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Extended Enterprise Resource Planning Vendor Shows Its Lean Side

Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: March 1 2006

Introduction

Besides the Classic Fourth Shift and Fourth Shift Edition for SAP Business One solutions (see Classic Enterprise Resource Planning Solution Shifts Over), SoftBrands Manufacturing's core products include another extended enterprise resource planning (ERP) product named evolution (formerly Aremis Enterprise), as well as DemandStream, a lean enterprise automation software system.

For details on SoftBrands' recent history, see SoftBrands' Recovery Softens the AremisSoft Bankruptcy Blow.

This is Part Two of the five-part SoftBrands' Recovery Softens the AremisSoft Bankruptcy Blow series.

evolution

Introduced in 1986, evolution is currently used worldwide in approximately 1,000 locations. evolution is a configurable ERP and business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce solution, built on several database platforms (i.e., Oracle, IBM Informix, and Microsoft SQL2000) and server platforms (i.e., HP-UX, Sun Solaris, IBM AIX, and Microsoft 2000 Windows Server), that might, therefore, be most suitable for larger midsize manufacturers. In fact, the evolution application is referred to as a platform neutral application, because it is available on most common enterprise platforms, and its user interface (UI) runs in a zero client mode, so that any browser-enabled device can access and work with evolution's applications.

evolution's functional scope embraces applications for the Internet, information publishing, connectivity, and multisite operations. The product's core applications are production, planning, sales, inventory, purchasing, and financials, which are presented as approximately 6,000 loosely coupled, configurable components.

The product was designed to serve niche manufacturing markets, and is particularly suitable for dimensional and converter manufacturing environments (see Fourth Shift's evolution within SoftBrands' DemandStream). In fact, there has been a slew of recent functional enhancements for converter businesses. These enhancements include dynamic roll allocation, whereby the consumption of source material is managed through a comprehensive order material management function, which provides planners with the ability to designate source rolls or other material, specifying the material reservations or allocations using any of a number of attributes, such as lot number, roll weight, roll width, or roll length. Also, new production reporting features deal with operations such as mill rolls, coating, laminating, wide roll slitting, and tape slitting. For more information, see The Exacting Needs of Metal Service Centers.

Like Fourth Shift, evolution has integrated customer relationship management (CRM) and human resources (HR) applications, electronic data interchange (EDI) support, and shop floor data collection, and the suite is Web-enabled with a universal look-and-feel browser-based interface that covers the entire functionality. In contrast to Fourth Shift, which is a complete software system sold in a standardized form, evolution is designed to allow customers to customize the system to their own unique operations.

In particular, with a wide range of functionality, high scalability, and strong tools for tailoring the application, evolution provides businesses with a strong platform for business process improvement and business growth. For instance, the ensure business process toolkit has a 1,000 strong library of default business processes and hypertext markup language (HTML)-based drag-and-drop modification facilities to aid with implementation. In addition having been built on a service-oriented architecture (SOA), and by using business process management (BPM) tools to model, design, configure, and implement user enterprises' unique functional requirements, evolution allows customers to tailor the application without modifying the underlying source code (see Understanding SOA, Web Services, BPM, BPEL, and More).

evolution BPM

Late in 2004, SoftBrands announced the release of evolution BPM, a solutions toolkit for delivering BPM capabilities (see BPM: A Crash Course on What It Entails and Why Use It). Two of the main drivers for companies to implement BPM are often the enablement of operational process improvement and the delivery of strategic competitive advantage. However, SoftBrands believes that BPM will be increasingly applied to support strategic business objectives and end-to-end business processes rather than individual departmental functions.

To make this point, the vendor often challenges prospective customers with the question, "If you are doing the same as your competitors, what advantage do you have in the marketplace?" That is to say that by designing processes that are unique to the business, one should achieve a competitive advantage, and BPM should help leverage those unique actions and make them work in powerful ways that are incremental, focusing on process improvement rather than on radical redesign. BPM is both a management technique (i.e., it focuses on continuously improving operational processes that affect a company's performance goals) and a set of technologies (i.e., it refers to a variety of tools that can be used to facilitate the modeling, improvement, documentation, and deployment of business processes), giving user companies a way to more effectively bring together proven operational improvement techniques (such as lean Six Sigma) with current Internet-based process execution technologies.

