Early warning systems

Two developers of management systems claim their products can alert manufacturers to impending supply chain problems and speed up operations. Diane Palframan reports

Some radical rethinking is under way about the type of IT systems manufacturers should use to help get their products to market, and it is not coming from mainstream IT vendors.

The ideas and the prototype systems that are demonstrating their viability have been developed by two firms. One is leading IT consultancy Cap Gemini. The other is a little-known but well-established software firm, ProAct International, based in Denbigh, Clwyd.

Both are independently promoting IT systems that can help manufacturers manage their supply chains by alerting them when something is about to go wrong and detailing what the consequences of disruption might be.

Both systems work according to a firm’s rules or business processes.

These new systems, although not identical, are very different from traditional business management systems, such as enterprise resource planning. ERP, once implemented, is difficult to change and is therefore seen as too inflexible to respond to a changing trading environment. It is also difficult to integrate with other systems so that they can work together with other companies in a supply chain.

Cap Gemini and ProAct are trying to overcome these limitations by proposing new, more flexible ways of developing software. Both firms have already attracted the interest of large manufacturing companies.

Cap Gemini is working on a project with one of its clients that will demonstrate its concept, which it calls network resource planning.

`This is an architecture that we believe will enable a network of firms to work together according to the business rules that govern their behaviour,’ explains Chris Webster, the consultancy’s head of integrated supply chain management.

`It is a radical rethink of the way companies will deploy IT systems over the next 10 years. Its power and what you can do with it has yet to be determined because it is still beyond the grasp of most organisations.’

Selected IT vendors have been shown Cap Gemini’s concept and have contributed six-figure sums to its development. `They believe this is the future for IT systems,’ says Webster.

One of the most important benefits to manufacturing companies of Cap Gemini’s concept is that it will allow them to speed up the pace at which their businesses operate. High-tech and automotive companies are already investigating the idea of dynamic trading – breaking down supply chain processes into their component parts and executing these tasks in parallel rather than in sequence as at present.

For example, most automotive companies are considering the feasibility of making basic models of their vehicles in traditional factories and, when an order is received, customising them with different fascias, exhaust systems, gearboxes, or even engines, in mini-factories located close to the customer.

`Their desire is to radically reduce customer lead times,’ says Webster. `But they are stuck with systems that are set in concrete, and because all their systems are interrelated they are very difficult to change.’

Cap Gemini’s IT concept makes possible dynamic trading by separating business rules, applications and data. It requires a single view of all relevant data. This information is employed to carry out parallel tasks.

Similarly, ProAct’s idea of software development is to strip out the application. `We start by modelling a business process using off-the-shelf, inexpensive software. But instead of using this model as the specification for developing a commercial software application, we output it to what is in effect an operating system, which we call the process control engine (PCE),’ says Garth Parker, ProAct’s commercial director.

More information is added to the PCE about, for example, resources and the time required to move a product or component through a particular business process. The PCE then manages that process (which could be an entire supply chain) and, most importantly, predicts problems and the consequences of those problems. It then makes sure these predictions reach the relevant people wherever they are in the organisation or supply chain.

Today’s IT systems, contends Parker, concentrate on administrative tasks while operators and executives are poorly served. `Traditional IT is rarely seen or used effectively at board level because probably 95% of the information generated by these systems is irrelevant,’ he says.

`We’re trying to add value to the supply chain rather than cut costs,’ Parker continues. `We want people to see the consequences of using a particular schedule, or of a component being late. Software being used today cannot do this because it operates in isolation from the rest of the enterprise.’

ProAct has already installed several prototype PCEs at large companies and is expecting its first order shortly. This is likely to be placed by an aerospace company and the PCE will initially be used to manage the manufacture and delivery of computers that fit into jet fighters. The consequences of these computers being late are costly.

`There is nothing like the PCE at the moment,’ claims Parker. `It can be installed and up and running in weeks, and can easily be changed by changing the model and re-importing it to the PCE. It is totally unlike ERP,’ he says.