Seconds Out

Posted on 9 Jan 2009 by The Manufacturer

The lines between in-built and best-of-breed advanced planning and scheduling (APS) systems are becoming increasingly blurred. So how do they fare against one another?

When it comes to the world of production planning and scheduling, manufacturers have traditionally been left with three routes of assistance from the world of manufacturing IT. The most wide ranging and most problematic was the humble spreadsheet, or as was often the case, multiple linked spreadsheets that could take over an hour simply to open due to their bewildering levels of cumbersome complexity. More serious offerings split into the two well-defined camps of fully integrated/in-built and best-of-breed. The former were enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems with embedded planning and scheduling modules of varying capabilities, while the latter were highly specialist solutions that could either run on a stand alone basis or integrate with existing MRP/ERP systems. Advocates of the former would point to the integration difficulties and speed issues associated with the best-of-breed, while the latter would highlight the
simplistic functionality of integrated planning and schedule modules, often little more than built-in spreadsheets.

Move forward to the present day, and the lines of distinction are much more blurred, reflecting an increasing requirement by modern manufacturers to have extremely accurate, powerful and flexible production planning and scheduling control. For Colin Hearne, EMEA consultant on advanced planning and scheduling (APS) for Epicor – which will soon deliver the Epicor 9 solution that includes a powerful, fullyintegrated APS solution – this is because progressive manufacturers have fundamentally revised their attitude to planning and scheduling. “Manufacturers increasingly have to look at every aspect of their business from a holistic perspective which means moving away from a compartmentalised or departmentalised approach. The needs of such a business are therefore best served by a fully integrated, enterprise-wide ERP solution where every area of functionality is designed to work towards the greater goal of the entire business.”

He continues: “Historically, planning used to be the preserve of the planner with any planning and scheduling system essentially being owned by the planner or planning department. Planning solutions tended to be complex, bolt-on systems because the system requirements were being driven, unsurprisingly, by the planning department to meet their own often esoteric scheduling considerations.” According to Hearne, the consequences cemented the compartmentalised nature of many businesses. “Sales would have to go to the planner to check for availability, the planner would have no real-time visibility of new quotes, order book amendments, current stock levels or wider material requirements and would rarely have the means to take into consideration other key factors such as assigning the right human resource to the right machine resource at the right time. And because the system was linked, albeit externally, it was only using data as reliable as the last time an import/export routine was run, which due to the length of time this could take, might have been hours previously.”

Each delay adds up to wasted time, potentially wasted resources, and presents a considerable haemorrhaging of efficiency, especially in a rapidly moving manufacturing environment dealing with high order levels from multiple customers requiring raw materials from a wide range of suppliers. With a modern fully-integrated business system, the focus moves from the concerns of individuals focusing on individual transactions to those of the overall business and achieving business level aims and objectives. Hearne illustrates by looking at ‘what if’ scenarios. “Traditionally, ‘what if’ scenarios were looked at by the planner to determine the impact of any changes at a planning level. The reality is that ‘what if’ scenarios happen throughout different areas of the business and consequently have a business-wide impact. With a fully-integrated ERP system, information is now owned by the business as a whole with everyone able to evaluate their decisions in the light of companywide information. Once those decisions have been made, every relevant item of information within the system is updated automatically, which in turn ensures that the next decision made by whoever and wherever in the company, can be made with the confidence of using totally up-to-date information.”

According to Hearne, the difference between a holistic and compartmentalised approach is embedded in the very nature of the respective implementation approaches. “A best-of-breed implementation typically concentrates on the minutiae of the planner’s requirements, whereas an Epicor implementation focuses on the capacity modelling and factory management in the context of the entire business and models the entire planning and scheduling needs of the business as a whole, right through to its interaction with the supply chain.” He cites subcontracting as a classic example of where best-of-breed APS that focuses on the needs of planning department falls short of the overall business requirements. Purchasing and production have to deal with the reality of dealing with subcontractors and there may be times where it’s more beneficial to the company as a whole to outsource and use subcontractors as opposed to simply maximising planning capacity. “These are decisions that can only be made at a business level, so are easier to achieve and more likely to be achieved, only with an APS system that is designed to be an integral part of a business-wide solution.”

When it comes to best-of-breed APS solutions, perhaps the most well known example is Preactor which now has over 2,300 implementations in 64 countries. Mike Novels is CEO of Preactor International and he believes that manufacturers are increasingly becoming successful through a strategic use of complementary manufacturing IT systems.

He cites recent research by Aberdeen Group which found that manufacturers attaining ‘best in class’ measured by lowest work in progress/inventory and ‘on-time and in full’ delivery levels did so by using APS to control the shopfloor in conjunction with ERP and manufacturing execution systems (MES).

For Novels, ‘best in class’ is not just an objective to be aimed for. “For many companies it will be the life raft they can cling to during the current storm in the global economy. Demand driven manufacturing will be the watchword and APS the mechanism to achieve it.” Central to Novels’ argument is the need for manufacturers to empower the planner, by which he means ensuring the planner has visibility of the entire business and can make scheduling decisions, such as changes in priorities for customers, based on company-wide key performance indicators (KPIs).

With this level of business visibility the planner can make the trade offs that are bound to be required, for example utilisation (large batches) versus delivery performance (small batches). Ultimately the shopfloor has only to cope with a single KPI – schedule adherence, safe in the knowledge that the company KPIs have been taken care of by the planner.

Far from being compartmentalised, Novels sees this being best achieved by tightly integrating the APS system with any existing production control system as well as any incumbent ERP system. He understandably sees a number of intrinsic benefits from this approach. “Modern technology has made integrating external APS systems such as Preactor simpler, quicker and able to deliver usability as seamless as many so-called fully integrated systems.

Being the APS partner of choice to more than 15 ERP companies, all with demonstrable links, shows that even they recognise this. For many manufacturers looking to improve their production planning and control but unable to afford to invest in an entire ERP suite, best-of-breed solutions can often breathe new life into existing ERP systems, adding value to their existing ERP investment.”

He also critiques the twin arguments put forward by ERP vendors that built-in integration offers speedier operation as well as implementation. “While data can certainly be shared easily within an integrated system, modules are still run independently. It would be unacceptable for your scheduling system to ‘run like a dog’ just because the payroll system was being used.” Modern APS systems have their own inherent planning and scheduling engines which can operate extremely fast, even allowing for bi-directional data transfer with an ERP system.

When it comes to speed of implementation Novels asserts that this is dependent less on integration but more on companies having accurate and detailed data that the APS system needs in order to work properly. “Best-of-breed applications can complement the legacy system without changing its internal data structures, which can take weeks to implement and test. Moreover, data not available in the legacy application can be made available in the APS system then as orders are received in APS the extra local data is added.”

Last but not least there is the issue of flexibility. While Novels is quick to acknowledge that straight forward manufacturing planning and scheduling can be adequately handled by fixed models with fixed scheduling rules, he maintains that this isn’t the case for fast moving, agile manufacturers working on demand driven and make to order models. “Anything where a degree of flexibility is required, even if it’s as a result of a change in business model, can result in planners wasting time essentially having to ‘fool the system’ in order to get it to function in a way that matches the real world business practices within a company.”

The lines between in-built and best-of-breed APS may indeed have blurred with each offering considerably better planning and scheduling functionality than their predecessors. No doubt this will continue to be the case, as will the arguments over which is the better approach. Only time will tell which, if either, proves to be the case.