Intelligent Manufacturing Systems: Beating the Odds, Mightily - Part 3




Part 1 of this blog series explained IQMS’ upbeat posture despite a hostile and depressed environment, while Part 2 analyzed the recent developments of EnterpriseIQ [evaluate this product], the flagship offering of IQMS. This final part will focus on IQMS’ most recent involvement in the user experience (UX) design developments.

Joining the “Winning Users’ Hearts and Minds” Fray

Like many of its enterprise resource planning (ERP) peers, IQMS also took a plunge in giving manufacturers cost-effective and innovative extended-ERP applications with new features such as Smart Page and Smart Search. By putting the full power of commonly used enterprise applications on one intuitive and personalized screen, these “smart” solutions aim to speed users’ productivity and drive leaner results. Both offerings are available beginning with the EnterpriseIQ 6.6 version and come free of charge as part of the normal maintenance update process.

Smart Page provides an intuitive enterprise portal that allows users to create customizable views (in multiple Web browsers) of all key ERP functions, report requirements, e-mail notification, key performance indicators (KPIs), and more - all in one place. As an easy-to-navigate role-tailored screen, Smart Page interacts seamlessly with EnterpriseIQ to deliver enhanced data-driven capabilities like fast, single-screen access to all workflows requiring routing and approval tracking, as well as unlimited user-defined shortcuts to EnterpriseIQ modules.

With Smart Page, Enterprise IQ customers now can create, save, and leverage unlimited user roles. The portal also represents a “single version of truth” for all employees, from the “ivory tower” to the shop floor.

Information security is also enhanced through single log-in functionality, designed specifically for role-based access to functional modules, while switching between programs is easy and on one screen. Other highlights of the Smart Page user interface (UI) include

  • access to all extended-ERP areas, including: Quality, Engineering, Accounting, Manufacturing, Customer Service, Maintenance, Human Resources (HR), Production, and more

  • customizable charts and graphs with drill-down capabilities

  • internal flowcharting tool for creating visual process flow diagrams

  • RealTime Production Monitoring “speedometers” that filter by manufacturing cell or a plant and give instantaneous shop floor feedback

  • alert messaging ("management by exception") from both remote and local business units

  • "to do" Web approval lists with direct access to approval details

  • direct customer relationship management (CRM) access with internal calendar, calls, tasks, support actions, notes, and meetings by user or for all users

  • customized and personalized directories of reports

  • e-mail integration to Microsoft Outlook


Enterprise Search, To Boot

For its part, Smart Search provides a way for users to quickly retrieve and access data within the EnterpriseIQ system database. Accessed directly from a user desktop shortcut or the abovementioned Smart Page application UI, Smart Search allows users to scan search results and drill down (via direct hyperlinks to details) for additional information on items related to specific search criteria.

Smart Search uses full-text, index-based searching technology, and can be configured to seek out any EnterpriseIQ text data within the entire ERP system. Since index-based technology does not use SQL SELECT statements, searches are quite fast. Based on user-specified security rights, results are displayed in a familiar search engine format and are linked to the corresponding record.

Users can directly enter search criteria into the search box or use advanced search capabilities that provide a menu of pre-defined applications. Smart Search can display, upon request, all related records in internal and external documents, delivering intuitive search functionality that's essential in all manufacturing facilities. Web searches are also supported.

Developed to leverage a Google-type UI, with which virtually all users are familiar (possibly even more than with using a mouse), Smart Search is not only a search engine, but also a nifty UI for the EnterpriseIQ suite. Application areas such as manufacturing, accounting, document control, statistical process control (SPC), preventative maintenance, CRM, purchasing, etc., can have configured search capabilities based on the role of the ERP user.

Smart Search also provides added flexibility for "fuzzy searching" to account for minor misspellings, and to run automatically when Microsoft Windows is started. Using keyword searches, Smart Search will search the entire EnterpriseIQ ERP database, as well as all document control libraries and internally stored repository libraries.

Are These “Me Too” Gimmicks?

With the delivery of the abovementioned “smart” features, IQMS joins the fray of many bigger ERP brethren. Namely, IFS Enterprise Explorer (IEE, part of the ongoing Project Aurora), Microsoft Dynamics Client for Office (DCO), Lawson Smart Office, Epicor Productivity Pyramid, Infor MyDay, and so on revolve around the themes like role-based portals, contextual analytics, KPIs, alerts, dashboards, etc. In addition, the role-based UI was implemented with common controls and gadgets, and delivered for basically all of the Microsoft Dynamics ERP products after introduction and testing first in Microsoft Dynamics GP.

Thus, is there anything distinct within IQMS’ Smart Page? Well, yes, since one capability that has really caught my eye is the “treemap” (sometimes also referred to as “heat-map”) technology for information visualization.

Treemaps display hierarchical (tree-structured) data as a set of nested rectangles, whereby each branch of the tree is given a rectangle. Each branch (rectangle) is then tiled with smaller rectangles representing sub-branches. A leaf node's rectangle has an area proportional to a specified dimension on the data. Leaf nodes are also colored to show a separate dimension of the data.

When the color and size dimensions are correlated with the tree structure, patterns that would be difficult to spot in other ways often emerge. Another advantage of treemaps is that they make efficient use of space and can legibly display thousands of items on the screen simultaneously. In a nutshell, they are visual management tools that use shape sizes and colors to intuitively give users a sharper focus on issues of greatest importance.

To illustrate, the figure below shows the Rejects Treemap, where the largest and reddest rectangles indicate the items with the highest quality problems. Conversely, smaller and bluer rectangles are the items whose production is going smoothly.

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I have seen a similar tool in the Deltek Vision product. Taking a page from the stock traders’ book, the product’s Visualization feature has analytical capabilities and several innovative functions that can help the management team make decisions directly related to the profitability of their projects, and ultimately, the firm’s overall performance.

A Parting Shot

I asked Randy Flamm, IQMS’ president and founder, who, in his mind, at the end of the day, is in the best position to ultimately win in the market? Or does he think there will be no single winner, and that everyone will remain at the current, equidistant positions? Mr. Flamm said:
“The ERP market size in the mid-market is still big enough that we don’t see one player completely dominating this space. Service oriented architecture (SOA)-based heterogeneous offerings continue to have their challenges and we believe that by being a truly single-source vendor we have found our niche servicing the mid-market manufacturers, and we will thrive using our single-source database solution.

Common to the enterprise software industry there will be an ebb and flow of new technology trends and solutions, some will work better than others and some will not work at all. We feel strongly that we have a very successful solution that accommodates a lot of the mid-market manufacturers’ needs.”

Dear readers, what are your views, comments, opinions, and particular experiences with IQMS and its products? Do you think a homogenous enterprise applications suite is possible and desired, or are heterogeneous IT environments simply today’s reality and how the world works?
 
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