Manufacturers Get Smart!

The dot-com fiasco had at least one fortunate consequence. The expectations surrounding the Internet have finally been constrained by reason. In this more practical, realistic environment, some truly innovative and useful applications are beginning to emerge in the business-to-business realm. At the forefront of this new emergence is Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence (EMI) Software.

The dot-com fiasco had at least one fortunate consequence. The expectations surrounding the Internet have finally been constrained by reason. In this more practical, realistic environment, some truly innovative and useful applications are beginning to emerge in the business-to-business realm. At the forefront of this new emergence is Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence (EMI) Software.

EMI is a subset of the much broader category known as Business Intelligence Software (BIS). As the name implies, EMI focuses on the manufacturing industry. In a nutshell, EMI mines a company's existing business data (production, accounting, quality, etc.) and then, using sophisticated analysis techniques, transforms it into reliable, intelligible facts that support wise decision-making. What's more, EMI systems can make that information accessible through the Internet, to users throughout and beyond an organization. Think of the implications!  Key employees, partners, customers, and suppliers, with access to the information they need, and only what they need, from wherever they are-at the office, at home, traveling.

ERP, CRM, MES, and PDM are powerful systems that perform transactions. EMI systems are web-based applications that provide real-time analysis of the key information collected during those transactions. EMI systems illuminate obscured and unused information, in effect making already valuable transaction systems even more valuable. Not only is EMI valuable to large firms with expensive enterprise level software packages (the aforementioned ERP, CRM, MES etc.), it has the flexibility to be extremely useful to smaller firms that have nothing more than basic accounting software or an MRP system.

EMI systems are able to provide analysis tools with both an intranet and extranet focus. With the intranet capabilities, manufacturing companies can supply their decision makers, sales force, engineering staff, and purchasing departments with real-time access to the business information their company diligently collects-at any time; from anywhere. But more than just access to the information, EMI's analytical apparatus turns that business information into actionable knowledge. The extranet aspect of EMI gives manufacturers the option of allowing their customers to perform their own customer service. In addition to self-help customer service, EMI's groupware functionality provides customers with the opportunity to collaborate with the manufacturers on corrective actions, preventive measures, and future projects. One situation where this collaboration is increasingly necessary is the ubiquitous original equipment manufacturer (OEM) - outsourced manufacturer arrangement. More and more, OEMs that outsource manufacturing are demanding a level of access and collaboration that is exceedingly difficult for vendors to achieve without a system like EMI.

Within an organization, the EMI intranet gives manufacturers accurate, up-to-the-minute information, and this information is simultaneously available to everyone who requires it. Decision makers don't want to wade through endless streams of numbers; they want--and often need--the short answer, and that's what EMI delivers. And it's not only upper management that needs this information, for example: a salesperson needs to know if a given purchase order has been received, or if she needs to call the customer and remind them to place the order. EMI systems can provide that information anywhere there is an available browser or Internet enabled wireless device (e.g. in a hotel, at the airport, or in an automobile). Gone is the hassle of trying to get hold of the accounting department! Having access to information without having to go through another human being greatly increases efficiency, while decreasing cost and frustration. Companies unwilling to take advantage of this efficient information conduit will soon find it difficult to compete.

The EMI extranet provides tremendous opportunities to any manufacturer wanting improve their customer service. EMI's order status and quality monitoring capabilities are unparalleled. But as powerful and valuable as those functions are, when EMI is used by outsourced and build to order manufacturers, the real-time access takes on another dimension. Via their Internet access, customers can ensure that engineering changes have been implemented or that the correct bill of materials (BoM) is in use on the shop floor. The customers of these manufacturers perceive increased control, maintain a higher comfort level, and tend to be more loyal.  For job shops, providing this access will not only do wonders for customer relations, it will also reduce the rework and scrap they create. Customers will always demand certain information, whether they really need it or not. EMI provides better information, and manufacturers spend only a fraction of the time delivering it.

EMI not only raises the bar for customer service, the around-the-clock access for customers also garners business that might otherwise be missed.

Consider this scenario: a purchasing agent for an OEM that out-sources its manufacturing is on the road when a pressing need for a certain assembly arises. With EMI, the OEM's agent can check pricing, do an order simulation to estimate delivery time, and determine if these values fall within their selection criteria.  If they do, the agent may not feel the need to check with other vendors-especially vendors who are unable or unwilling to provide instantaneous information. An order won without any cajoling or quoting.

Some manufacturers have been a little reticent about exposing all of their dirty laundry to customers. But in today's marketplace of small margins and a big commitment to quality, most successful manufacturers have nothing to be ashamed of. Customers appreciate honesty and collaboration, and most manufacturers find sharing information to be mutually beneficial. Adopting this open, collaborative culture encourages manufacturers to be efficient and quality conscious, thus allowing them to be world-class, regardless of size or location. In any event, these systems give the manufacturer complete control of who sees what, so they can ease themselves into 21st Century manufacturing at their own pace.EMI provides so many benefits to manufacturers with its intranet capabilities, even if they want to remain inadvisably secretive, the return on investment is remarkably short. Simply stated, keeping all your departments on the same page, regardless of location or time zone, is more than worth the price of admission.

The manufacturing industry is only beginning to grasp the value of EMI. Culling and integrating data from different shop floor systems, and then turning it into actionable information has, until now, been a daunting task. EMI's web-based architecture makes this possible with little or no implementation grief, and at a relatively low cost. EMI works with existing systems to mobilize static data and transform into dynamic information, and creative uses for that information are emerging daily. Those companies that bravely take full advantage of EMI's known capabilities, and that think creatively about other ways to derive value, will set themselves apart in good times and bad. Implementing a system with so much promise, one that revitalizes and improves existing systems, and that requires very little investment, is just plain good business.

Scott Blankenship is the Business Development Manager at Qubeware, inc. Qubeware is the creator of THE QUBE, which is the first affordable Manufacturing Intelligence Plus Software designed for small and midsized outsourced manufacturers. For more information contact: LBI CUBE, 333 Cantl