Enterprise software is different from other corporate investments in one important way. When you build new manufacturing plants or buy a fleet of trucks, you expect them to last for years in their current condition without major changes. You service and maintain your assets, of course, but you don’t expect to install new engines in your trucks or replace your production-line robots every 6 months. Change management in manufacturing is difficult when producing highly engineering and regulated products.
Updates and new versions are frequently required on a regular basis to address issues, fix problems, provide new functionality, or just to keep up with the latest hardware devices. This is further complicated by the fact that enterprise IT systems, such as a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) that is (or should be) tightly integrated with other enterprise applications.
Change management in an MES has a ripple effect on these other systems, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) systems. And, as these other systems require to change themselves, this adds further complexity. Add in all the special use applications, and you can see why just keeping everything actively interconnected is a daunting change management challenge. And all this is in addition to the change involved in deploying a new system in the first place, which is often done for the express purpose of changing how people work, or at least how effectively they work.
Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to new technologies and advances that have been made with enterprise software applications including migration to the cloud and other architecture updates, as explained below.
Three Ways to Ease Change Management in Complex Discrete Manufacturing
There’s no one way to address this issue, and what works for one manufacturer may not work for another. Nonetheless, here are three key factors you should seriously consider, which in turn will heavily influence how well your software system can deal with change. Or, in the case of new purchases, are factors to consider when selecting your next manufacturing software purchase.
1. Deployment Options. Does the software you are considering give you the option to use with 80% or more of the required functionality already pre-configured? Or, is it more of a toolkit? Here is where the concept of customization vs. configuration comes into play. If you need to make a change, is it a custom change that will cause problems the next time you do a version update? Or, is it a configuration option that can easily be retained on a go forward basis? Continuing with this theme, can you run it on a secure cloud or on premise, or both? Options like these allow you to plan a deployment strategy that best meets your resources and goals while reducing possible disruption on your users or operations the next time a change is required. The more flexibility you have today, the easier it will be to adapt to future modifications, often unforeseen at the time of your original purchase.
2. Modular Architecture. Can you configure your enterprise system the way you want to? Can you update it without impacting other functions or departments? Can you add just the new features you need today, and do so on your own time schedule? These factors have recently become a greater concern after having lived through the prior year where change and disruption were nearly constant. Borrowing a technology from other dynamic software industries, manufacturers have discovered the benefits of a microservices architecture to address this challenge. This architecture, which is inherently modular, makes everything easier, ranging from putting together the system you want now, to changing it in the future. You can choose to update only the features you want as they become available, about as easily as adding apps to your phone. More importantly, modularity also makes it easier for vendors to develop and add new capabilities to your system, helping you to stay on the leading edge of change instead of lagging behind.
3. Open Digital Ecosystem. Does the solution you are considering support an open architecture to ease how systems interoperate and data is shared? Not naming names here … but, we all know of at least one vendor that has chosen to block this important capability in the interest of self-preservation. This decision often leads to issues in the future when change must happen but is blocked by a lack of open interoperability. The use of an open Application Programming Interface (API) can make a big difference on maintaining integration as individual software applications are upgraded or changed. Support for all popular user devices is especially important and can help drive user acceptance and productivity. More broadly, you’ll want solutions that have been designed from the start to be part of an open digital ecosystem – this will be essential if you want to keep up with advancing technologies.
All three of these points can be reduced to just one word: Choices. If you have the choice to deploy, to update, and to link to the rest of the world based on your needs vs. your vendor’s decision to try and lock in customer loyalty, then you will be well positioned to manage change. Ask the right questions about your choices in these three areas, and you’ll take much of the pain out of future change management with better and more options.
Gordon Benzie has 20+ years of leadership experience in marketing and communication roles. This knowledge was gained while working at software solution providers focused on driving digital transformation across industrial operations. As an avid technologist, Gordon has a deep understanding of how today’s technologies are improving manufacturing processes within discrete, hybrid, and process industries. Follow Gordon on LinkedIn.