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.