Intelligent Manufacturing Systems: Beating the Odds, Mightily - Part 2

Part 1 of this blog series explained IQMS’ ebullience and growth despite a hostile and depressed environment, especially in manufacturing. IQMS attributes its continued success to its strategy of being the single source for virtually everything a target customer might need, including software development, sales and implementation services, training, and customer service and technical support.

Before delving into the flagship suite’s comprehensive functional footprint, it might be important to describe EnterpriseIQ's [evaluate this product] technical foundation and performance, which IQMS touts as important parts of its value proposition.

EnterpriseIQ’s Architecture

The extended enterprise resource planning (ERP) product was originally written in the now almost esoteric Delphi environment (from the client-server era) on top of an Oracle Database. The suite features a two-tier architecture, with all business logic (i.e., rules and transaction processing) residing on the Oracle database server.

IQMS chose Oracle’s database technology (Internet-enabled via an Apache Web Server) for its reputed safety, security, and high performance. However, the vendor packages and abstracts the database in an embedded way (via a silent installation routine) that mitigates the traditionally high price and heavy administration downsides of Oracle.

Repeated IQMS user surveys confirm that the database is easy to administer and maintain this way, with no need for intensive Oracle programming. Following a silent installation routine, the server works like a refrigerator (or some other white appliance): all users have to worry about is the quality of what they put into the system and how to properly use its output.

The EnterpriseIQ product has meanwhile been largely rewritten in Microsoft Visual Studio.NET (VS.NET), which makes it compatible with Microsoft .NET Framework. ASP.NET is used for the client-side technology (except for Microsoft Windows CE in the warehousing module), while Oracle Database remains as the back end. This combination of Microsoft and Oracle technologies somewhat resembles IFS’ approach.

IQMS strongly believes that this unified “same DNA” suite (even if on a seemingly out-moded two-tier client-server architecture) results in online transaction processing (OLTP) that is very fast; much faster than if IQMS had adopted a service-oriented architecture (SOA) as other contemporary vendors do to stitch together disparate applications.

The OLTP and decision support systems (DSS) processing speed has reportedly been an important criterion for customers selecting IQMS. As Randy Flamm, IQMS’ president and founder, said during our recent exchanges:
“At IQMS we have always believed it is easier to develop and nurture a product rather than attempt to integrate to another company’s package.  Essentially this is what SOA is about – integrating many packages for use across an enterprise.  For the most part, our opinion is “SOA what!”  We don’t need to build on this platform because we handle almost every function within our own database.

Is there a need for some partnering?  Yes.  We understand there are report writing and spreadsheet automation software packages out there (Crystal Reports and Global Software) that handle this better than an ERP system ever should or could do.  We utilize these to tie into our package for extracting and presenting data, but that is where the need for SOA in our package starts and stops.”

For user friendliness and intuitive navigation (e.g., with jump-around and drill-down features), IQMS has chosen a Microsoft platform for the client side. In addition to transactional performance, other advantages of the two-tier architecture are data integrity and user interface (UI) independence. Namely, there is a whole host of UI choices: traditional graphical UI (GUI), .NET client (including the variant for mobile users), portals, and Telnet client for warehouse workers. IQMS uses Terminal Server and Citrix for wide area network (WAN) links to its UNIX or LINUX back-end servers.

My belief is that the reliance solely on Oracle’s database might, in the long term, limit IQMS’ market opportunity, especially within smaller companies that are standardizing on Microsoft SQL Server. The vendor claims that prospective customers are more focused on the solution than on the technology, and that the database system doesn't matter.

Fine, but maybe also offering an on-demand and software as a service (SaaS) solution could help in that regard (think of Plex Systems, formerly Plexus)? At this stage, IQMS does not see the justifiable demand to take the SaaS plunge (i.e., the gut-wrenching product rewrite).

More of EntepriseIQ’s Traits

Despite being tightly woven and with an extensive footprint, EnterpriseIQ is a reasonably open system and is also modular. Users have to go for a basic core ERP package, and can decide on optional modules to extend the enterprise as business and demands grow. Therefore, of the more than 20,000 concurrent user licenses, below is the breakdown of licenses per modules:

In addition, IQMS has also sold over 15,000 RealTime Machine Monitoring (mentioned in Part 1) licenses. While the system’s scalability comes inherently from Oracle database, after adding French language capabilities to EnterpriseIQ in late 2008, IQMS now supports the following eight languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Mandarin Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Dutch, and Swedish.

In addition to multiple languages, IQMS claims support for multiple enterprise entities/plants (on a single database instance) and multiple currencies. The double-byte character set (required to support Chinese), the ability to specify language by user in a single system, and other global requirements were also driven by customers, as even small manufacturers in this time and age need to operate as parts of a global supply chain.

