Software Solutions

In the cloud

By Gretchen Salois

Above: Manufacturers can plan and control inventory faster and can also adjust operations to meet needs as they change.

Access from anywhere, any device, at any time proves invaluable for today’s business

April 2014 - Making the connection between manufacturer and customer transparent and easy seems like a straightforward idea, but execution is where many companies fall short. Cloud-driven software allows users to not only keep track of numbers and cents, but also open up new venues for communication in an online community and focus more on customer demand and expectations.

Anyone with a smartphone can back up documents, photos and music using any number of cloud-based storage providers, like Dropbox, Google Plus, Amazon Cloud Drive or Apple iCloud. Businesses use Enterprise Resource Planning, process management software that takes cloud-based storage further, and can automate many back-end office functions like accounting and inventory tracking, planning new products, developing those products, as well as keeping tabs on manufacturing processes, sales and marketing. 

At Plex Systems in Troy, Mich., a surge in manufacturing is propelling business. “We’ve seen an upswing throughout the industry,” says Jim Shepherd, vice president of product strategy. “The manufacturers we work with are being challenged to work alongside their customers and to be able to produce at their [customer’s] speed of innovation and quickly changing product life cycles.


“Overall, the manufacturing industry has changed,” he continues. “The resurgence of manufacturing is pulling the economy forward. Manufacturers are beginning to see that the plant floor is where the change happens, where innovation occurs. It’s where profits are made and most importantly, it’s where they work to develop their competitive edge.”

Software is now always available from any number of devices to any number of users. Another difference from traditional software is that licensing isn’t based on a per-user basis, so more people in an organization can have access to the software and can take advantage of its various functions.  “Many customers enable their suppliers to log into the system as well,” Shepherd adds. “So it provides a whole new level of traceability and process management.”

Immediate benefits

Using Plex Manufacturing Cloud connects plant operations with engineering, sales, suppliers and customers in real time. The plant floor focus coincides with the need to streamline processes through all levels of business without having to dedicate a team of IT analysts to run it on a daily basis. Instead, IT staff can set their sights on other projects. 

Plex’s ERP can also capture and access high volumes of machine data and use it to see where quality improvements can be made. 

“Plex provides customers with real-time visibility so that they can understand cost and make the most out of every process that is scheduled to eliminate waste,” Shepherd says, adding that because it is cloud-based, customers can ramp production up or down in an instant. This is beneficial for customers that need to meet demands quickly for large OEM or supplier orders because then they can scale back production once demands are met.

The shop floor doesn’t need to run separate software or custom systems. Data is made available to management monitoring not only production on the shop floor but inventory and turnaround time. Manufacturers can plan and manage inventory and operations faster and smarter. 

Advanced shipping and inventory functions allow manufacturers to know what they have in stock so they aren’t ordering unnecessary items that would otherwise sit on the shelf. Customers have the potential to save money and have even reshored jobs because of the data they were able to gather from Plex’s inventory control features, Shepherd says.

FFJ-0414-erp-image2In addition to inventory concerns, the amount of scrap incurred from daily machining jobs can be costly. “For some customers, scrap is a rather big issue,” Shepherd says. “The more scrap that’s produced, that costs the manufacturer more money and in turn, impacts the cost they charge the supplier.”

Plex has had customers watch their scrap rates drop by more than 60 percent, Sherpherd says. Downtime caused by operators retracing steps to determine where areas could use improvement also fell.

Facets of integration

Once a company decides to implement Plex’s ERP, Plex works with that customer to design, develop and get it running while focusing on which features would benefit the customer most. Implementation times vary from customer to customer, ranging as quickly as 45 days to as long as 18 months. “Many on-premise solutions are still in the design phase at the 1.5-year standpoint,” Shepherd says. 

Integrating the system isn’t a huge undertaking. “Since it is web-based, manufacturers don’t have to bear the cost of buying, installing and maintaining software and a server,” Shepherd says. The investment required depends on the customers’ needs. Plex works with the manufacturer to determine how best to approach the implementation to get the company up and running quickly and “with the least amount of manpower needed in order for costs to remain low,” he says.

The software was developed keeping a short learning curve in mind for both shop floor operators as well as customer champions. “From an administrative perspective, the solution is easy to use as well,” Shepherd says. “And Plex works closely with customer ‘Champions’ through training to ensure they can operate the software effectively.”

A unique feature users uncover when working with Plex ERP is the online support community. “Plex users collaborate across the industry daily to ask and answer questions at any time,” Shepherd says. “Often, customers partner with each other and grow relationships in ways that wouldn’t be possible without a customer-driven product/community.”

Developed in part from customer feedback, each customer has played a role in the cloud’s development. Because of that, customers can view an enhancement or update and tie it to their own feedback. “Part of this collaboration has included active user forums within Plex,” says Katy Teer, corporate communications manager at Plex. “However, last year, we migrated our user forums onto the Jive platform, formally named ‘The Plex Community.’” Jive is a social collaboration tool used externally by companies globally to communicate with customers. “This platform takes customer communication and collaboration to the next level, providing a more interactive and social experience for our customers.”

Manufacturers using Plex are able to connect to other companies involved in the same, as well as different, industries, Teer says. The ability to connect and collaborate with one another on several levels is helping forge different types of relationships between industry users, says Teer, “including how to use Plex to meet their needs or to share common discussions about manufacturing in general.” FFJ




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