Process Manufacturing: Software for the Messier Side of Manufacturing
For a long time manufacturing software has existed in the larger shadow of all things ERP. The reality is that manufacturing software is just as often integrated into a larger suite of solutions–typically ERP–as it’s offered as a standalone solution. What many people don’t realize is that ERP as it exists today began its life as an outgrowth from software made for manufacturers.
Enterprise Resource Planning software, a type of software now deployed in companies in virtually every single vertical and industry imaginable, began its life as a highly specialized, narrowly tailored solution designed for manufacturers, albeit under a different acronym. And while modernized industries may have changed–shifting from manufacturing to information as the primary engine powering economic growth–the need for highly specialized, high-precision industrial manufacturing is bigger than ever.
Software automation and manufacturing are a natural match for each other. It’s only logical, after all; to be mass produced a product needs to have schematics that are reproducible. In order to be reproducible, schematics command a high level of precision in terms of how every element is to be manufactured as well as the amounts of resources or reagents consumed in producing the finished product.
The first true manufacturing software came along in the 1970s in the shape of Materials Requirements Planning (MRP), a precursor to today’s ERP. MRP is concerned primarily with inventory control, processing bills of materials and basic production scheduling. In 1980 a new kind of MRP debuted, MRP II, or Manufacturing Resource Planning. MRP II built on the manufacturing features of MRP, but expanded on them dramatically, introducing many of the features we now consider standard manufacturing software–shop floor control, capacity planning and a true master production schedule to name a few. MRP II also features modules for more general business operations like sales and purchase ledgers, project management and CAD.
By the early ’90s the term ERP had come into its own, coined by Gartner as a catchall for several types of enterprise software including MRP and MRP II.
Discrete Manufacturing vs. Process Manufacturing–Cars vs. Food
There are any number of articles out there claiming to have the definitive explanation of the differences between process and discrete manufacturing. Some, like Shuan Snapp’s piece on SCM Focus, are outstanding breakdowns of every point where the two differ.
In the broadest sense, however, discrete vs. process can be broken as such:
- Discrete Manufacturing is the manufacture of items that, once in their finished state, can be broken back down into their constituent parts and returned to inventory. Example: Manufacturing a car is discrete manufacturing because the parts that go into making one can be disassembled and returned to their original state.
- Process Manufacturing is the manufacture of items that can’t be broken back down once synthesized. Example: producing a batch of cough syrup is process manufacturing because it can’t be broken back down into the drugs, sugars and dyes that go into the finished product.
So, seen through the lens of the above definitions, the headline image for this article, for example, could be seen as slightly misleading. If the implication is that those gears and bolts are the finished product that the manufacturer is turning out then they definitely aren’t the right image for process manufacturing. Producing a machine that can be broken down into its constituent parts is discrete manufacturing!
Since the constituent parts typically involved in process manufacturing are so much more variable than those in discrete manufacturing, quality software tools are especially important. In his article Snapp draws particular attention towards liquid processing, a type of process manufacturing that often produces variable yields off the same amount of resources, even when no defective units are present. It’s because of that sort of challenge that process manufacturing particularly needs the kind of specialized software that will take those extra variables into account.
Other factors to take into account when considering software for process manufacturing include EPA/OSHA compliance (since process manufacturing so often entails working with chemicals), expiration date tracking and the ability to manage production queues based on facility capacity and ingredient inventory together.
Below are five standout manufacturing/ERP suites addressing the needs of process manufacturers:
Process Manufacturing Products
IFS Applications 8
IFS has been around since the 1980s. In that time the Swedish company has gone through remarkable expansion, opening dozens of offices internationally in a pattern that roughly parallels the diffusion of manufacturing industries from North America and Europe to other, less developed continents. Like with many ERP products, IFS Applications has expanded in scope several times over from its original specialization, to the point of having a full suite feature set that borders on the dizzying.
Much like IFS, California-based IQMS’ manufacturing offering has expanded in scope greatly since the company’s beginnings. EnterpriseIQ has managed to stay remarkably true to its original roots in manufacturing. In particular the suite features several tools tailored towards process manufacturing specifically like material usage and consumption for all raw materials, kitting of different items and the ability to track production efficiency in real time.
iRely Process Manufacturing
iRely makes the process manufacturing industry a more prominent target than many competitors, listing it as one of the key industries it services alongside oil & gas as well as agribusiness. The emphasis isn’t without good reason, as iRely Process Manufacturing has some of the more robust quality management and inventory control tools out there. These include traceable lots (useful for identifying low quality batches and defects), blend management, work-in-process inventory and a self-correcting inventory system.
Ever since getting its start in the mid 90s, Plex Systems has distinguished itself as an ERP system narrowly tailored towards the needs of manufacturing firms. Despite what its specialized market might imply, Plex has actually led the charge on adopting several technological advancements, the cloud in particular. Plex’s advocacy for migrating manufacturing ERP to the cloud has met with the approval of investors too. In 2009 the company received $6 million in venture funding from Apax Partners and an impressive $30 million from Accel in 2012.
SYSPRO’s flagship ERP product goes way beyond mere manufacturing in terms of the scope of its functions, but still has very strong support for process manufacturing. Its bill of materials tools can build recipes for production that go up to 15 levels per route. Additionally, the Engineering Change Control module allows manufacturers to build a ruleset for workflow on design-to-make processes.
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