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The last two decades have seen a dramatic shift in use of technology to drive improvements in manufacturing operations

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Manufacturing IT TOP 10 AGILE TECHNOLOGIES: For small and mid-size manufacturers

Feb 1, 2016

With investment in new technologies, one may see opportunities to reinvent the business processes by deploying it. The barriers to complex industries come down as technology that bridges the gap for complying in these industries and the expertise to help your business penetrate exists. The feature discusses leading 10 agile technologies that help small and mid-size manufacturers meet new challenges.

Manufacturers today are looking for innovative ways to differentiate themselves in the competitive global marketplace. Understanding customers’ needs in great detail is essential to positioning their company ahead of the competition. One way to gain this understanding is to implement an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution. ERP solutions consolidate business operations enhancing your businesses ability to be agile. Not only do these systems deliver on technology that you can boast about over coffee with a colleague, the business advantages are the ability to streamline your organisation’s processes to reduce waste, improve throughput, and ultimately meet your customer’s value stream; improving odds for continued business in the future.

The last two decades have seen a dramatic shift in use of technology to drive improvements in manufacturing operations. Just twenty years ago, many small and mid-size manufacturers relied on paper-based systems to run their businesses. These systems offered little business-wide visibility to aide customer support and required duplication of manual effort many times over. But, today we have a very different story. Applications are built using a service-oriented architecture (SOA), which feeds off the power of the internet to deliver applications that can run either at your shop or over the internet. We call the latter cloud-based solutions and many times they are available in a new model, which is subscription-based called software as a service (SaaS). The following section discusses 10 leading technologies that today’s manufacturers can’t afford to ignore. These technologies are what Epicor see as real game changes for their customer’s ability to stay agile in the face of change, while executing their business strategies.

User-based dashboards

Everyone in the business has them. Those watchdog reports that you run every night or morning, sometimes throughout the day that offer the status of production on the floor, purchases expected for delivery, quality events, and more. Without them, we are lost. What if there was a better way? What if we could have this information available to us online and have it live—with the latest information at all times. User-based exception dashboards enable us to do just that. It’s a slice of your data with your applied filters that remove the “data noise” and focuses on the problems, so that you can focus on them too. It might be the “late jobs” or “purchases received today” or “quality incidents today, this week, this month.” It’s really up to you as you can easily configure the dashboards one time, using your data, and continue to use them on a daily basis.

Embedded customisation and personalisation

Each manufacturer has developed their own set of personalised business processes that make them unique, and in fact provide a competitive edge in their business. Some of these processes may be industry driven, customer driven, or driven from within the business based on the goals and strategies of your management team. For example, you might need to track on the order “new information” your customer needs and be able to include it in documentation that goes with the shipment of the order. This new information can be tracked in the system alongside the other data and used in printing, lookups, anywhere your data is accessed. In using embedded customisation to tailor the system to meet your customer’s requirements, not only are you able to easily fulfill their requirements for data, you can also respond quickly when their needs change. Perhaps they want more data?


Customisation and personalisation provides a technology solution that can bridge the gap here by delivering a tailored interfaced that optimises the time a user is spends on the system. The user can tailor the tab stops (where the system stops as you tab through the application), make a field invisible, modify the colours and fonts of fields, even the positioning of windows so that you can maximise use of the interface to quickly see what’s needed and to get the job done.

Grid access

There really was only one thing we gave up in the move away from “the green screen” and that was speed in entering and making changes to information. Back in the day, you could bring up a list of line items, make necessary changes to each line in a single grid and process it. You didn’t need to bring up each line individually to make the change, it just worked that way.

With accessibility back in grid entry, systems give productivity power to users by enabling them to make sweeping changes across multiple records more easily. We have furthermore enabled integration with Microsoft® Excel® to enable bringing in multiple rows of data from Excel spread sheets by pasting them into the grid—yes, no retyping. Some great uses of this might include bringing in a materials list or a schedule of shipments.

Purchase suggestions

We all have seen the spreadsheets and slips of paper come across the purchasing managers’ desk with handwritten notes to direct timely purchases. Visual cues are great, but what happens when a queue gets missed and a purchase isn’t available when you need it? If your business is like many others, you make a quick purchase that ends up costing more than it should or you risk shipping to your customer late. This is compounded by the time spent in the purchasing process for these one-off purchases.

Technology exists today that works in tandem with scheduling to help your business make Just-In-Time (JIT) purchases and drive buying power from suppliers on bulk purchases. It does this by providing your purchase manager purchase suggestions that enable them to see what’s needed when based on the latest schedule. They can even look into the future to see what demand for a material purchase exists next week, next month, potentially even further out.

The tight tie to scheduling, down to the operational step (related operation), is important because as you already know, schedules change. Whether your customer has changed their mind or you are predicting a demand change, the ability to make the schedule and material purchases mesh up, enables the business to only buy what is needed and save capital for more important initiatives.

Lean production

Reducing waste in the shop often requires thinking outside the box and deploying new methods for production management. Many shops today are executing on this strategy using shopfloor visual cues or whiteboards with the 10 or 20 or so parts that they continually have at certain stocking levels. They aren’t executing production orders in the system for these parts as they fall below a replenishment level—rather, when the replenishment gets to a point, they just make more—work orderless.

