April 19, 2011
Choosing job shop software can be a daunting task. How can you be sure to choose a system that accomplishes the tasks you want and provides the best return on investment?
A Google Internet search of the phrase “job shop software” yields more than 2,500,000 pages of results. The first 633 pages are from vendors whose products range from free downloads to intense systems. A buyer’s guide helps narrow the search, but the average guide lists more than 65 products. With so many programs and such dramatic ranges in price, it is no wonder that fabricators and manufacturers struggle to find a solution.
That so many applications with such vastly different pricing exist is the most confusing aspect of all. How are there so many? And are all job shop software applications created equal? Well, no, but quality is not as great a differentiator as functionality.
Job shop software began as a tool for collecting shop data on a computer. Today it is any commercial software intended for use in a job shop. You can find applications as simple as timecard programs and as robust as complete engineering resource planning systems (ERP) marketed together. How can such different applications all claim to be job shop software? Good question.
Little standardization exists for software in the commercial sense. In the 1990s it was clear that simple data collection systems and more robust execution systems were being lumped together, despite being very different. To address the issue, manufacturing execution systems (MES) were designated as systems that performed 11 specific functions, including managing products and resources, planning and dispatching orders, and performing analysis. In 2000 this became an international standard, ANSI/ISA-95, in which MES is designated at level 3 and ERP is designated at level 4. ERP systems for manufacturing include MES, combining the functionality of levels 3 and 4 in a single source. Shop data collection systems at lower levels do not meet all 11 criteria for MES. Yet all are marketed as job shop software. The right one for you depends on the problem you are trying to solve in your shop.
If you are skeptical of anything “free,” software should be no exception. Certainly, there is a difference between free software and software that can reliably run a manufacturing business. Typically, “free” for these systems really means “free to try.” In the case of free-trial applications, you are expected to download, install, and implement the software on your own, and support for these systems is likely nonexistent. The free software itself has to be basic enough to address the needs of all who download it. These systems typically are not MES as defined by ANSI/ISA-95. Does price equal value when it comes to job shop software? Yes. Like anything else, it should, and in many cases, it does.
Surprisingly, you aren’t likely to see the most critical aspect of job shop software during a software demo or free trial. The most important element in choosing a package is the human factor behind the software itself. Developing and supporting worthy software involve considerable labor costs. The software cost should be directly related to the ongoing R&D investment the vendor has made. A vendor with a knowledgeable staff of developers, consultants, and tech support is essential to getting what you pay for.
Software provided by vendors who specialize in manufacturing, have large development teams, and have been in the industry for a substantial length of time should offer the most robust choice. Vendors who also innovate and regularly incorporate new technologies in their products typically spend the most on R&D and provide the best value for your dollar.
Service is an important aspect when choosing job shop software. Truly cost-effective systems include vendor implementation of your software without distracting your focus from your business. The vendor should deliver services such as presales consultations, evaluations of your current process, and a straightforward implementation plan. The service and support goals should be defined as clearly as the actual software application. Costs should be openly discussed, and the vendor should work with you to plan and achieve a timely return on your investment.
Although the software makes the computations related to your job shop, the human factor, the vendor’s commitment to your success, and the knowledge of the people behind the application are critical. Pick a vendor who cares about your business, about achieving your return on investment, and who fits with your company values.
The functionality each manufacturer requires from its software varies dramatically. Some need to track customer inventory, others have multiple locations, while still others have initiatives such as lean or kaizen that require specific methodologies or reporting. A flexible software application that can be customized to your business needs is key; however, it should not be so broad that it requires significant customizations and costs to meet your needs.
Before researching a system’s details, take the time to identify the problem you are trying to solve. Compile information that clearly outlines your present process. Identify any aspects of your process that cannot be changed, your bottlenecks, and your areas of concern. Make a list of the machine tools and applications you have in place and indicate whether those applications can be modified or replaced. Include the long- and short-term goals you have for your business’s growth.
Take note of your technology and where it might be underpowered. New software of this magnitude should go on a computer that is up to the task. Using old computers only slows your results. Any software you consider should not lag the latest technology available on the market, and vendors should present what they are planning for the future.
Establish a small but diverse team to help define your needs across disciplines. Make sure the team has a clear leader so that mixed agendas are not being followed, delaying your progress.
Taking the time to compile this information ensures that the functionality you need is addressed from the start. It saves you time, not only in choosing a system, but in implementing it as well.
Initiatives to improve can backfire. Adding more steps or processes often causes more work, confusion, cost, and frustration. Your job shop software must reduce chaos and simplify your overall process, not only on the shop floor, but in the office as well. A good system makes access to data simple for everyone in your business. The software should seamlessly connect one process to the next without human intervention. It should not be difficult for your staff to maintain or implement.
Make sure the vendor you select demonstrates where you can standardize and how the software integrates with or replaces any existing systems to reduce work. Choose a simple, easy-to-learn application that includes thorough training and technical support for your team. Finally, rely on the information you compiled before the sales process and refer to it regularly. Make sure the problems you defined are addressed and your return on investment is being met.