“What software applications do I really need to run my business? What software is truly strategic, creates a competitive advantage, and genuinely contributes directly to return on investment and profits?”
Sorry, I can’t give you a definitive answer. Every business is different in terms of goals, strategies, finances, production environment, sales channel, etc., so “your mileage may vary.” However, there are some categories of software that most manufacturing enterprises do need. Granted, some of these categories overlap, especially as more and more software vendors bundle in more and more features/functions/bells & whistles/capabilities into their core products either because of technology improvements, market demand, or sales promotion.
Nevertheless, consider, if not implement, the following.
Computer-aided design (CAD) is a given. Product design starts on paper, virtual as it might be these days. Nowadays, get a solid modeler (3D CAD), which is a better lead to digital mockup, and virtual product and process modeling. Such software also leads to better design documentation, better machining and inspection programs, and higher quality surfaces for machining. Before machining, however, there are computer-aided engineering (CAE) and its subset finite element analysis (FEA) to consider. CAE simulates and analyzes the behaviors of materials, assemblies, and finished products to help validate designs, select the better design alternative, and identify design improvements.
Closely associated with CAD is product data management (PDM). PDM is more than document management; this application captures, stores, manages, and displays product information throughout the lifecycle of the product. PDM also supports engineering workflow, configuration management, and change control—all critical processes within engineering design. Production monitoring and control
Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software typically includes data acquisition, process monitoring and alarming, regulatory or continuous control, some sort of supervisory control, an operator interface, and management reporting. The sophistication of such software runs the entire gamut from, say, simple data acquisition and process monitoring, to dynamic, adaptive, self-tuning production control with workflow and management alerting capabilities.
At the very least, this software should capture data for work-in-process (WIP) tracking, including logging process start/stop times and log movement/queue times. It should also be able to generate serial numbers, perform revision control, and slice and dice the captured data every which way you chose—on demand. Needless to say, any data acquisition application should accept data from anywhere: bar code, radio frequency identification, machine controllers, and human key entry.
Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software probably also falls in this category. CAM software provides the intelligence for machine tools to perform. Machine tool manufacturers typically provide CAM software.
A good operator interface (OI) is a must for seeing exactly what’s going on in manufacturing. OI software typically comes with supervisory control systems, such as manufacturing execution system (MES) and SCADA. Or it can be bought separately, which creates a wonderful work opportunity for systems integrators.
In any case, a sophisticated OI provides a window into the operation of not only software programs, but of the plant itself, including machine tools, materials handling equipment, and the production line in its entirety. Some provide advanced alarming, routing management, statistical process control/quality control (SPC/SQC), and a high-resolution graphical display for viewing everything from CAD drawings to simulations.
On the theory that “If you can model it, you can improve it,” simulation software mimics the plant floor so that users can debug control system, visualize operations off-line or in real time, analyze production strategies and options, and to monitor, optimize, and stabilize production on line. Today’s simulation systems typically use advanced mathematical models to simulate and predict factory floor operations. By changing the parameters within these models, users can analyze various operating scenarios (“what if”) in their attempts to optimize operations. It’s far cheaper to mess up a software model than a physical plant.
Expert systems, an application of artificial intelligence, are primarily a database containing rules that capture the knowledge and thought processes of a human expert. While this class of software can be purchased separately, expert system capabilities are often found deep in just about all the software you buy today. Simple example: The ability of Microsoft Word’s AutoCorrect to automatically change “hte” to “the.”
Now apply such “expertness” to manufacturing. Overlay data collection, data analysis, and workflow on top of manufacturing rules, and you have a software system that can predict out-of-tolerance conditions and failures, perform capacity planning dynamically, smooth material flow and machining operations, provide fault diagnosis, and perform automated startup, shutdown, and recovery procedures, to name a few expert-needed applications.
Quality control and monitoring software, often associated with data acquisition applications, must be integrated throughout the manufacturing enterprise. These applications collect and store test, diagnostic, and repair data either from manual data entry or from automated test equipment. This software should provide both on- and off-line SPC/SQC tools, which can range from simple control chart reporting to sophisticated design of experiments and business intelligence capabilities. In addition, the software should maintain, or be integrated with software that maintains, vendor quality records and assist in vendor rating.
Most important, these systems must be able to report, report, report—both standard and ad hoc, batch and real time—on such matters as control charts, WIP and production equipment locations, and failure codes for component parts and production equipment. Now couple reporting with artificial intelligence, workflow, and communications capabilities. The result is an application that notifies the appropriate personnel about processes and process trends that are out of tolerance.
Tops among applications that manage production is MES. MES resides in that middle layer between upper management’s transaction processing business system (namely, enterprise resource planning, ERP) and production’s real-time dynamic operation. MES executes the resource plan generated by ERP, and it reports plant-floor and order status back up to ERP. MES addresses operational issues such as process data acquisition and management, document control, quality management, finite scheduling, resource allocation, and labor management.
If MES seems like overkill, consider at least some form of finite scheduling. Advanced planning and scheduling (APS) is the finite scheduler du jour. APS balances customer demand against the resource constraints existing on the production floor (typically machines, materials, and labor), and all of that against a company’s business and production rules. APS production plans detail when to start and finish production, ideally after anticipating resource needs and the implications of technical, financial, operational, and business decisions.
The poor, back room stepchild in manufacturing has always been machine maintenance. No longer. Computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) and the more all-encompassing enterprise asset management (EAM) systems are mission-critical applications that focus on performing plant maintenance before things break down. These systems cover maintenance areas such as equipment, labor, service and work order requests and management, preventive maintenance, statistical predictive maintenance, inventory, and purchasing.
There are other types of mission-critical manufacturing software to consider. In the early stages of production management, consider software for product costing, quoting/estimating, production routing control, and inventory control. At the back end of manufacturing, consider applications for inventory and warehouse management, logistics support, and field service.
Of particular note in the latter category is a warehouse management system (WMS). A WMS coordinates the movement of all material from the moment it enters the warehouse to when it leaves. WMS directs both material handling systems and people to move materials from one station to the next. Besides database building, receiving, replenishment, put away, order accumulation, and shipping, a WMS needs to account for the movement—that is, traffic control—and safety of both personnel and material handling equipment. It also manages those operations critical to inventorying, but peripheral to warehousing, such as in-bound inspection.
Entire forests have been cut down explaining, documenting, selling, and justifying ERP (including material requirements planning and manufacturing resource planning). It all boils down to an enterprise-level business management system integrating a company’s financials with human resources with sales and marketing with manufacturing with inventory and supply. It’s the whole enchilada of business information—within the four walls of the enterprise.
As much as ERP’s focus is within an individual enterprise, supply chain management (SCM) and its close cousin collaborative planning, forecasting, and replenishment (CPFR) integrate disparate enterprises—and their critical software system, whether that be ERP, inventory management, CAD, quality management system, or some sort of inventory system. Software in this category spans the breadth of business functions from forecasting and demand planning, through supply chain planning and scheduling, to customer order configuration, to supply chain execution. Separate software categorized as supply chain execution involves such fundamentals as order fulfillment, distribution (warehouse, transportation, and logistics), returns, and international trade activities.
There’s something nagging in the back of my mind. The more I talk to manufacturing software users and vendors, the more I’m convinced that there’s really only one hunk of software that manufacturing really needs: a spreadsheet. It’s a database. It’s an analysis tool. It’s a scheduler. It’s a resource planner. It’s so many things—when used correctly. And therein lies the nagging. Used incorrectly, none of the software mentioned here amounts to a hill of beans if manufacturing management doesn’t know how to plan, monitor, manage, communicate, and analyze.