The essence of BPM is modeling the business processes, using a visual process modeling (flow chart) tool to document the flow of information, human activities, and system activities (often as a result of process improvement actions). The tool will define rules, roles, relationships, alerts, notifications, and application integration, so as to identify process cost, documentation, and ownership. Thus, the resulting process map is actually the running business process, and when the map is changed, the process is changed too.

BPM can bridge the chasm between physical actions and the underlying systems requirements needed to support the process. For instance, ongoing quality initiatives, such as Six Sigma, work to improve quality and reduce errors, measuring the improvements in business processes through process analysis. BPM, for its part, establishes a defined enterprise view of all these improved processes and then provides for their documentation, control, and management. In this way, BPM can bring lean manufacturing initiatives to the rest of the business (including the white collar staff), extending the power of lean automation from the shop floor to the office, providing tools to take waste out of every process, and bringing all aspects of the business closer to the customer. Needless to say, because BPM technologies are built using evolving Internet-based capabilities, they also open up the possibility for building supply chain processes that smoothly integrate business processes across multiple companies, leveraging the Internet where it makes sense.

Accordingly, evolution BPM's BPM Designer tool helps managers visualize the business as a series of processes that coordinate individuals, departments, and even whole organizations. Once the processes are designed, the BPM Workflow Engine provides event-driven process automation, using the evolution Corporate Portal to alert individuals of actions required in a process, in a configurable and secure manner.

evolution 11P

SoftBrands most recent evolution solution, evolution 11P, also has BPM capabilities. In October, SoftBrands announced the upcoming availability of the evolution 11P product, which is the latest advancement in intelligent, integrated BPM-based ERP. Some components of the release are already available, while the balance is scheduled for roll-out over the next several months.

The 11P release is SOA-based to provide customers with faster and more flexible reconfiguration of their business processes by enhancing the ability to share and reuse services and components. Building on evolution's history of providing componentized applications, this architecture should allow customers to leverage their current applications while deploying critical improvements for the needs of the business. Some of the advantages that this architecture, as an enabler of BPM, should provide user enterprises are as follows.

  • Deployment of Web services, including evolution's own Web service that allows dynamic access to any existing user function, and the linking of services from multiple applications into a cohesive set of processes

  • Migration of business rules management from the traditional application layer to a rules management layer configured through the BPM designer

  • BPM workflow engine that provides for the visualization, execution, and management of business processes, which are realized through continuous process improvement events. To that end, an updated BPM engine will cater for loops, parallel tasks, and process cost analysis, while improved process visibility, administration, and monitoring will come through the process Visualizer.

DemandStream

SoftBrands Manufacturing's final core product, DemandStream, was introduced in 2001 and currently has approximately 30 customer installations worldwide, primarily in the US and China. DemandStream is a lean enterprise automation software system that addresses the emerging market for lean automation.

Lean manufacturing principles were initially developed in the 1950s, but nowadays are enjoying a resurgence and wider acknowledgement as a leading means of improving manufacturing efficiency. Lean manufacturing concentrates on the relentless removal of waste, and on constant manufacturing process monitoring and connectivity to suppliers and customers. The concept is intended to cause the manufacturing processes to provide precisely what customers demand, while minimizing interruption because of lack of supply, raw materials, work in process (WIP), and finished goods inventory (for more information, see Lean Manufacturing: A Primer).

SoftBrands realizes that most companies start their lean manufacturing journey with manual processes, but that to sustain and advance lean benefits and maintain competitive advantage they must eventually progress to lean automation. Otherwise, there is the danger of inefficiencies slowly creeping back into processes and bringing continuous improvements to a halt. This is where DemandStream comes into its own.

