New technologies—including machine learning, mobile apps and advanced analytics—help manufacturers keep tabs on fast-paced factory-floor operations
Original Article via :: Manufacturing Engineering
Article by Patrick Waurzyniak
Manufacturing operations depend on getting the right information at precisely the right moment, ensuring that products get built on time, to quality specs. With the latest enterprise resource management (ERP) software, this critical data flow is often coming via the cloud, as more manufacturers become comfortable with it as a repository for key manufacturing information.
With ERP software delivered via the cloud, Big Data is also more easily leveraged for Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications. In this application, advanced analytics do the data crunching required for processing the flow of data, including operational metrics and inventory information.
Along with offering more mobile apps that funnel factory data directly to users’ fingertips, many ERP software developers are also testing newer technologies like artificial intelligence, augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) capabilities, and machine learning and advanced analytics that can handle the Big Data inherent with many IIoT/IoT manufacturing data scenarios.
IIoT and Manufacturing’s Big Data
With advances in Smart Manufacturing/Industry 4.0, the potential for growth in the IoT/IIoT is immense, noted Jerry Foster, cofounder and chief technical officer of ERP software supplier Plex Systems Inc. (Troy, MI), developer of the Plex Manufacturing Cloud ERP. “The IoT and the IIoT [concept] is just huge,” Foster said, noting that while many managers seem to think they’re falling behind, “this is stuff that they’ve been doing for years—it’s just a matter of scale. The enabler there is just the cloud and connectivity.”
Data collection is something many manufacturers are already doing, so they’re ahead of the game, Foster noted. “Big Data for you is just Bigger Data,” he said. “It’s more data than you have now. The problem with this is data deluge. It was a major concern, but it only takes machine learning and algorithms to handle it.”
Plex currently offers machine learning and advanced analytics through third-party applications. However, the company is working on its own applications for this process that Foster said will be available later this year. “What we do is partner with a machine learning service and utilize that to analyze the data. We’d take the ERP data that our customers have and put that in the Microsoft Azure cloud. You want actionable machine learning, and this is one of the things that we’re on the cusp of right now,” he said.
Many other ERP developers recognize the importance of Big Data in the IIoT age, and they are moving to incorporate advanced analytics and AI into their toolkits. “Big Data is already having an impact on the ERP software market, and many manufacturers understand this,” said Terri Hiskey, vice president, manufacturing product marketing, Epicor Software Corp. (Austin, TX). “The insights that can be revealed through the collection of all sorts of data—from the length of time it takes to process orders and respond to customer requests, to tracking materials and costs, tracking inventory, understanding customer patterns and behavior, and much more can be tracked through various algorithms and analytics.
“As manufacturers move into the IIoT, the amount of data increases because now companies can track machine performance out in the field,” she continued. “Depending on performance outcomes, those machines might be set up to course-correct themselves through artificial intelligence. In fact, a term that I hear being used more and more is ‘data fatigue’; that the vast amount of data being collected is often left untouched because there aren’t enough resources or knowledge to make that data actionable. The advantages that companies will get out of leveraging Big Data is the insight into overall ERP processes and the recommended actions to take due to those insights.”
Managing the Workflow
For discrete manufacturers, ERP software helps streamline the process, ensuring workflow is optimized to meet production goals. “Just by creating the workflow in ERP, the business captures the experience, expertise and best practices for the varying workflows,” Hiskey said. “The workflow can be automated in ERP, resulting in less human error and a faster process. Guesswork can be reduced with greater visibility and insights into the business. ERP workflow can cross cross-functional boundaries and allow for easier communications up and down and across the organization and functional areas.”
Businesses can also track the total execution time for any given workflow, she added. “ERP workflows can also help track costs and time related to the completion of a production job, such as whether or not the time falls within an agreed upon timeline; whether all materials were consumed and charged correctly; are there any orders outstanding waiting for the completion of this job; do labor or material costs need to be updated for future production; and are there any corrections to costs before completing the job?” This can help accounting teams close their books, Hiskey said, with information on invoices that need to be completed and posted to accounts receivable; suppliers that need to be paid and costs captured; and making sure that depreciation and accruals are calculated. “All of these steps can be managed through an ERP workflow,” she added.
Users of Epicor’s latest ERP get a personalized, active home page that “provides dashboard views of role-based analytics with quick access to role-based functionality, made possible through Epicor Data Discovery, which supports rich, on-demand data exploration to surface real-time operational and business performance insights to guide decision-making,” Hiskey said. “This results in users being able to access critical insights at a glance for better, faster analysis and execution.”
New customer relationship management (CRM) functionality in Epicor ERP empowers sales and service personnel in the field with the added convenience of mobile access, she added. Epicor Field Service Automation (FSA) features integrated mapping to support optimized scheduling and dispatch and robust workflows to automate processes for asset management, contract, warranty and service level agreements (SLAs), and management of service inventory. Hiskey said the Epicor FSA is available in a cloud or on-premises delivery model and can be used with smartphones, tablets and laptops for both online and off-line communications with the back office for enhanced productivity and efficiency across all service workforce facets, for improved response, reduced costs and improved customer satisfaction.
“Most ERP systems today are very mature and are designed around industrial best practices,” noted Jim Errington, executive vice president, sales and service for ERP software developer CrescentOne Inc. (El Segundo, CA). “So if instead of customizing the software to fit what the customer has always done, the customer has to change and actually review what the software is really offering.
“A lot of ERP systems are now using software such as SharePoint to assist in documenting and defining the processes,” he added. “So when using the solution, users don’t need to access the ERP solution directly but can be steered by the process to use the necessary screens to complete the process,” he said.