Production scheduling software emerges as channel opportunity

Channel partners and industry experts report rising interest among manufacturers in production scheduling systems as supply chain complexity grows.

Interest in production scheduling software is growing in the manufacturing vertical market, creating consulting and integration opportunities for channel partners.

For years, manufacturers have often relied on the knowledge of experienced production managers to schedule labor, machines and materials to execute jobs on the shop floor. But some companies now look to automate the production planning and scheduling function as they deal with increasingly fluid manufacturing lines and complex supply chains.

Partners have a number of options for providing production scheduling functionality. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) products generally include a production planning and scheduling component. Supply chain management packages also offer scheduling capabilities. Manufacturing automation software vendors offer products specific to production scheduling, independent of broader ERP or supply chain management products. Given the choices, the partner must determine whether the scheduling functionality of a more generalized software package fits the bill or whether a customer requires a more specialized product.

Sudhi Bangalore, head of the Smart Manufacturing and Aftermarket Services Transformation group at Wipro Ltd., a global IT consulting firm, cited production scheduling and planning as the No. 1 trend among the manufacturing companies he works with.

"It's becoming a great opportunity," he said, noting that production scheduling is a largely untapped market.

"Over 90% of large manufacturing companies will use Excel or … rely on one or two senior planners … to do the scheduling," Bangalore said.

But he said that manufacturers are beginning to see the limitations of relying strictly on "tribal knowledge" of the nuances of plants and manufacturing assets.

Simon Ellis, a program vice president who leads the Supply Chain Strategies practices at IDC Manufacturing Insights, said his company conducts an annual survey of manufacturers' application priorities.

"Production scheduling is generally in the top third of the list, up there with sales, operations planning and inventory management," he said.

How customers benefit from production scheduling software

Mark Feldhamer, president and CEO of LogicData, an ERP consulting company based in Aurora, Colo., also noted the dependence on a handful of production experts -- and the resulting vulnerability. He said in many cases companies -- typically small and medium-sized enterprises -- fail to document processes and procedures to preserve institutional knowledge. This creates a knowledge gap when a production manager leaves the company.

"Turnover will kill you," Feldhamer said.

As the company grows … a manufacturer is typically forced to do something to formalize their scheduling and planning -- or suffer the pain of processes going out of control.
Mark Feldhamerpresident and CEO, LogicData

The knowledge gap looms larger in companies that started out with simple production lines but now engage in more complicated manufacturing. A production line that only makes one product, day in and day out, is relatively simple to schedule. But a single production line these days may need to be rapidly reconfigured to manufacture more than one product or churn out multiple variations of a particular product.

"One thing we have seen in recent years is this increasing desire for manufacturers to have flexible lines and adaptable lines," Ellis said.

He said manufacturers try to vary lines in term of products and size. While it's much more efficient to have one line manufacture one product and one size continuously, there are few products where that uniformity is feasible, he explained.

Accordingly, the manufacturing sector is moving toward what Bangalore termed "loosely bolted assets." That is, manufacturing machinery that the shop floor can quickly reconfigure to accommodate new products, variations in existing products and new regulatory compliance requirements. Production scheduling software fits naturally into such agile environments, which expose the limitations of manual approaches, Bangalore said.

"As the company grows or the processes increase in complexity and/or volume, a manufacturer is typically forced to do something to formalize their scheduling and planning -- or suffer the pain of processes going out of control," Feldhamer added.

Nathalie Regniers, industry strategy director for supply chain management at Infor, also noted the complexity of the supply chain as fueling demand for automated scheduling. She noted some companies use whiteboards for scheduling.

"They are realizing they can't do production scheduling on a whiteboard … and need to get something in there to automate that system," she said.

Uncovering software opportunities: Multiple tiers

Channel partners find different tiers of software opportunities. Wipro, for example, which works with large manufacturing firms, has encountered demand for specialized production scheduling software products designed to handle the vagaries of the modern production line.

The task of automating a manufacturing and production schedule is particularly challenging in light of the many resource constraints companies experience. Typical constraints include cost, the availability of labor and material, and throughput, Bangalore noted. As for the latter, a bottling line at a beverage maker, for example, may only operate at 30% of its rated capacity.

Bangalore said the algorithms and analytics embedded in production scheduling software have evolved considerably, so that products now take into account manufacturing constraints when scheduling the shop floor.

"There is a lot of demand now for software packages that … use what's called constraint-based scheduling," Bangalore said. "More and more customers are now exploring these packages."

Bangalore cited production planning and scheduling products, such as Siemens' Preactor, Dassault Systemes' Quintiq, Rockwell Automation Inc.'s FactoryTalk and GE Intelligent Platform's Proficy as among the leading players in the space.