Pre-empting the Dreaded “I” Word

IQMS claims that its single-source offering resonates well with the companies that are wary of any hidden and unneeded expenses, especially these days. These smaller manufacturers are particularly “allergic” to hearing about the need for any interface.

Indeed, multiple products and interfaces come with the burden of continuous management and upgrade coordination and an increase in IT support staff. Also, one has to deal with multiple software vendor maintenance contracts and worry about the financial stability of multiple software providers, each of whom will likely have different business strategies.

Moreover, when different applications require their own databases, it becomes quite problematic to write holistic reports over multiple databases. Complex SOA-based configurations also come with speed and performance issues. Last but not least, there are many ongoing support issues that come with multi-vendor solutions, starting with each vendor’s decision to provide offshore support rather than a more intimate local call center. When support and customizations come from value added resellers (VARs), whom should the customer call first in case of a problem?

But EnterpriseIQ is certainly not meant to be all things to all people. I concur with Frank Scavo’s recent post on IQMS on his Enterprise Spectator blog:
“…Now, having said that, I'm sure there are major gaps in IQMS functionality for some clients, especially once you get outside of its target niche. But that's the beauty of a niche strategy. IQMS doesn't have to be all things to all customers. It only needs to be all things (or most things) to a few customers…”

R&D Work Never Ends

IQMS’ management is aware of how much more capability the company needs to develop, and the idea is to particularly intensify research & development (R&D) these days. The intention is to further distance itself from (or leapfrog) competitors that seem more concerned with cost-cutting and survival tactics.

Accordingly, in mid-2008, IQMS delivered EnterpriseIQ version with over 1,000 built-in reports and 400 enhancements to areas such as quality management, electronic data interchange (EDI), WMS, product lifecycle management (PLM), security, and forecasting. Earlier in 2008, IQMS announced its enhanced support for the process manufacturing industry with the release of the Master Batch manufacturing capability. Master Batch is aimed at companies such as compounding or formula-based manufacturers that are focused on heavy mixing and blending operations, and require the ability to handle multiple operations in a single routing.

To best support process manufacturing needs, ERP systems should give manufacturers the flexibility to enter process bills of material (BOMs) based on formulas where the components either total 100 percent or they can be added based on volume or weight quantities. Comprehensive BOM/formula functionality also has to provide co-product/by-product capability, flexible packaging alternatives, flexible batch sizes, yield/scrap calculation, grading and re-classification of products, alternative and substitute formulas (and routings), “what if” costing scenarios, and more.

On the other hand, the most recently released Assembly Manufacturing type is designed especially for manufacturers seeking consistent quality and greater traceability within assembly processes via enhanced tracking of complex routing structures. Potential benefits of this assembly structure include the ability to identify product availability and costs at each stage of production as well as the option to choose between either dispatch lists or finite scheduling.

Some companies might also benefit from the detailed lot traceability, operator certifications and training, and tool tracking functionalities. The Assembly functionality is IQMS’ response to an ongoing trend toward imposing more requirements for machine shops, metal fabricators, and process-related operations, especially in the medical device field, which has strict traceability concerns and constraints.

Offering an Entry-level Product

To attract the lower-end of the market, in 2007 IQMS delivered the EnterpriseIQ LE (Limited Edition) version to provide a lower-cost entry-point ERP solution. The product is packaged to meet the needs of single-site manufacturers and smaller supply chain environments (in terms of lower EDI volumes).

IQMS achieved the lower price benefit by packaging just the functionality most often used by manufacturers with single-plant operations. EnterpriseIQ LE version gives small manufacturers the same set of core ERP capabilities found in the full version.

Functionality such as manufacturing and inventory management, quality control, sales and distribution, and financial and accounting management are all included in a single database and at an affordable price. Certain features that are customarily used to support larger operations are not included, such as those used for multi-plant operations.

By choosing EnterpriseIQ LE, customers who operate only one plant and currently have no ERP system in place should gain an initial modular, single-source ERP solution that can be tailored to fit their business needs and designed to scale up with optional modules that work seamlessly within the core system. IQMS is also offering a migration path with this LE version for companies that might eventually grow into multiple locations.

The final part of this blog series will analyze IQMS’ recent involvement in the user experience (UX) design. The vendor joins the fray of many peer ERP vendors that have been working on injecting a breath of a fresh air into their offerings. By putting the full power of commonly used applications on one intuitive and personalized screen, these vendors hope to speed users’ productivity and drive leaner results.

Your views, comments, opinions, particular experiences with IQMS and its products are welcome in the meantime. Do you think a homogenous enterprise applications suite is possible and desirable, or are the heterogeneous IT environments simply today’s reality and how the world works?
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