Heading down quality street with Plex's latest QMS enhancements

Profile picture for user brianssommer By Brian Sommer May 6, 2021 Audio mode
Summary:
Do manufacturers need to make better products or have a process to document their methods? The answer is both and cloud ERP vendor Plex wants to help those manufacturers without a quality management system (QMS) get moving.

quality

Cloud ERP vendor Plex has announced the availability of a standalone QMS (Quality Management System). What makes this announcement interesting is that the company already had QMS functionality in its cloud ERP suite but now it can be acquired (and used) as a separate product. Here are our observations.

The customer conundrum

CIOs at manufacturing firms have a lot on their plates currently. They are dealing with a large number of new and backlogged technology, security, plant automation and other initiatives. From the board of directors, they are being pushed to support new factory of the future initiatives, develop new levels of insights and precision in production data/costs, and help the firm achieve new kinds of competitive advantage. Sales/Operations wants the company to get certified in specific ISO standards (e.g., Quality Management). Shareholders expect the company to meet a growing list of sustainability, environmental, safety and other standards. Regulators want ever greater amounts of data. And, of course, customers want more information re: the nature of the products they’re buying (e.g., is it really organic?).

All of these demands are on top of the already full plate of projects CIOs know they must deliver. That plate includes generous servings of technical debt, end-of-life firmware in plant-level automation, undoing makeshift consumer technology installed at plants, dealing with security breaches, offloading on-premises computing loads to hyperscalers, upgrading ERP applications, etc.   

Great manufacturing CIOs have to have a nuanced, thoughtful plan that prioritizes and sequences all of the above. The best plans are more than a list: they identify which projects are on the critical path and what precedence issues exist.  Quality Management programs (and the technology to make these a success) are commonly a big factor in these plans.

What Quality Management problem will you fix?

Quality management concerns are often a high priority item and end up in many of these IT plans. But here is where things get even more interesting.

At several clients, I’ve witnessed, first-hand, clients espousing the marketing benefits of getting quality management certification (e.g., ISO 9001).  The certification enables them to check off another box when responding to a prospect’s RFI or RFP. Interestingly, these firms will spend good money with a consultant to develop and document quality procedures that help get the company certified and that’s about as far as the company goes in its push for quality management.

For these firms, the goal is certification not real change. The QM program may never get really staffed and while quality problems might get documented, the documentation could take weeks or months and no substantial change occurs that would prevent future issues. In one client, they had one (1) QM person who was responsible for the QM activity in over 20 plants globally. All this person was doing was keeping a log of quality issues and holding a quarterly conference call to discuss these with plant managers. That’s quality tracking not continuous process improvement.

Now, when you contrast that to what I’ve witnessed first hand at a Toyota manufacturing plant, you can see what a real quality program is all about. I was within a few feet of the assembly line when a worker discovered a chassis weld that had not been deburred. The line was immediately stopped and an entire QM team swooped down on this work station to document the issue, determine the root cause of the problem, watch a repair team fix the issue, identify the follow-up actions needed to prevent this from happening again and then restart the line. They don’t let problems proceed through the line nor do they fob them off onto customers or dealers, either.

If a manufacturer is serious about quality, they get a great QM process and the technology to make it a valuable asset of the firm.

Plex’s QM solution

According to a recent Plex press release on the subject:

"Plex has offered digital quality management as in integral part of the Smart Manufacturing Platform since our inception,” said Nathan Pieri, Global Vice President of Product Strategy and Execution at Plex Systems. “Plex QMS is a focused configuration of the same critical capabilities customers value in our multi-tenant Manufacturing Execution System (MES). The solution offers quick time to value for customers looking to first address quality issues in their plant and puts them in an excellent position to expand to the full manufacturing and business operations solutions when they are ready.”

A good QM solution does more than document quality failures, their root causes and the changes being suggested to prevent further issues. Plex’s solution helps firms maintain a digital fingerprint of products as they move through the manufacturing process. Plex states:

Cloud-based Plex QMS operates from a single, central database, making it possible for manufacturers to easily sustain and maintain quality processes in a repeatable and predictable manner all while tracing each step along the way.​ With the workflow driven Plex QMS, manufacturers complete process steps and enter documentation, ensuring every worker adheres to defined guidelines before moving to the next step. The system confirms the same methods, skills and control are applied and quality is maintained regardless of which worker is doing the work.

Plex’s system documents: expected measurements, expected inspection results and standards of quality to be achieved. Digital checksheets document what the manufacturing process did relative to these standards. The solution maintains a digital record of each product’s compliance with these specifications. That information can be invaluable should a product recall, warranty issue or other issue arise. Plex’s system also supports continuous process improvement functionality.

Standalone or full-suite solution?

Plex can now sell its QMS solution as a standalone product. I suspect Plex will get some sales from the standalone offering as some manufacturers cannot digest a full ERP replacement (that includes QM functionality) all at once. That’s due to the full plate issue addressed above.

The ideal best of breed QM software buyer would do well to see what else their QMS vendor can offer. This list of other capabilities should include things like:

  • MES, SCADA, PLM, etc.
  • Full back-office functionality (eg: accounting and HR software).
  • Full front-office functionality (eg: CRM).
  • Shop floor systems.
  • Etc.

But I’d argue that the buyer should also look at exactly what kind of technical architecture is in both the QMS and ERP offerings. It pains me to see, still, a bunch of re-packaged on-premises ERPs being sold as single-tenant, hosted ERP products instead of full-on multi-tenant cloud solutions. Large manufacturing suites have significant benefits if the products share a single data model, technical architecture, UX, etc.  Even if you’re only buying the QMS for now, the suite might be the right play down the road. Optimize for the long-haul and avoid rework or downstream inefficiencies later on.

I also recommend buyers look at the cost to operate such a solution over a 10-year period. It’s astonishing how many additional and material costs can creep into these deals with extra fees/tolls being assessed for every non-vendor solution that is connected to the ERP, every image stored, every upgrade that an implementer (not the vendor) has to install, etc.  Smart buyers know, with certainty, what solutions cost and which solutions deliver the best value.

My take

A QMS is now a mandatory part of most manufacturers’ technology solution set. It shouldn’t be perceived as an optional bit of functionality.  So, if you don’t have one today, how confident are you that your firm consistently produces a top-notch product that’s free of defects/imperfections and delights customers each and every time? If competitors offer a better customer experience with their products, your brand will take a hit and so will your top and bottom lines.

While it’s great that the employees of some clients of mine love to tout the quality of the products they make, they often can’t prove it. They lack any documentation to show how well-made and consistently so their products are manufactured. A QMS helps a lot here.

Plex’s decision to offer their QMS as a standalone solution is appropriate for those manufacturers who need a QM program with substance now. Whether these firms need to (or can) replace their ERP at the same time is a secondary issue. Plex provides options in this matter.

Having toured a number of Plex clients’ facilities over the years, I’m more impressed with the results of their quality tracking technology their customers use than any certifications their customers might have. As a consumer, I buy a company’s products not its marketing messages, awards or certifications. As a result, I like firms that consistently make a trouble-free product.