Normally at this time of year, cloud ERP and MES vendor Plex Systems gathers together customers, partners and prospects at its annual PowerPlex event. This year the gathering is taking place virtually and the topic that's front of mind is how manufacturers are responding to the exigencies brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Plex's customers have found that their digitally connected operations have helped them adapt, as CEO Bill Berutti outlined in his opening keynote yesterday:
This crisis has shined a pretty bright light on the power of technology, and the power of smart manufacturing, to make us more agile in times of crisis, to allow us to adapt. All of us are on the smart manufacturing journey together because we believe in the value it creates for our business, because we believe in the competitive advantage that it affords us. But this crisis is shining a whole new light on the value.
One of the recurring delights of PowerPlex is the opportunity to hear from a cross-section of customers, and this year's virtual event has been no exception. Berutti gave over much of his keynote to interviews with a trio of customers, who spoke about how they've adjusted to changing demand and remote working during the crisis. The vendor's theme of smart manufacturing also got some airtime, with examples of the impact of real-time data connection and analysis.
A demand spike in spice
First up was Marcus Merchant, IT Director at spice maker Olde Thompson. Although Plex has been tracking a global drop in manufacturing activity as the pandemic unfolded, Olde Thompson is one of the exceptions that has seen a spike in demand, says Merchant:
We've seen about double our normal monthly output during this virus period. It's been quite incredible — it's been a journey for sure.
Its ability to service that jump in demand depended on keeping its stock in a good position, for which it has been using Plex's supply chain planning tool. For example, when India stopped spice production, the company was able to quickly react by sourcing what it needed from other countries. Competitors have not been so fleet of foot, which has meant Olde Thompson has been able to attract new customers, who the company has been able to onboard quickly using EDI ordering. Merchant says:
We've got three new EDI customers who have been onboarded in the last three months. That's been a huge win for us to be able to do that. It's opened up the doors for long-term relationships for these customers. We're not just supplying them during their tough time, we've set up long-term contracts with them. So it's been a very valuable piece to allowing us to grow our business outside of these current times and look more towards the long term growth.
Working from home - cloud vs on-premise
All three customers spoke about the advantages of using a cloud-based system when having employees work from home. Merchant says:
We had to send a lot of our admin staff and office staff to work from home. Having an online platform that manages our business was a big part of that. That made the transition a little easier, so we can continue to run our business and continue to grow and service our customers while taking care of our employees.
Other customers have been able to compare and contrast their experience of the cloud-based Plex software with on-premise alternatives. Automotive wheel and wheel end manufacturer Accuride adopted Plex globally several years ago, but one recent acquisition in Germany still runs an SAP on-premise system. While other locations were able to start working from home almost immediately, it took several days of frantic work at the German business to upgrade from 100 VPN connections to support 250 remote users. The experience was a validation of Accuride's prior decision to move to the cloud, says Paul Wright, Senior Vice President and CIO of IT and Inventory Control.
For the most part, it's been a pretty good experience and I think really has validated a strategy of being able to work from anywhere, and be able to execute decisions from wherever we are in the world, whenever we are in the world, seamlessly. We've been able to do that both from mobile and desktop for a long, long time.
Trojan Battery is another longstanding Plex customer, and completed its shift to SaaS at the end of 2018 with an application portfolio that includes Dropbox, RingCentral, Workday and Salesforce as well as Plex. But the company was then acquired by C&D Technologies, which is still in the process of transitioning from on-premise technologies. IT Director Matt Irey says the differences became stark when it came to moving to remote working:
Our California operation, which was 100% SaaS, was able to take their laptop, or unplug their desktop at work and take it home. Or like I did, just sit down at my home computer and have access to everything I'd have access to at work, including my phone. [Via RingCentral] I'm receiving phone calls on my office number.
Some of the hurdles we ran into where we still had on-premise applications, I think is everyone's pain point — VPN. We can't open our corporate network up to unsecured machines so they've got to be using company equipment. There's limited bandwidth — guaranteed Plex, Workday, Dropbox, have a heck of a lot more bandwidth than I do going into my location.
Those difficulties have led the company to accelerate its transition to cloud platforms as a matter of urgency:
We had all the standard complaints around VPN — hard to use, I needed install, it's slow. So we've been trying to heavy lift some of our heavier applications [such as] file services out to the cloud as quickly as possible to relieve those bandwidth issues.
Examples of smart manufacturing in action
Each customer also spoke to the theme of smart manufacturing. Wright spoke about Accuride's integration from PLC devices back to a Plex dashboard to provide a global view of testing across the organization. This has contributed to its main corporate testing lab achieving ISO standard certification, he says.
Olde Thompson is building integration between shopfloor machinery and Plex, so for example when setting up a job to run, the information can go straight from Plex to the operator. This takes away some of the potential for human error and provides a solid baseline for measuring the job. It's all part of collecting data and analyzing where there's scope to improve operations, says Merchant:
It's really one of our key focuses over the next 24 months is to really hammer down and look at our yields and look at our losses and find out where we can improve our operations.
At Trojan, connecting Plex into a crucial stage in the battery production process has improved stock control and planning. This is the stage when a battery has been filled with acid and must have a charge applied to it as quickly as possible, called formation. Irey explains:
Prior to Plex, that was a black hole for us. We had a pretty good idea what was in there, but we really had no automated visibility. With Plex we're able to, because it's real-time production. As batteries are filled with acid, we're able to record that production and scan it to a location in formation and track exactly what our work process was. What's in there, where is it? What work order does it belong to?
That alone was huge. Then you can go on to first-in, first-out scanning into locations overall. [We can] make sure we've got enough material to make batteries today, relying on the system to tell us what's out there.
If you needed any persuasion of the advantages of cloud computing and digital connection, there are plenty of examples arising out of the swift responses businesses have had to make to rapid change during the COVID-19 pandemic. Manufacturers have many worries, but at least Plex customers are not having to worry about accessing their core systems when working from home, while those that are moving to a smart manufacturing model have an improved oversight of work-in-progress and operations. That doesn't make the challenges any less daunting, but it's one headache less to deal with. We'll have more from PowerPlex tomorrow.