Super glue

Posted on 7 May 2008 by The Manufacturer

SOA is not just another acronym, says Malcolm Wheatley, but is the glue capable of linking and bonding disparate IT systems across the organisation

At Fleckney, Leicestershire-based Coba Plastics, shopfloor operatives interact with the business’s constraint-based scheduling system via a simple, easy-to-use touch screen panel. Doubling as a shopfloor data capture device, it tells the company’s ERP system which products are where, and helps to maximise the capacity utilisation of the business’s expensive thermoplastic extrusion machinery.
And in the warehouse, adds IT director Mark Goodwin, operatives pick, move, load and put away products according to the instructions reaching them via handheld RF radio-equipped Symbol barcode terminals. At the press of a button, they confirm what they’ve done, and then move on to the next task.
The company’s ERP system, explains Goodwin, comes from IFS, and was chosen in direct competition with SAP. A critical part of the decision process, he explains, involved the extent to which each ERP supplier offered a relatively arcane capability: software built around, and supporting, a concept called service oriented architecture (SOA). “SOA played a big part in the decision,” says Goodwin. “We knew what we wanted to do – and SOA was the means to achieving it.”
In short, he explains, Coba uses SOA to link applications within its IFS ERP suite to homegrown applications developed to make life simpler on the shopfloor and in the warehouse. Members of manufacturing management, for example, don’t want operatives directly interfacing with the IFS constraint-based scheduling solution. Instead, the homegrown application does that, integrating with IFS via SOA. “Literally, it ‘calls’ the IFS constraint-based scheduler using SOA, accesses the data that it needs, and then presents it to the shopfloor in a more accessible way,” he says.
And those handheld RF-equipped barcode terminals in the warehouse – again running an SOA-based bespoke application – don’t just boost productivity and reduce data errors, he adds. They directly add to Coba’s competitive edge – by leveraging SOA to make life easier for its customers, and at no additional cost to the company.
For as Coba operatives pick the various items that comprise a shipment to a customer, a ‘file’ is created holding all the information relating to those products – product codes, quantities, batch numbers and so on. Once the load is complete, and the vehicle on its way, the information is transmitted to the customer, using XML data transfer. “XML over SOA is a universal standard,” says Goodwin. “It’s what EDI ought to be.” At the click of a mouse, the customer ‘accepts’ the entire load into their own enterprise system – a process that used to take four hours or so, scanning in case-by-case a 50-pallet load.
Given such endorsements, SOA is unsurprisingly gaining prominence. What’s more – and unusually for a relatively abstruse IT-related term – it’s attracting attention from manufacturing people as well as IT people. Rather than throw out huge investments in ERP systems or specialist applications, goes the logic, SOA allows new functionality to be simply ‘bolted on’ to existing applications, accessed via the web ‘services’ that give SOA its name. And much more quickly, as well: whereas major system implementations take months or years, SOA offers manufacturers the prospect of new functionality in timescales measured in weeks.
“The idea is that an application becomes a packaged set of services that can be accessed by other applications,” says Anthony Bourne, a senior consultant at IFS. “The benefit is ease of integration: an application ‘calls’ a service over the web, in a standard manner, and knows in advance what it’s going to receive back, and how it will be presented. From an integration point of view, you don’t have to worry about field lengths, data formats, and things like that.”
At Wollaston, Northamptonshire-based chemicals manufacturer Scott Bader, that ease of integration is being exploited to deliver specialist functionality from third-party systems, explains the company’s European information systems manager Jeff Legg. As a manufacturer of polymers and resins, integration with a third party material safety data sheet application is an important requirement, as for any company operating in the chemical sector, he notes. So too, he adds, is a system specialising in export documentation, and transport and logistics.
Lawson’s well-known SOA-equipped Movex ERP suite (now called M3) is run on a mid-range IBM iSeries system, and integration is straightforward.
“SOA is there in the background, and makes it easier for us to exchange information,” says Legg. “We see SOA as an important technology for our customers,” adds Lawson’s Elland, west Yorkshire-based European vice-president of marketing. “They are looking for agility in order to boost their competitiveness – which used to mean ripping out and replacing systems, but now increasingly means just connecting whatever’s required.”
