3/22/2012 | 6 MINUTE READ

Complex Assembly Reaches into the Cloud

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Even cloud-based ERP can handle complex assemblies with multiple configurations.


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How complex is complex assembly? “I don’t know if we have a specific term,” admits Mark Symonds, CEO of Plex Systems (plex.com), which offers Plex Online, a cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that is offered as Software as a Service (SaaS). He suggests: “If there are 130 operations in a process routing and a BOM 10 or more levels deep, that’s complex.” He contrasts this to injection molding. The press opens, the press closes, resin is pumped into the mold, the press opens, and bingo, there are parts. The operations and resin consumption are pretty straightforward, basically a one-to-one relationship.

Complex assembly is way different. Each operation and the total set of work instructions has variances, and the BOMs are deep, nested, and multiple, but similar. The second assembly down the line might have 1, 5, or a dozen different steps and components than the first assembly. A diesel engine with 150 assembly operations might somewhere down the line have the work instruction “tighten 9 bolts” instead of 6 because the oil pan is that much larger. (One Plex client has the potential for 30,000 different configurations for its flagship assembly.)

Plex Online’s complex-assembly features can generate unique part numbers, BOMs, and work instructions for optional configurations—dynamically and automatically. The ERP system can also manage the different inventory requirements for each configuration. Such management is critical. If a failure occurs midway, the manufacturer can’t just get to the end and say, “Yep, we did all 150 operations.” Says Symonds, “It’s not a blend of `Hey, we almost made it, but we crapped out at operation 75.’” Manufacturers, he continues, have to cost out the assembly up to and through that failed operation. That accounting is crucial in knowing what additional work or rework needs to be done, what inventory is necessary, and what additional costs might be involved. There’s another reason for that accounting, adds Symonds. “If the failure happens more than once at that operation, then shame on us.”

To set up the BOMs, work instructions, and such for complex assembly requires the manufacturer to be “more precise than usual because the computerized system models reality. If it’s set up wrong in the system, it’s going to be wrong on the floor,” explains Symonds. Does SaaS help in getting that precision? No and yes, he replies. The “no” part: SaaS is just a technology enabler. The “yes” part: “The process of installing ERP integrated with a manufacturing execution system helps. It’s not till you connect the whole enterprise together that the shocks come about. We’ve had customers who didn’t realize their BOMs were different in one location than another for who-knows-why. SaaS makes adoption faster. Manufacturing companies can envision their operations and make them happen faster, rather than going through the painful, on-premise process of procuring, designing the changes, then waiting to see what happens.” Then there are the details of adopting best practices and knowing what you’re making. “Oh yes,” concludes Symonds. “SaaS lets customers focus on those issues rather than the IT issues.”

How Does the Information Get to the System?

If you have an ERP system installed on your local hardware, it is fairly straightforward as to how the required information gets put into the system. But what about when the system, like Plex Online, is Software as a Service (SaaS)? How does the production information get there? As Plex CEO Mark Symonds points out, “A lot of people assume that because a SaaS solution is delivered over the Internet, it can’t have tight connectivity to machines on the shop floor.” That connectivity comes from an add-on called PleXML from Kors Engineering Company, Inc. (korsengineering.com; see also AD&P, July/August 2009, “Improvements to Plant Automation Software,” at autofieldguide.com/articles/improvements-to-plant-automation-software). This interface—”middleware”—converts the data collected by a plant’s supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system into XML messages, which it then uploads to Plex Online. Conversely, messages from Plex Online go through PleXML to the SCADA system. “It’s really detailed information back and forth,” comments Symonds.


Calculating Carbon


Heard of “carbon accounting”? Most companies (58%) worldwide haven’t. Monitor your company’s carbon footprint? Eighty percent don’t. Should you? A third of the companies don’t know if they’re legally required to report emissions. These and other findings come from a global carbon accounting survey conducted by Epicor Software Corporation (epicor.com) during August and September 2011. The survey compiled responses from nearly 1,000 companies worldwide, the majority being in manufacturing, with 100 to 1,000 employees, and organizations with up to $50-million in annual revenue (respectively, 48%, 42%, and 43%). The survey’s takeaway: “Businesses should prepare now for carbon accounting,” says Chris Purcell, Epicor’s manager of product marketing.

Epicor Carbon Connect is a conventional, on-premise program for calculating the emissions output and associated utility costs in making products. It’s mostly a decision-support tool to help companies budget their environmental costs. It’s another “fundamental part of an overall financial management and accounting system for companies to engage in emissions accounting for regulatory, public relations, marketing, and operational efficiency purposes,” explains Purcell.

Carbon Connect can work standalone or integrated with Epicor’s ERP system. Working standalone, electrical utility information—megawatt consumption, device productivity, and associated costs—must be manually entered, usually when a company pays its utility bills. As an integrated system, Carbon Connect pulls the relevant information out of the utility billing system within accounts payable, along with the production schedules for current and forecasted orders out of ERP. Carbon Connect also taps into its asset management module, a device database containing energy-consumption data for about 400,000 devices from light bulbs to laptops to large manufacturing equipment. If the plant has an automated, networked, power-consumption/device-usage monitoring system, the relevant real-time data can go directly into Carbon Connect.

There’s also a multi-day on-site auditing component to Carbon Connect. The audit inventories everything: rooms, heaters, light bulbs, computers, printers, manufacturing equipment, operational times, even a count of employees. (“We count the number of female and male employees because that indicates water consumption. Females use more water,” says Purcell.) The audit provides a baseline of how much energy an enterprise uses, where used, projected costs, and more. It can be quite detailed, such as when reporting the power consumption of individual areas within buildings.

Carbon Connect has its own dashboard to show energy, waste, and water usage, as well as other relevant utility data, over time. Epicor ERP can pull these data out of Carbon Connect and display these as well, thus reinforcing the “enterprise resource” view of ERP. There’s even a display called a “carbon tree,” which shows how many trees to plant to offset the carbon usage.

“Back in 2007 and 2008, when everyone had money coming out of their ears, they could afford to focus on green issues and green corporate agenda, saving the planet, hugging trees, or whatever,” says Purcell. “However, pursuing a green agenda and increasing operational cost savings are not mutually exclusive tasks; carbon reporting will happen irrespective of any personal opinions about global warming. What’s going to drive carbon accounting is effective energy management.” As energy costs rise, measuring, monitoring, budgeting, and controlling call for integrated solutions.


The Epicor Carbon Connect home screen shows basic energy usage data, plus it’s a portal to other functions related to carbon reporting, including dashboards, to-do lists, report creation, and device management.