Speeding the flow of jobs through the shop, while maintaining top quality, ranks among the hallmarks of any successful manufacturing operation’s goals. With the latest enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, manufacturing engineers and managers get key operational data delivered quickly in order to keep manufacturing deliveries on time with the highest-quality parts demanded by today’s global economy.
Many new ERP software programs either boast cloud-based versions or, in some cases, are built from the ground up for the cloud. In recent years, the migration of formerly on-premises-only ERP software to the cloud has accelerated, and ERP developers are also adding key features, such as AI functionality or must-have traceability capabilities for strict quality-control requirements on components used by highly regulated industries such as aerospace, medical and automotive manufacturing.
The march to the cloud continues unabated, as ERP developers bring out new features and manufacturers become convinced of the inherent value gained in cloud ERP’s cost advantages and faster, on-demand deployments. Unless there’s an absence of good broadband connectivity or data latency issues that cause manufacturing throughput problems, most manufacturers are gravitating toward lower-cost, cloud-only ERP software.
Migrating to cloud ERP has been a key trend for some time, as customers become more accepting of cloud-based data. Some ERP offerings are natively written as web-based applications and available only in the cloud. “ProShop has always been web-based,” noted Paul Van Metre, president of ProShop USA Inc., a Bellingham, Wash.-based developer of ERP software and a subsidiary of Adion Systems, Vancouver, B.C., Canada. “We see a majority of customers choosing our cloud service as they don’t want to deal with the hassles of onsite servers. They understand that their data in the cloud is likely safer than the data on their own networks.”
Cloud-based ERP systems are a growing trend, said Jeff Ralyea, president of the manufacturing division of ECi Software Solutions, a Fort Worth, Texas-based developer with ERP offerings that include JobBoss, Macola and M1 software. With the convergence of data coming from highly connected enterprises and PLM in the Industry 4.0 era, manufacturers are looking for ways to grapple with the massive amounts of operational data coming from plant operations. “One of the things that is a growing trend is even small manufacturers are investing in equipment that comes with the ability to send and receive data,” Ralyea said. “They’re trying to figure out ‘What do I do with it?’”
Moving to the cloud makes customers’ data fully accessible, he added. In terms of adoption, “about 30 percent of our customers today have determined that everything has to be in the cloud,” said Ralyea of companies with more progressive IT directors. “But you also have to have a clear broadband. We have a fair number of customers without a solid and stable Internet connection.”
Over the next three to five years, more manufacturers will be looking to cloud-based systems in order to stay current with the latest releases, Ralyea added, and also to alleviate the work involved with updating to the latest tech. “I see IT becoming a much more integral part of helping customers leverage the technology, and becoming more of a trusted advisor. We’re looking to make the solutions more accessible, easier to update, more malleable, or configurable, to tailor the software to unique business needs.”
While the migration to the cloud has been steady, manufacturers are not rushing the process, noted Terri Hiskey, vice president, global product marketing, Epicor Software Corp., an Austin, Texas, ERP developer. “Our sales year-over-year continue to grow. However, the move to the cloud also hasn’t been as swift as originally anticipated,” she said. “Many companies are trying a hybrid approach, with maybe an on-premises ERP system connected to cloud analytics or other cloud add-ons. We’re even seeing some companies with IoT-connected systems that feed into an on-premises ERP. We are seeing greater cloud ERP adoption from companies that are either new to ERP or are replacing older, legacy systems.
“The challenge has been companies that are on-premises and are happy with where they are,” Hiskey added. “They know the world is moving to the cloud, but they are taking their time and trying out the cloud with add-on applications that integrate into their on-prem systems.”
In most if not all industries, keeping quality up to par is critical, particularly in industries like aerospace, automotive and medical that demand the highest precision. An advantage of ProShop ERP is its linking of ERP with a strong MES (manufacturing execution system) and the company’s QMS (quality management system) component, which tracks compliance with ISO quality standards and offers customers full traceability features, noted Van Metre.