Technology to support these systems offer lean production capabilities and are designed to manage a work order-less Kanban manufacturing system with electronic replenishment queues-driven from demand (could be customer demand or demand directly from the shopfloor). A Kanban Monitor dashboard keeps it real time and visual so that production knows exactly what needed to meet demand.

True multilevel capabilities

Product complexity is exploding at the same time that many OEMs and tier 1 & tier 2 manufacturers are reducing their supply network. As a result, more manufacturers in good standing are being asked to increase their product complexity, which is driving the need to be able estimate, cost, and build multilevel assemblies.
Let’s start with the estimate and provide a tool for engineering and estimating to be able to quickly see the tree structure of a multilevel component and be able to build/review the component structure all within a single screen. What better way to ensure that no assembly is missing or that no step has been omitted. In doing so, we are mistake proofing the estimating process from potential costly mistakes.

In production, the multilevel assembly can be scheduled and monitored as a complete production job and costs maintained at both the final and assembly level. One of the largest benefits of having a single production job is that moving materials and components from one job to another isn’t a concern— because it’s all the same job.
And finally, accurately ship from work in process the final assembly, updating with accuracy the cost of sales of the shipment of the final assembly. If profitability of these assemblies is a concern, multi-level capabilities might be the ticket to understanding where you fall short.

Embedded quality

Quality continues to be a key differentiator for many manufacturers; this includes managing the quality of your own suppliers. As more and more manufacturers continue to focus in this area, a driving theme emerges which makes quality and continuous improvement of processes a part of the culture of the business, rather than an isolated function next to shipping in the shop.

The processes that align the shopfloor with helping to flag quality events as they happen, rather than being caught at the time of inspection can speed identification of events and give your teams more time to respond; do we make more, remake it, outsource it. Also, tracking these quality incidents helps your business identify and stomp out trends and processes that may be off kilter. Perhaps a supplier problem exists. If the information is in hand and being tracked and everyone is responsible for the quality of product moving through the shop, the end result will be more efficient for the business and better received by the customer. It all starts with technology that inherently includes quality in the process flow.

It could be as simple as inspection of material at time of receipt and recording the results with supplier dashboards that indicate the status of a supplier’s quality incidents. It could also mean executing on a root cause analysis that a piece of equipment needs to be retired as it is costing too much to keep on the floor due to poor quality. Armed with the information, your management teams have the data they need to make hard decisions and feel confident in the results.

Access to your data anywhere

Access to your business data when you need it, where you need it, is a critical business advantage. It can help you respond quickly to business events and be able to communicate with a higher level of knowledge in front of customers, suppliers, and on the shopfloor in contrast to “I’ll get back to you on that.”

In addition, the young workforce coming into the business today are tuned for mobility and expect that instant access to information is available. If creating an environment that is welcoming to these energetic and skilled employees is desired, Anywhere Access to Your Data can help. Below are just some of the scenarios where Anywhere Access can drive business value.

  • Delivering a secure login for your accountant to review and report off hours, right from their office, when it is convenient

  • Checking on a critical job while on vacation or before you go into work for the day—did 2nd shift complete what we needed?

  • Using your business data to strengthen your knowledge of up-to-date business operations and be able to accurately communicate with customers while you are onsite

  • Check the status of production flow and what’s expected while out on the shop floor, wondering why a machine isn’t running?

  • Being able to respond and have the information to execute plan B quickly when needed or to queue purchasing for a hot buy

  • Check inventory status, perform cycle counts, use mobile workers to deliver what’s needed to production, rather than have operators looking for material, etc.

  • Perhaps you need to just keep a keen eye on cash and want to know what cash was received for the day—to the minute, hour, day

Business process management

You don’t have to leave it to chance. Your sales order person has for the 5th time now, accidently chosen the wrong year for a release date, making you late once again. These are the types of things we can’t predict, but perhaps we can control for the future. Business Process Management (BPM) allows you to put in a rule that can do one of the following things:

  • Flash a warning message and ask if the operator really wants to do this

  • Prevent the entry of an order release that far into the future

  • Send an email to a manager to confirm the order release date

This is one example of use of a BPM to control your business processes. Anywhere within the system, when an event occurs, you can put rules around the event that do a check and have an action.

Platform to support business growth

As your business grows, it’s important that the technology you deploy is agile and scalable to move to what you need. With today’s latest technology, editions of functionality provide easy transitions from one level of functionality to the next and provide a seamless experience for end users; same interface, same terminology.

In addition, many manufacturers today are looking outside the box to markets and geographies that offer enhanced profitability. Whether your business is interested in doing business in medical device, aerospace & defense, automotive, industrial machinery, fabricated metals, electronics, and many more manufacturing industries, knowing the technology you deploy can help you meet the needs of the new industry is critical, and can reduce risk and profitability in a new venture.

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  • Understanding customers’ needs in great detail is essential to stay ahead of competition

  • Instantly see the costs posted to date for any job with the Cost Exceptions Dashboard.

  • Manage and reschedule a multilevel assembly for optimum throughput

  • Electronic Kanban control keeps inventories accurate and up to date

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