Just over two years ago, Rockwell Automation acquired Plex Systems’ software-as-a-service (SaaS) manufacturing platform featuring manufacturing execution system (MES), quality and supply chain management applications. At the company’s Automation Fair event this week in Boston, Plex hosted an array of training and insights sessions and outlined the platform’s path forward.
A central aspect of the development path for Plex involves connectedness.
“There are five components to our strategy as we work to build the connected enterprise,” said Anthony Murphy, vice president of product management at Plex. “Connected workers, connected industries, connected manufacturing, connected data operations and connected technology,”
For the connected worker, Murphy said the key is in providing technology that enables employees who are new to a company to be as safe and productive as someone who's been at the company for 30 years.
“It’s not just about hiring and onboarding or even doing the work—it’s about retention,” he said. “That’s why it’s imperative to connect the person to the purpose through culture and key performance indicators. You also have to connect person to person through collaboration and mentorship and connect person to productivity through guided instructions and a general awareness of what's going on in the business and through the use of smart tools to make it easy for them to do their work. And it’s also important to connect person to process by helping them understand the broad context of the business and how the work they do is impacted by the business and their own influence on the work.”
An important enabler of the person-to-productivity connectedness is Plex’s partnership with Canvas GFX around its ability to ingest 3D model data of existing equipment so that it can be interacted with through Plex. Detailed work instructions can also be delivered within Plex via videos and 3D animations.
“Providing access to detailed instructions in the Plex application without having to go somewhere else ensures critical actions are done correctly—step by step by step. The connections this creates in the application can be used to drive continuous improvement because workers know what to do, when to do it and how to do it,” said Murphy.
This level of connectedness is becoming more critical as a component of employee retention in the manufacturing industries. “You get retention by connecting people through collaboration, training and mentorship. It's easy to quit a task or a job. But it's hard to quit a team.”
To help drive corporate culture through real-time collaboration, Murphy pointed out that Rockwell Automation’s partnership with Microsoft enables Plex to embed Microsoft Teams’ collaboration functions, such as notifications, tasks and chat into the Plex interface. “We can deliver collaboration and provide enterprise-level visibility, security, governance and control so you don't have rogue chat applications in use on your shop floor,” said Murphy. “And for those who don’t use Teams, there's also an application programming interface (API) layer that allows you to integrate any collaboration tool into Plex.”
Supply chain planning meets AI
Ara Surenian, vice president of product management at Plex, highlighted how Plex is reacting to the growing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in supply chain planning. He cited recent Gartner research that showed supply chain planning leaders rank AI and machine learning (ML) as their top digital priority among all the technologies they plan on piloting going forward.
Surenian said supply chain planners are increasingly reliant on AI/ML to “help manage all the variables that make their everyday decision-making process more complex.”
Referencing Plex DemandCaster Supply Chain Planning as the first Plex application to apply machine learning to demand forecasting, Surenian said that, on average, users saw between 5% and 30% improvement in forecast accuracy compared to traditional exponential smoothing methods.
“This is significant because every 1% improvement in forecast accuracy has a direct impact on a company's ability to increase their revenue, while decreasing the amount of inventory needed to meet that demand,” he said.
Surenian pointed out that demand forecasting is only part of the equation, however, as the supply side also plays a significant role due to the internal and external factors that make it difficult to determine how much inventory is really needed to meet fluctuating demands. Machine learning helps by harnessing all the supply variables along with actual performance and a forward-looking forecast to establish the level of inventory needed to meet customer demand at the lowest possible inventory carrying costs.
“We are in the very early phases of this initiative and we're working with Rockwell’s artificial intelligence team to begin testing soon,” he said.
The next area of focus for Plex around AI in supply chain is in finite scheduling, which helps determine how much can be produced in a specific time period considering resource limitations.
One of the biggest reasons finite scheduling implementations fail is due to incorrect input parameters around run times, setup times and changeover times. These are all necessary inputs that determine how your products are going to be scheduled on a factory line and many are incorrect, he said, resulting in a garbage in/garbage out effect.
“But if we apply machine learning to real-time data and real production history to correct those inputs, the result is a more accurate schedule that drives throughput and more accurate schedules to reduce the cost of labor and drive revenue,” said Surenian.
He added that Plex is “currently building a new finite scheduling solution with a planned availability to Plex customers in late summer or fall of 2024.”