Don’t be daunted by the droning on about IoT
Nov. 7, 2016 - It isn’t quite science fiction. There are some advanced manufacturers, distributors, shippers and 3PLs already betting heavily on the Internet of Things (IoT) and its related technologies, with the goal of increasing efficiency across their value chains and maybe even to revolutionize their value chains. The occasional case study involving IoT, drones, robots and smart machines probably makes other manufacturers, those lacking in the capital or culture to dive headlong into the leading edge of Industry 4.0, wonder how to keep up.
The good news is that IoT is simply the next generation of what manufacturers have always been trying to do – get the right data to the right place at the right time, securely, to better ensure that the right product shows up to the right customer at the right time at the right cost. Given that pursuit, for most manufacturers there is plenty of low-hanging fruit available from IoT technologies that can be applied inside the four walls of the manufacturer. The result is near-term value from better efficiencies, lower errors rates and happier customers. The long-term value comes from gaining familiarity with the thinking and best practices necessary to apply IoT in the context of continuous improvement.
IoT inside the four walls
Where can many manufacturers start? One place to begin is by eliminating some of the workarounds between the back office, the shop floor, the warehouse and the loading dock. Here are two examples:
1. An important customer has a last minute change to an order while the order is being fulfilled on the shop floor. What happens today is the order taker calls the production supervisor and schedulers on the factory floor who deal with the situation manually or with a workaround system. The downstream information, for example inventory, is immediately in catch-up mode. This potentially impacts other orders and other customers resulting in a cascade of possible errors.
2. Incoming materials arrive at a receiving dock at the same time a production requirement for those materials is outstanding. By rote, the materials are put away versus directly being forwarded to the production line. The forklift operator and warehouse manager have local systems, but they don’t directly tap into orders or production real-time, and the result is a late or partial order fulfillment and additional runs to catch up, along with an unhappy customer.
How does a simple IoT approach remedy these all too common situations? Consider the second example. Often, manufacturers’ forklift trucks have scheduling and task allocation devices and systems that are directly linked to the warehousing system. Those combined systems tell the forklift driver, or perhaps laser-guided forklift, where to put that just received material away in the warehouse. What if, instead, the driver received a real-time action message to do something else, like deliver the material directly to the shop floor? What you need in this case is for the ERP, the forklift system and the warehouse system to be synchronized in real time.
The real culprit here is a lack of dynamic data. ERP, MES, warehouse and forklift all use their own version of the data truth. By cutting across those silos, it means that a simple barcode scan at the loading dock or calling up an order number has the appropriate up and downstream effects. It means eliminating scribbled notes and workaround spreadsheets. It means significantly reducing data-related errors. It means tying all systems, devices and people to a single virtual data backbone.
IoT and re-architecting ERP
At QAD, we recognized the opportunities of IoT several years ago, and realized that we needed to re-architect parts of our solutions to support an IoT approach. We have basically completed that re-architecture at this point. We shifted to a modern API (application programming interface) approach that not only supports modern user experiences like HTML5, but also what we like to call “No UI” which infers smart machine to smart machine (or smart device). It wasn’t an easy choice though.
Several other ERP vendors have add-on products to help with IoT. Re-architecting is considerably more difficult than building or buying an add-on. We felt, however, that IoT was going to be so utterly fundamental to manufacturing, as was the never-ending evolution of user experiences, we decided to undertake a multiyear project to redevelop into a REST API approach. In addition, we created a toolset/framework to provide our customers the ability to directly bend ERP to align with their business processes and material flows, enabling effective operations; having to accept a “one size fits all” ERP is no longer tenable.
We also felt that data collection and label printing were essential ingredients for real-time linking of the back office to shop floor to storage. We therefore concentrated on building a new solution that not only did a good job providing the fundamentals of data collection and label printing, but also tied all the information directly into ERP and warehousing, with direct associations into areas like serialization.
Why not integrate?
Gartner and others have coined the term “postmodern ERP” which implies a more loosely knit approach to enterprise applications, leaning on the more sophisticated integration technologies, some even call them integration platforms. QAD certainly believes that integration is key to the success of running the application portfolio for manufacturers. In addition to its own integration software, QAD partners with Dell Boomi, which is considered a top solution for Cloud integration.
We felt some processes however, particularly those inside of the four walls, should be directly tied together – processes that share a common data model. Not only does this translate into fast and well-defined processes, it also eases the job of creating useful analytics and tracking metrics.
IoT for the rest of us
In summary, if you are a global manufacturer, or even a regional one with plenty of customers and a supply chain outside of the region, do not be overawed by all the hyper about IoT. See IoT as just a continuation of what you have been pursuing all along, but recognize that your solution architecture may need a partial makeover to start taking advantage of IoT. And you can do it today.
Brent Shooltz is product manager at QAD, a provider of enterprise software and services designed for global manufacturing companies.
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