SMB Manufacturers Testing PLM Integration Possibilities
October 13, 2008 Dan Burger
Breaking down boundaries is maybe the most worthwhile goal an IT department can under take. The IT industry that helped build all the walls–we like to call them silos these days–is helping to eliminate those obstacles, and this is to the credit of those companies that are wholeheartedly participating. Also deserving of some credit are the companies that have gotten past platform bigotry to pursue business interests. They all deserve a pat on the back, if you can find any of them.
OK, that may be an undeserved slight. In actuality, there are many examples of increased efforts toward interoperability, integration, and, ultimately, business value. One of those examples is in an area called product lifecycle management (PLM), and how PLM is being integrated with enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is something that forward-looking companies are considering very carefully.
PLM is found primarily in the manufacturing sector. It is most deeply rooted in older manufacturers, like Boeing in aerospace and Ford in automotive, who around 15 years ago began to combine product design, research and development–the engineering side–with cost analysis, product forecasting, and supply chain efficiencies–the back-end business side. Although it started as primarily a function of design and manufacturing, and it is closely associated with CAD, the evolution of PLM has shown progress in breaking down some of the traditional silos of information that have prevented businesses from attaining greater efficiencies and levels of productivity–and cost containment and better forecasting. The advantages of PLM that were pioneered by the likes of Boeing and Ford are now being used by companies outside of the aerospace and automotive industries, including plenty of small to mid size businesses.
The IBM AS/400, now the Power Systems i, has been in the middle of much of this integration of ERP and PLM software. Much of the manufacturing sector uses an i platform of some kind, and this is particularly true in the SMB market where the platform and its catalog of application choices are very familiar with the AS/400 and successors.
“The big shift in manufacturing is in requirements–figuring out what you should make,” says Rory Granros, director of product marketing for process industries at Infor, an ERP software and services company with more System i customers than any other independent software vendor (ISV). On the leading edge, companies are moving into digital manufacturing, Granros notes. Digital is shifting R&D toward simulating “manufacturability.” Granros says this is an advancement over what is provided by a traditional CAD tool that is loaded with engineering data, but is otherwise unconnected to business functions. “Even though a design looks great in the CAD tool, it sometimes gets put into manufacturing and it doesn’t work,” he says. “Simulation is answering the questions about why it doesn’t work before it gets on the manufacturing floor.”
That is but one example of R&D work in modern manufacturing. Industries such as food and beverage, healthcare, and financial services have their own product development issues.
Granros is one of the founders of Formation Systems, a PLM software company that was purchased by Infor about three years ago. The main product that Formation Systems introduced 11 years ago is now developed and marketed by Infor under the brand name Optiva.
The reason PLM exists is to address the integration of data and business processes. It could be product development, manufacturing processes, supply chains, and other processes, but the goal is providing the information to make better business decisions and increase production efficiencies.
“The integration is a data issue,” Granros says. “It used to be there was a technology issue. Ten years ago, if you were on an AS/400 and somebody was coming in with a Unix box, it was like voodoo magic to get the two to work together. These days it’s pretty darn simple. We integrate with a number of our iSeries ERPs such as BPCS LX, System 21, XA MAPICS–all Infor ERP software runs natively on the iSeries. We’ll integrate to all of those very seamlessly with the new technology that is available with the iSeries.”
The new technology that is built into a Power Systems box may play a big role in the future of the System i in the manufacturing market. There’s the capability to run Unix and Linux on the same box using the PowerVM hypervisor and logical partitions, and then there’s the interest in broadening multi-platform interoperability with service oriented architecture approaches to coding applications, too. Those that prefer i OS have some choices and some flexibility. Consolidating disparate applications on the same hardware hasn’t been seen as a better mousetrap by System i shops up to this point, but IBM is certainly counting on that changing. When the Power Systems convergence of i and p platforms was announced, IBM marketing couldn’t say enough about how the System i customers would benefit from running AIX and Linux along with i OS on the same box.
“The capability to consolidate different application workloads using the virtualization technologies that are enabled on the Power6 processor is very important,” says Gary Hornyak, an IBM systems consultant for PLM architecture. That brings into play the potential for server consolidation, as well as the added benefits of load balancing and obtaining high system resource utilization for systems that typically operate at very low utilization rates.
“Unix has a large presence in enterprise PLM deployment,” Hornyak points out. And Linux and Windows are growing in the small to mid size deployments.”
Hornyak’s point of view is that an i OS customer that might have considered deploying software on Windows will now consider deploying a partition and running that software on AIX on Power Systems. There are some obstacles and they are often not technical.
“It would depend on the ‘political’ decisions, even if the technical merits are pointing to another direction,” Hornyak says. “On technical merit deploying on the AIX would make sense to get optimum resource usage from the hardware that has been paid for, and it would resolve server sprawl issues. However, the groups that make the decisions may not be talking with the other groups that run the business applications.”
IBM’s Robert Norton comes at this from a slightly different perspective, but not one that is unappreciated by Hornyak. Norton is the program director of PLM for IBM Software, and he sees the key to integrating data and applications as being the middleware, the infrastructure, so he’s fond of talking about WebSphere and service oriented architecture. “If IBM i or other platforms are in the mix, WebSphere is well suited to this environment,” Norton contends. “Our aim is to bridge gaps between the different vendors of PLM software and the variety of hardware that might be out there through the use of our middleware. Power Systems servers are well suited to serve those purposes of running the middleware.”
Norton describes the classic PLM-to-ERP integration as “the engineering billing material to manufacturing billing material transfer.”
The solution he has the most experience with involves the use of a WebSphere application server. Before anyone starts waving red flags at the mention of WebSphere, Java, and SOA, Norton wants to say this approach does not “require a great leap of faith in Java or SOA.” It has some SOA capabilities, Norton says. It can extract from the PLM, across an API adapter that routes them into Web services and then passes them into the ERP system. “That is one of the simple paths that shops choose when they don’t consider themselves heavy-duty Java developers or big time SOA shops.”
Moving beyond that level, Norton says, the next step is to apply an enterprise server bus and routing messages that could come from multiple targets. These could be additional PLM systems and a legacy manufacturing control system pushing data to the ERP system, for example.
Infor’s Granros describes one of the important pieces of the data integration process as providing the PLM system with information pertaining to new vendors, current costs, and quality control issues. Based on his experience, he says most people do it at a data level and not at a service level.
“SOA is just getting started,” Granros says. “Most people are still focused on the transactional aspects and the financial reporting aspects. These interfaces work. Getting a forecast from a vendor, or being able to replace EDI transactions with automated transactions are less robust. We are seeing more SOA in those areas. And once they become more robust, you’ll see the pickup in SOA with PLM.”