“We are primarily focused on companies in regulated industries,” Van Metre said. “Our combination of ERP, MES and QMS is particularly interesting to companies in the aerospace, medical, oil/gas, and nuclear industries. Those that don’t have all the regulatory requirements—while they would benefit from the more robust business processes ProShop offers—don’t find ProShop to be as compelling.
“Customers in the aerospace industry represent the largest group we have,” he continued. “That is the type of company we built ProShop in, and we have many specific features that are really compelling to aerospace customers. A prime example is preparation of AS9102 FAI document packages. This is often a manual process taking hours of time per job. ProShop will automatically prepare those document packages in seconds, allowing considerable improvement in efficiency and throughput.”
ProShop recently released a module with the ability to have complete serial number traceability for purchased and manufactured parts—in and out of inventory—with traceability down to every inspection point and which inspection gage was used to measure every dimension, he noted.
“We also are about to release an approvals module, allowing companies to design approval workflows and apply them to any field in the system,” said Van Metre. “This will allow an infinitely configurable system of what items need to be approved, and by whom. This is essential to industries like medical device manufacturing and others.”
Another recent ProShop innovation is an ISO-13485 QMS template, the “Medical Flying Start Package.” “It is a fully configured QMS system that will allow a company to become certified if they follow the processes in ProShop and have the records to prove it,” he said. “This is an addition to the AS9100 Flying Start Package that we’ve offered for a while.”
Van Metre co-founded ProShop (later bought by Adion Systems) back in 2000 when he had a machine shop and needed a system for shop-floor management. He found the available alternatives lacking. ERP companies can help small to medium manufacturers by providing tools to increase efficiency and automation in every step of the value stream, Van Metre noted, from estimating and quoting, contract review, manufacturing engineering, the manufacturing process itself, purchasing, inspection and non-conformance tracking, among other tasks.
“With traditional accounting-based ERP systems, most of these steps and small details—which are essential to daily efficiency—are omitted and are left to the company to develop their own systems to manage them,” he said. “This extends all the way to the quality management system, which is an essential way to design robust business processes and ensure they are followed. When you have consistent business processes and you do things the same way each day, it allows anomalies to be much more obvious and therefore more easily solved with continuous improvement. … We’ve seen clients dramatically reduce hours of paperwork each week, get much more done with fewer people, increase revenue with higher machine utilization, and reduce their overall stress levels.”
Among the latest twists adding innate intelligence to ERP software, Epicor recently unveiled its new EVA, the Epicor Virtual Assistant, which is said to offer artificial intelligence (AI) features to the software. Epicor’s new enterprise-wide digital agent is designed to help users work smarter and accelerate the pace of operations across the business more easily, according to Epicor’s Hiskey.
“Developed to execute tasks and recommend, predict, and adjust actions within set parameters, EVA appears on-screen as a virtual assistant that users can access via text or voice. Along with cognitive skills such as text and voice, EVA transforms data into visual information, creating an intuitive experience to complete actions on native devices,” Hiskey said.
With natural language processing (NLP), users can access EVA from their mobile devices and the agent will deliver targeted information to help them make better, faster decisions, she added. “Beyond the request/response conversational experience, EVA also uses AI capabilities to proactively deliver alerts and carry out targeted actions based on combinations of events, market statistics, and historical data. Designed to extend and support the workforce, EVA can contribute timely insights that improve accuracy, problem spotting, and can even forecast and automatically adjust production or distribution levels in-line with customer demand.”
With the push toward big data, companies are developing new ways of acquiring and analyzing vast volumes of business and operational data streams. In September 2018, ECi acquired Vineyardsoft Corp., developer of business activity monitoring (BAM) software, and Ralyea said that ECi has adapted Vineyardsoft’s flagship solution, KnowledgeSync, into many of ECi’s ERP systems.
ECi applications now feature this technology, which is improving as well as increasing the use of alerts in manufacturing. “If there’s a wait order, it tells you how a late shipment is going to affect your company,” Ralyea noted. “That’s something that for a long time wasn’t available to smaller manufacturing companies. We’re focused on making that stuff super simple.”
