Plex Systems and Cloud-based ERP

By Jane Clabby, Clabby Analytics

Plex Systems is a cloud ERP company founded in 1995 and headquartered outside Detroit, Michigan. Initially concentrating on the automotive industry, today the company focuses specifically on selling to a broad range of companies that conduct discrete manufacturing operations (including automotive and aerospace) or process manufacturing (primarily food and beverage).

What is particularly interestingly about Plex is that it deployed its ERP software solution on cloud architecture in 2001/2002, over a decade before “cloud computing” became a household word. The Plex Manufacturing Cloud (available on premise or software-as-a-service {SaaS}) connects every manufacturing operation in the cloud for maximum efficiency, productivity and visibility. By the same token, Plex is also a pioneer in the “Internet-of-Things” (IoT – the collection and analysis of sensor data), helping nearly 400 companies with operations across 20 countries connect their suppliers, materials, machines and people using emerging IoT analytics, with cloud as the delivery mechanism.

Plex recently released a report entitled, “The State of Manufacturing Technology” which provided the results of a survey of more than 130 global manufacturing companies.

Survey Results

The findings reinforce Plex’s strategic direction of using cloud/IoT technologies as the foundation for manufacturing innovation. In fact, survey respondents list cloud software as among the most important technologies strengthening their competitive edge in the next five years.

Other findings of the survey include:

  • Cloud solutions shown to improve operations:
    • Manufacturers are embracing new tools, such as tablets, Google Glass and smart tools and machines;
    • 74% of respondents have achieved improvements in process integration as a result of using cloud technologies in their operations;
    • 66% saw improvements in plant productivity; and,
    • 61% experienced better quality.
  • Manufacturers embrace new technologies in their operations:
    • 55% of respondents use IP-enabled tools and machines;
    • 92% employ hand-held scanners;
    • 48% use sensors; and,
    • 27% use low-power Bluetooth, a technology that is just emerging.
  • Security improves in the cloud:
    • 90% of respondents said data security either wasn’t impacted or actually improved with the adoption of cloud solutions.
  • Cloud technologies enable innovation:
    • 40% drew a direct correlation between cloud technologies and their ability to innovate over the next five years.

Plex’s Manufacturing Cloud – A Closer Look

The Plex Manufacturing Cloud provides an integrated platform available through a monthly subscription delivery model that includes both business management (accounting/financials, enterprise, workforce, customer and supplier management) and manufacturing operations (inventory management, planning/scheduling, program tracking, production management, quality and supply chain management) capabilities. The following diagram provides an overview of the Plex architecture.

plex

Source: Plex Systems 2015

Major Features:

  • Integration platform handles >1M transactions per day;
  • Built-in native Manufacturing Execution System (MES) to track and document the entire product lifecycle;
  • Built-in native EDI for connection of customers and suppliers orders ship notices and acknowledgements to ERP modules;
  • Single unified system provides integrated traceability throughout the plant and the supply chain;
  • Reporting and analytics provide real-time actionable insight from machine data;
  • Connection to every machine, device or console on the machine floor without requiring any additional software;
  • Accessible from any device (mobile, iPad, PC, Mac, Google Glass) with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world;
  • Centralized control over security features including audit trails;
  • Connects to external data sources while still allowing customers secure access to data at all times;
  • Consistent experience across devices and platforms; and,
  • Personalization of look and functionality of user screens via VisionPlex.

Plex Manufacturing Cloud Customer Examples

Floracraft, a leading supplier of Styrofoam products for craft, floral, display and special event industries moved to the Plex cloud in 2013 after shifting from a small-scale family operated business to mass-market production supporting over 12,000 products. This rapid growth led to an overburdened technology infrastructure and increased lead times.

After evaluating several ERP suppliers, Floracraft selected the Plex manufacturing cloud and deployed it across 4 sites to ensure accurate product cost estimates and provide a single integrated end-to-end view of their business. With Plex, Floracraft is able to collect real-time data from the materials, machines and people on the shop floor. This helps the company forecast material needs, monitor work station performance, track inventory, conduct financial reporting, and evaluate employee and shop performance. iPhones, iPads and Android tablets are used to access real-time data anywhere in the plant and across the global supply chain.

Within two years, Plex transformed the operational efficiency and commercial success of FloraCraft. Sales increased 50% year-over-year while labor costs significantly dropped. With Plex, Floracraft was able to project more accurate lead times, ensure that the correct product was sent to the correct store, and achieve 100% verification of UPC numbers. In 2014, FloraCraft achieved significant recognition from a top customer when it was named Wal-Mart’s Supplier of the Year.

Fisher& Company, a Tier 1 auto supplier based outside of Detroit, is currently prototype testing Google Glass with a supervisor and a materials handler on the manufacturing shop floor. Google Glass connects with the Plex Manufacturing Cloud to access and update data. Plex installed iBeacons (low-powered, low-cost transmitters from Estimote that are built on Apple’s standardized protocols) at each work center so the supervisor sees a status report as the station is passed.   Helpful contextual information based on location is displayed, and by replacing mobile functionality with Google Glass, supervisors are “hands-free” providing quicker feedback and improving productivity.

The materials handler uses Google Glass paired with a wearable ring scanner in place of a hand-held “brick-on-a-stick” scanner, solving two problems for materials handlers. First by using Google Glass, the handler eliminates situations caused by inadvertently leaving the hand-held scanner behind. In addition, Google Glass provides a clear line of sight for barcode scanning, replacing manual processing so fewer transactions are missed — and quality, efficiency and accuracy are improved.

The pilot with Plex/Fisher is part of Google’s “Glass at Work” program and Fisher plans to expand the program to include new use cases and other locations. The company reports that training is minimal – handlers and supervisors have been up and running with Google Glass in as few as 15 minutes.

Summary Observations

What I find most interesting about Plex is in how they have been using cloud technology for close to 15 years to provide their customers an integrated end-to-end ERP platform with an easy-to-use, easy-to-deploy subscription-based delivery model. The company has applied the same forward-thinking approach to the Internet of Things, using their cloud solution as an integration point for sensor and machine data from customers, suppliers and internal manufacturing processes and applying analytics for real-time decision-making.

Results from Plex’s survey illustrate how manufacturers are embracing the cloud as a catalyst for innovation, improved productivity and better quality. Also significant is that the vast majority of respondents (90%) felt that the use of a cloud-based solution had no impact on security –very often one of the deterrents to adopting cloud-based services and IoT technologies, such as Google Glass.

Analyst firm Gartner, Inc. forecasts that 4.9 billion connected things will be in use in 2015, up 30 percent from 2014 with the automotive sector showing the highest growth rate (96 %) in 2015. Situated at the intersection of cloud and IoT, with a long history in manufacturing innovation (particularly in the automotive sector), Plex Systems seems poised for strong growth over the next several years.

 

 

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