From an IT point of view, too, SOA also offers distinct improvements over traditional approaches to integration. “SOA is more than just creating linkages,” stresses Stefan Farestam, SOA product marketing director at systems integration vendor TIBCO Software, which recently used SOA to link 2,500 European distributors of Pirelli tyres to the tyre manufacturer’s automated order entry and inventory management systems. “‘True’ SOA is about employing open standards, using web services rather than say, EDI, and creating code that can be re-used by other applications.”
It’s partly this latter point that has explained why not every software vendor has been keen to embrace SOA, explains Steve Craggs, a director of specialist Oxford-based consultancy Lustratus. “There’s been a lot of heel-dragging and obfuscation, and some package vendors have seen it as a threat,” he says. “Just about every commercial application known to man has a ‘create customer’ piece of code; package that code as a service, and you only need to develop – or buy – that functionality once.”
But those vendors that have actually invested in developing SOA applications have undoubtedly benefited. Haslingden, Lancashire-based manufacturer of intruder alarm products Texecom, for example, chose Epicor’s vantage enterprise suite in March 2007 precisely because of its SOA capabilities, explains Texecom IT manager Andy Bowden. “SOA gives us the flexibility to link the systems to many other systems – easily, and cost-effectively,” he explains.
A typical example is a small on-screen ‘form’ application that he has developed, he adds. Texecom makes extensive use of kanbans, and – as many manufacturers can attest – processing kanbans within an ERP suite can prove a time-consuming affair, as each kanban can represent several stages of production. With SOA, the ‘form’ application at Texecom presents various choices on the screen, which the operator can select to indicate the kanbans that he’s fulfilled – with the application automatically updating the Epicor suite SQL database, ‘backflushing’ parts and materials through the relevant production stages as it does so.
“Quite simply, the operator sees choices such as ‘10 of this part number’; ‘five of that part number’; and ‘20 of this other part number’; pushes the button; and it streams hundreds of transactions through the system,” says Bowden. Best of all, he adds, the programming resource required to achieve this kind of functionality is minimal: an Epicor SOA utility called ServiceConnect can be mastered on a two-day course and a one–day technical workshop – training which Bowden himself undertook.
Using SOA to integrate inside the enterprise, though, is just part of the story. The real power of SOA is its ability to integrate with applications, databases and businesses outside the enterprise. At US-owned office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, an upgrade programme is underway to replace the company’s existing Infor Syteline ERP suite with Infor’s latest SOA-based version, explains Kevin Hall, the company’s Chippenham, Wiltshire-based international IT systems manager.
Already installed in the company’s Chinese and Singapore operations, the plan calls for the latest version to be rolled out across Brazil, Japan, the UK and other international locations outside North America, he says. When complete, the move will significantly enhance inter-company, company-supplier and company-customer information exchange and supply chain visibility, notes Hall – a capability presently handled by an SOA-based application sitting in the company’s North American operations that uses XML-based data transfers to interact with overseas plants, customers and suppliers.
“An acknowledgment of a customer’s order used to take five hours,” he says. “Now it’s 27 seconds – with improved accuracy levels. Likewise, we can offer customers and suppliers electronic invoices, consistent pricing around the company, and a single point of contact.”
Even vendor-managed inventory (VMI) initiatives can benefit from SOA. Parts Associates, a Cleveland, Ohio-based supplier of fasteners and similar items offers its customers real-time integration with the company’s PeopleSoft 7.5 enterprise suite – a system that in itself largely pre-dates SOA. It’s possible, explains Parts Associates’ director of IT, Michael Dunlap, because an SOA-based radio-equipped mobile application from specialist vendor Dexterra actually handles the interaction, directly communicating with the Microsoft SQL Server database underpinning the PeopleSoft suite.
“Each of the 170 sales representatives that we have around the country goes to a customer’s plant, takes an inventory of our products, and places an order for replenishment parts,” he enthuses. “Even before they’ve left the plant en route to their next call, the order is in our system, being processed.”
The moral is clear. SOA may be relatively new to UK manufacturers – but they’re going to hear a lot more about it, and soon.