“Say you’re a purchasing planner and a shipment comes in and doesn’t pass quality; you want to be alerted immediately and be able make more of that product to expedite that order,” Ralyea continued. “The minute that inventory goes into quarantine, you want to know. The system’s going to alert you, speed up, and save you maybe 48 hours. Data analytics is a big focus of keeping a company operationally efficient.”
Another new AI-based addition is Newtown Square, Penn.-based SAP’s recently introduced AI-powered intelligent ERP with the latest SAP S/4HANA software. Unveiled in May at SAP’s Sapphire Now event in Orlando, Fla., the updated SAP ERP is said to offer more than 100 out-of-the-box AI and robotic process automation–powered capabilities with the SAP S/4HANA Cloud 1905 release.
The new additions will automate 50 percent of manual tasks in the ERP system over the following three years. Some examples of new AI capabilities include intelligent accruals management, defect code proposal, and a financial journal entry with intelligent robotic process automation.
“In today’s experience economy, companies are searching for new ways to serve and delight their customers,” Jan Gilg, senior vice president and head of SAP S/4HANA, said in a release. “SAP’s goal is to help companies get there by becoming intelligent enterprises.”
Another ongoing trend is the overlap and convergence of ERP with PLM functionality as manufacturers strengthen the bonds of connected global enterprises. Last December, French PLM giant Dassault Systèmes purchased ERP developer IQMS, based in Paso Robles, Calif., in a cash deal valued at $425 million. In February at Solidworks World, Paris-based Dassault announced the creation of its new “3DExperience.Works” portfolio of industry-aware applications on the 3DExperience platform that leverages the functionality of IQMS’ on-premises EnterpriseIQ and the IQMS WebIQ software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications.
“Small and mid-sized firms worldwide need digital solutions to grow but have long been challenged to find ones that are right for their size. By introducing 3DExperience.Works, we bring the platform effect to them,” Bernard Charlès, Dassault Systèmes vice chairman and CEO, said in a statement. The new 3DExperience.Works family now includes Delmiaworks to serve main-stream manufacturers by providing a full digital thread for business operations, said the company.
“It’s the natural progression for PLM and ERP to converge,” noted ProShop’s Van Metre. “Having silos of information in different software systems is detrimental to an organization. This is especially true for larger companies that design their own products. This is less true for job shops and contract manufacturers that don’t hold design authority. For those that work in regulated industries, there are still many types of information and documentation that must be controlled. This is why we have built a PDM-lite type system into ProShop, where we automatically build file folders and help to automate the process of managing files and revision levels for those documents, client flowdowns, and regulatory requirements.”
Epicor’s Hiskey would add another phrase, bill of materials (BOM), to the mix. “I think of PLM [as being] from design to BOM, and ERP comes into play once the BOM is released to manufacturing, so I generally think of them as complementary,” she said. “However, there is starting to be a bit of overlap as we do have customers that want to be able to manage ECOs (engineering change orders) within ERP versus PLM. And it could be because the company is so small that they don’t have a PLM system.”
With ERP and PLM systems, “there’s a ton of interplay and they operate somewhat independently,” observed ECi’s Ralyea. “There’s two types of engineering. There’s product engineering, in CAD and CAM, working on what we’re going to build. Then you have manufacturing engineering, where you figure out how to build that crazy contraption you dreamt up. That’s the interplay,” Ralyea said. “How do I get the concept to build? Our products today have a sophisticated interplay connection between ERP and PLM-CAD/CAM, and that interplay is really, really important.”
Manufacturers have to make sure all the elements are in place, having the right travelers and the right tooling. The CADLink integration function in ECi’s M1 ERP enables users to create the proper records identical to CAD engineering.
“For lack of a term, it’s a middle-ware that allows us to work with a number of CAD systems,” Ralyea said. “It’s really a bill of materials and a bill of routing, which tells you ‘these operations are going to use these machines.’ All of that typically gets defined in a CAD system, and now we create that in a structure that allows us to send data back and forth. It is a unique differentiator for us.”