Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM)

Plex Satisfies Customers, Going (New) Places in MES


manufacturing-operations-software-1.jpgPlex Systems held its annual customer event, PowerPlex, in Nashville at the end of June. MES growth and industry expansion were among several key messages.

The evening prior to the show we were spoke with a few customers and were pleasantly surprised at the nearly universal enthusiasm for the Plex ERP product suite. It was a rare happening among Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) customers.

Plex offers a cloud-based ERP and Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM) solution that goes from the shop floor to the top floor with manufacturing execution, quality, and scheduling all available to the plant, and a full range of back office applications suitable for small to medium sized manufacturing companies. A particular interest to LNS Research customers is the plant level software capabilities, all of which are available only in the cloud and sold as Software as a Service (SaaS).

The show was opened by the CEO Jason Blessing who gave a detailed and entertaining overview of Plex, and what was new. Some of the key novelties included:

  • Plex UX – A completely new and more modern, familiar, and configurable user experience.
  • Lot Management – Used for the batch and process industries. The concept of a lot has been built into the entire Plex engine. This is a starting point for the planned growth in process industries.
  • Plex Insight – A complete update on the analytics capabilities with dashboards, easy-to-create reports, and a clean look. Plex Machine Performance, a Plex Insight offering, is a pre-built application that provides rich visualizations of data gathered from plant floor machines to help better monitor and optimize production performance. Other than this, for the time being all pre-configured reports and data management is aimed at financials. It’s a good place to start while we wait for more manufacturing oriented analytic applications.
  • Plex Connect – Simplifies connections in the cloud and to the plant, and updates to modern API standards (REST & JSON) for cloud interfaces
  • Wearables – The use of Google Glass and other smart devices on the shop floor. The ease of connection for new devices is well defined.

Growth with MES

All these novelties will enhance existing customers’ experience with Plex, and they will also open up the possibilities of one of Plex’s growth strategies. Over the last year or two Plex has dramatically increased its average deal size. If it continues to do so, it needs to expand its customer base to include much larger manufacturing companies. These companies have already implemented ERP, and are often asking how they can get benefit from plant floor to ERP integration. Plex is addressing this market opportunity by developing a “point solution” MES from functionality that already exists in the Plex cloud ERP.

In reality, the Plex manufacturing platform will be more than just another MES. Much of what exists in today’s integrated Plex solution can be used in a manufacturing solution that sits between plant and ERP. For example, manufacturing execution and quality are tightly coupled in Plex and this will enable users to drive integrated quality campaigns at the shop floor level. Corporate quality systems will benefit by integration to the plant level quality system. What remains to be seen is whether Plex can engage large multinationals and deliver an MES solution that can profitably be integrated into the clients’ plants (easy) and business systems (not so obvious).

To go from a seller of small to mid-sized fully integrated systems that reside entirely in the cloud to selling a point solution for MES large clients presents selling challenges. However, there is an opportunity in the market today and the changing dynamics of integration brought about by big data, big analytics, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) does bode well for a software supplier that has excellent cloud credentials.

Plex Can Expand Industry Coverage

By its own admission, Plex customers are primarily in make-to-order discrete manufacturing. The product management organization reflects the reality and, up to a point, the ambitions of Plex in the marketplace. Product management is divided into functional areas: Finance & globalization, supply chain, and manufacturing operations. These are then subdivided as necessary, so one product manager looks after a handful of product lines. These cover all markets except for the loan vertical market – process industries.

The process industries group today is mainly Food and Beverage (F&B). Plex has made real inroads into the F&B market, but as it looks to expand into other process industries, considerably more sophisticated functionality will be required. Many vendors differentiate between batch and process industries and even within batch there is simple mix and cook processes, and more complex chemical reactions to handle. LNS sees Plex as a good fit in the F&B market, and that it's a huge opportunity as it targets large customers.

The process industry team feeds functional and architectural requirements to the product managers to ensure that necessary functionality is embedded into the core products. This is a realistic way of expanding market opportunities. Many potential clients have a mix of process batch and discrete. For them to be able to cover them from one product with one user interface and common applications is compelling. There will be issues in process industries, not least of which are managing the interface between data in the plant and that in the cloud. On the current discrete industry, shop floor control directly from the cloud and data storage away from the plant is quite feasible. Many process industries produce much faster data that needs to be handled locally, at least initially. Careful consideration of this interface will be very important for the credibility in more advanced process plants.

Collaboration

In describing the new functionality, we left the most important for last. Clients like Plex products and the company recognizes this as a key differentiator. They announced the concept of tightly knit communities that support a suggestion scheme for improvements. Clients can vote on whether they like a suggestion for new functionality, and the results can instantly be seen on the customer portal. They also have product advisory groups for each of the product families supported in the product management hierarchy that meet once a quarter. We do hope that larger clients that join the Plex community will gain as much from it as current clients seem to.

Going Places

LNS Research likes to see different approaches to the manufacturing IT software landscape. Plex clearly has proven that it can deliver successful and easy to implement ERP deployments in the cloud. This success bodes well for the expansion into a supplier of manufacturing operations software to a larger audience. We believe this is a step in the right direction but Plex does need to build a more ambitious plan than “vanilla” Cloud solutions. Competitors are working hard to develop and market Internet of Things (IoT) solutions that will use the cloud and big data as means to sharing better information across and outside the enterprise. Very soon, being a cloud vendor will not be enough to differentiate Plex from the rest. Despite its clear success and customer loyalty we hope to see some new and exciting strategy from Plex soon.

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