM CAD CAM Network group in LinkedIn continues to be thoughtful and insightful.  Jim responded recently with this quote regarding ‘sloppy data’

For the record, I wasn’t suggested that individuals should be sloppy – the pursuit of accuracy and order are important.  But instead saying that we live in environments that tend towards chaos no matter how hard we try, and we need to keep doing the job that customers pay for (designing and producing great products) in that reality.


It is so common in our industry to assume we know best.  I hear software people talking about “educating the customer”.  Not so fast, Sparky.  I maintain we have MUCH more to learn FROM our customers and prospects than we can ever teach them.  Do we have something to offer?   You bet….  but don’t prescribe before you diagnose.

In the paperless manufacturing space, this “know it all” behavior is rampant.  We can improve your bottom line, provide new efficiencies that you never thought possible, make your key traceability and quality data accessible electronically.

All you have to do is… change everything!  Those MS word work instructions?  Sorry, you have to re-enter them in OUR environment, so they’ll be ‘useful’.  No, we don’t have a converter, but cut and paste should work for those 10,000 docs, right?  Those ERP routings?  Everyone knows that the ERP routings are incomplete, we’ll just take over that task as well.   Oh, by the way?  for this to work MOST efficiently, we need to own the BOM as well..

Is it any wonder that most companies (especially in the small to medium business space) look at paperless manufacturing with a sense of dread?  If they had the time to turn their organization upside down, they wouldn’t need the help!  At the end of the day, they need to produce product.  Everything else STARTS in 2nd place.  I imagine re-keying in existing information is well down the list.

The approach that needs to be taken by software vendors is what I am referring to in the blog title: 

Reality-based Software.   

Paraphrasing Jim Brown, software vendors need to do the job that customers pay for in the customer’s reality not the vendor’s reality.  Learn more here



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