As for the technology's adopters, Bangalore said he's seen interest from companies in cash-crunched industries, such as mining and metals, which invest in production scheduling software to generate more money from their manufacturing assets. He noted that technically advanced manufacturing companies, which have already automated production lines, are also adopting scheduling software to take their enterprises to the next level.

Those adopters generally purchase scheduling software to supplement the capabilities of their core ERP systems. ERP software handles long-range planning, while the scheduling software handles the immediate challenges of coordinating particular lines.

For smaller manufacturing concerns, channel partners may find that the scheduling component of an ERP package fits the bill for their customers.

Feldhamer said LogicData typically implements the scheduling module of Infor's SyteLine ERP package. For customers not using SyteLine ERP, the company uses Infor's Advanced Planning and Scheduling module. That module suits customers that require a sophisticated scheduling engine that integrates with their existing systems.

Feldhamer said the manufacturing companies he sees in the market fit one of three profiles:

No scheduling system: A human scheduler sorts a stack of work orders to sequence them and hands them out to individual workers.

Excel spreadsheets manually populated from order entry or inventory demand.

Standalone scheduling system that is either manually or automatically fed with data from the primary system, such as ERP.

"Excel is the most typical scheduling 'system' we run across in the market," Feldhamer said.

In addition to scheduling-focused products and ERP packages, manufacturing customers may also tap supply chain management systems for scheduling capabilities. The shift from ad-hoc to formal systems is becoming the overarching pattern.

"I think the general trend for manufacturers is to be moving away from home-grown [systems] and to be moving toward platforms," Ellis said.

Offering services around production scheduling software

Channel partners, as consultants, help customers select the optimal software strategy. The next step is to configure the scheduling system to meet the particular needs of the manufacturer and its industry niche. Bangalore said Wipro works with the customer and OEMs, such as Siemens to customize and implement a scheduling product.

To implement the software, the channel partner needs to thoroughly understand the customer's manufacturing process and the resources involved. For example, the partner would need to know the cost of using a particular resource -- x dollars per hour -- and its capacity.

The task, Bangalore said, involves "understanding the process and understanding the resources and being able to then configure those data points into the software package."

Beyond implementation, partners may provide integration services, linking production scheduling to other key manufacturing applications. Bangalore identified the customer's ERP system, which provides information on orders and long-range planning information, as a key integration point. The scheduling system may also be integrated with the customer's asset management system, which provides data on manufacturing asset availability and cost.

Channel partners may also help their customers adopt closed-loop integration. With this practice, automated production lines feed live data from shop floor machinery directly to the scheduling system, Bangalore noted. Data from a given machine may show that it is operating far below its expected throughput performance. The ability to inject that data into the production scheduling software makes for more accurate scheduling.

Scheduling accuracy also relies on production updates from shop floor workers. But asking them to use the ERP system to feed the scheduling system typically won't do the trick.

"You can't throw them into the UI of the ERP system," Feldhamer said. "You have to have a … very shop-floor-friendly user experience."

For that reason, a specialized product, such as a shop-floor kiosk may need to be integrated into the scheduling platform.

"Shop floor kiosks and/or handheld wireless devices are the most effective way of trapping actual progress across the shop floor," Feldhamer said.

In the case of a kiosk, a worker enters an employee ID number, reviews a list of jobs his or her group is scheduled to complete and selects a job. The kiosk records the job's start time, and when the employee finishes for the day, he or she enters the quantity complete and clocks out of the job.

That system then knows how much time has been reported to the job and the quantity complete, Feldhamer said. When the scheduling software's algorithms run overnight, the system can calculate the remaining time required to wrap up the job and schedule the following day accordingly.

Software deployment approaches and timetables

Channel partners may find considerable variation in the time it takes to deploy production scheduling software. The key variables: the nature of the software and the complexity of the customer's environment. As complexity grows, so does the time it will take to configure the software.

For instance, it might take three to nine months to roll out a specialized production scheduling system across a single manufacturing plant, Bangalore said. Such deployments tend to start with a single line. Once the software has proven effective on that line, the deployment will expand elsewhere.

When production scheduling is deployed within an ERP implementation, the deployment time is naturally tied to the broader project.

"Full ERP implementation timelines vary dramatically with the size and complexity of the customer, and by the scope -- breadth -- of the implementation," Feldhamer explained. "A simple company implementing SyteLine can easily be live in four months. Large organizations can go into the 12- to 14-month ranges."

In some cases, a customer will first install the core elements of an ERP package and then treat scheduling as a follow-on project. For customers that have already installed SyteLine ERP, an implementation of SyteLine Shop Floor Scheduling will take from 30 to 90 days, Feldhamer said.

Next Steps

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