DemandStream supports the demand-driven factory from the shop floor through the entire supply chain. While Fourth Shift's VisiTools and GlobalNet modules are impressive (see Classic Enterprise Resource Planning Solution Shifts Over), DemandStream belongs to a group of new and innovative software products that are addressing the gap between plant operations and extended supply chain networks. DemandStream's combination of supply chain execution (SCE) functionality, supply chain visibility, and supply chain event management (SCEM), based on demand-pull and lean manufacturing, might provide the means for advanced operational and supply chain efficiencies of synchronized networks (see Using Visibility to Manage Supply Chain Uncertainty and Supply Chain Management Is Evolving toward Interdependent Supply Networks).

Complex supply chains need visibility, and a means for optimizing the flow of materials through the network. DemandStream provides this by enhancing supply chain network communication and collaboration among network participants. In other words, the product's Demand-Driven Factory, Demand-Driven Replenishment, and Demand-Driven Supply Chain components provide factory floor management of dynamic kanbans, lean material flow management, and supply chain material or demand signals with visibility to both vendors and customers.

Moreover, DemandStream works in tandem with a manufacturing customer's ERP system and is not dependent on Fourth Shift or any other specific ERP software products per se. DemandStream further distinguishes itself from other pure play lean solutions by being designed to be complementary to traditional push-based planning systems and being specifically intended to enable lean implementation in less than ideal environments (i.e., environments other than manufacturing operations with low-mix, high-volume, make-to-demand products).

DemandStream's core is the Dynamic Lean Engine, which drives the entire software and is designed to automate pull signals and easily integrate lean processes throughout the enterprise and supply chain. The following are the key capabilities of the Dynamic Lean Engine.

  • User-driven rules to accommodate lean operating practices (after users have made a significant investment in designing factories and processes) from factory management to replenishment and supply chain management (SCM)

  • Always-on agent, which is (as the name implies) agent-driven and event-based to continuously monitor and signal lean activities, including triggers from other systems, based on user-driven rules. The always-on agent broadcasts signals to drive the right action from the right areas of the enterprise and value chain at the right time.

  • Connector toolkit, which allows seamless, open, two-way integration of lean concepts with third party systems, such as ERP systems or virtually any data source (spreadsheets, flat files, databases, etc.), and suppliers through Internet connectivity (e-mail, EDI, RosettaNet, Microsoft BizTalk, and extensible markup language [XML]) and Web-based portals

  • AutoCapture, which streamlines data collection and movement by eliminating manual processes with integrated bar coding, scanning, scales, radio frequency identification (RFID) terminals, etc.

Back-office Integration Tools

DemandStream also provides back-office integration tools for importing data using Import Wizards into the Shop Floor Module from a back-office system, and for inputting data using XML messages generated by the Shop Floor Module back into a business system. In a nutshell, the product delivers the following four major capabilities to manufacturers.

  1. The Dynamic Kanban capability enables kanban sizing and resizing to be synchronized with the demand pattern of the business. This allows lean manufacturers to achieve improved material flow and to reduce overall production lead times.

  2. The Lean Scheduling and Demand Smoothing capabilities balance customer demand smoothly to the shop floor for timely and efficient execution. DemandStream also delivers visualization of traditional heijunka smoothing techniques and drives the execution data all the way to the cells for execution without the challenges of manual techniques.

  3. Supply Chain Execution is an interactive Web-based application that enables the shop floor to interact with suppliers through the Supplier Kanban Board. Features include interactive shipping and an enhanced XML messaging system, while reports include projected usage and vendor performance statistics.

  4. ERP System Transaction Automation. Manual lean implementations are still relying on ERP systems to process transactions—a burden which often offsets significant portions of the gains realized by the adoption of lean practices. DemandStream's back-office integration capabilities automate or eliminate most of the ERP system transaction processing effort.

This concludes Part Three of the five-part SoftBrands' Recovery Softens the AremisSoft Bankruptcy Blow series. Part One discussed the company's background, while Part Two addressed Classic Fourth Shift and Fourth Shift for SAP Business One. Part Four will look at SoftBrands Hospitality, and Part Five will examine the company's market impact.

 
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