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Plex's Cloud ERP Goes Beyond Finite

The sky’s the limit in cloud computing. The evidence: some recently added and enhanced modules to the ERP system from Plex Systems.
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An interesting thing about the transactional data captured by enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems: The data is becoming interactive. This change is becoming increasingly obvious in cloud-based ERP systems, such as that from Plex Systems (plex.com). Think back to ERP of “old”—a decade ago. Now consider the interactivity in the Plex Manufacturing Cloud (PMC) system.

Adding finite
Finite scheduling gives managers control over plant operations by letting them reschedule the use of resources: people, materials, and machine capacity (including tools and fixtures). Rescheduling production in real-time leads to maximizing resource usage and ensur-ing on-time deliveries to customers. 

Finite scheduling has been part of PMC for quite some time. However, it was a third-party system that ran on-premises. It was also “beyond the reach of most customers,” says Jason Prater, Plex’s vice president of development. Moreover, “customers didn’t need all the high-end optimizations, [so Plex developed] a finite capability that didn’t have all the bells and whistles that some products have. Instead it has some finite analysis and some rudimentary and straightforward optimizations.”

The Plex Finite Scheduling includes capable-to-promise analysis and forecasting; dynamic calendar and scenario planning for what-if analysis; complex job scheduling (serial and concurrent job scheduling; sequence activity as overlapped or parallel processes); automatic job scheduling based on constraints, including job priority and due dates; and reporting (such as the status of jobs, resources, and capacity). Work schedules can be based on job loads and resource constraints (even down to the tool and fixture levels), and use historical production data, forward-looking forecasts, or both. 

Avon Gear Co. (Shelby Township, MI), a machining supplier to the heavy equipment industries, has been using the module January 2014. This complements PMC, which Avon Gear has been using since 2007, when the company had $7-million in annual sales. Today, its annual sales are $40-million. The company works on approximately 600 part numbers across over 100 workcenters. Many of the parts require multiple operations, including turning and drilling on-site; broaching, heat treating, and plating off-site; then back on-site for more part turning, grinding, balancing, and other final operations.

Manually, finite scheduling took a lot of man-hours, explains Geoff Pitts, Avon Gear’s production control manager. Now with the Plex module, “you basically hit a button and it’ll run through your jobs and schedule them in the appropriate workcenters and give the best start dates—taking into consideration work-center capacity, manpower, and material availability.” Only one person schedules jobs now at Avon Gear, instead of 3 to 5 people. And those other people? “Now they’re expeditors, chasing parts down, calling people, getting parts back. More value-added work.”

Smart and intelligent
Delivered in 2013, SmartPlex, geared for the front office, makes PMC accessible from iOS and Android smartphones and tablet computers, putting ERP literally in the hands of a company’s business and operations management anywhere, anytime. IntelliPlex, a set of business intelligence (BI) capabilities that work throughout the PMC, has also been available for about a year. IntelliPlex runs “analytics against the ‘house’ data we collect in the 5,500-plus tables where we store data,” says Prater. However, IntelliPlex has generally been for desktops and tablet computers. Not anymore. 

By coupling SmartPlex and IntelliPlex more closely, Plex’s BI capabilities now go beyond the desktop-only Plex user interface that could only run in the Microsoft Internet Explorer browser. 

SmartPlex now serves all Plex users—from front office to manufacturing, warehouse, and sales. The user interface has morphed from mostly menus to one that displays dashboards, role-based menus with notifications and document review and approval, and the IntelliPlex BI portal, which makes ad-hoc, on-line data analysis possible. Note that SmartPlex offers both the new and the “classic” (i.e., menu-driven) user interface to customers. Also, even Prater admits that “looking at a report from your phone is painful, to say the least. From your tablet, you can at least log-in and see all your dashboards quickly and easily.” Plex has also announced globalization add-ons that offer country-specific reports (such as VAT calculation for EMEA and Brazil tax calculations), nine languages, and foreign currency displays.

In-your-eye ERP
By integrating its ERP system to Google Glass, Plex believes the combination might wind up being “a huge oppor-tunity for wearable computing in manu-facturing,” according to Prater. It will let people “interact with technology without using their hands.” Specifically, users will be able to interact with the real-time, transactional materials, manufacturing, and financial information captured by ERP. Sure, points out Prater, “you could put an iPad on a forklift, but if you drop it, you end up with a nice piece of broken glass.” And a nice bill: industrialized tablet computers start at $3,500. Granted, Google Glass is expensive, too; currently costing about $2,000 each. However, when it comes to keeping hands free for safety reasons, points out Prater, “safety incidents can cost millions to a company, as well as timely delays.”

In use, the wearer of the glasses need only say “Go to Plex” or make a quick hand gesture to initiate and drill through the menus of tasks available through Plex via Glass. As needed, Glass can recognize workcenters, material bins, and any other items having a bar code label. Once Glass reads that label, PMC displays information about that item, such as a workcenter status and the currently running job, or enters the relevant data about that item into PMC, such as a bin’s material quantity and inventory deduct.

Prater admits the screen in Google Glass is small, so “it’s hard to do anything complex.” However, that’s not stopped some customer pilots using PMC and Glass for inventory tracking and control. 

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