The best tool for production scheduling – ERP / Excel / APS?

03 Nov 2019 - Production management

The best tool for production scheduling – ERP / Excel / APS?

What is the most optimum production scheduling system? The answer to this question depends on the company’s actual needs as well as the market and technology background.

APS / Excel / ERP – which production scheduling tool to choose?

Finding a manufacturing company with absolutely no production scheduling procedures in place would be quite a challenge these days. Whether you produce chemicals on a mass scale, large and complex metal structures, or plastic cups, the production process must be planned somehow.

As the second decade of the 21st century is drawing to an end, businesses have swapped paper for IT systems a long time ago. However, just as in a good workshop there should always be a hammer, a screwdriver and a saw at hand, a well-managed manufacturing business should have specialist systems in place as specific tools facilitating the work of the company’s logistics personnel and planners. It seems only natural that manufacturing companies should have plenty of IT tools at hand. But is it always the case?

What are the company’s needs scheduling-wise?

What is the most optimum production scheduling system, then? It all depends on the company’s actual needs as well as the market and technology background which determine the conditions of work of its logistics personnel and planners. If we assume uninterrupted supply of raw materials and other production inputs, no market fluctuations or seasonality, as well as simple and unchanging production technologies, then a standard deployment of the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system will suffice. This being said, we could easily jump at a conclusion that the ERP system is a cure-all, but the situation described above is an ideal scenario which has unfortunately nothing to do with reality.

The ERP system in place ensures production scheduling…

No, not really. The problem starts essentially with the system itself, which is usually the solution of first choice in most companies – namely, the ERP. This is not meant to demonize the system of this class, as the ERP can provide support to a number of departments in a company and can be used to computerize and accelerate production processes. However, to use the analogy with a well-equipped workshop again, we should ask an inevitable question at this point: Can you really handle everything only with a hammer?

Well, maybe you can. But is it a good idea? Not necessarily. Using a hammer, you can drive a nail in, maybe even a screw, or you can cut something in half – but this work will be burdensome, not very precise and often harmful to the environment. Coming back to the shop-floor reality – a manufacturing company must be constantly focused on the quality of its products, timely deliveries, good after-sale customer service, robust production technologies, stock levels and many other key factors, so is it really a good idea to use one universal tool as cure-all to manage all these processes?

Plan vs schedule – is it the same thing?

Planners around the country have come to a conclusion that the ERP system alone cannot manage and plan production efficiently and accurately. This is why they are moving production planning from the ERP system to Excel sheets. As a result, production planning (which specifies ‘what is needed, how much and when’) moves up a notch to production scheduling (which answers the question ‘what to use exactly at a given moment’).

Why do planners use Excel sheets? There are a number of reasons, but the most common explanation is the fact that the ERP is simply not able to create a production schedule (it’s just not designed to do so), and the planning process is quite burdensome and error-prone. Well, does this mean that we have just found a perfect tool for production planning and scheduling? It may seem so, but…

The trap: being excluded from information flow

An Excel sheet has clear advantages over the ERP system: easier use, faster computation and greater flexibility, but in a way it is a step backwards technology-wise in terms of data exchange and integration of information flow in a company. Planners do have a planning tool at hand, but they fall into a trap of being excluded from information flow. The plan and schedule created in an Excel file may be very different from real shop-floor situation as regards logistics processes and actual progress of production.

So are planners stuck with the crude ERP system or an Excel sheet which is detached from reality? Luckily, they are not. The APS system is able to combine faster and easier operation of an Excel file with data and process complexity of the ERP system. And it fits perfectly into the shop-floor reality thanks to seamless integration with the MES and SCADA layers.

What are the key advantages offered by the APS?

The APS system (Advanced Planning and Scheduling) can quickly generate a production schedule for a wide range of products, while supporting various business processes and taking into account limited production resources. An APS production schedule is not just a colourful Gantt-chart visualization of orders and operations to be completed based on specified resources, but rather offers a dynamic interconnected network and real-time updates based on data coming from various sources: the ERP system, human resources management system, shop-floor data collection system, etc. Only full integration will enable the planner to update the plan on an on-going basis in response to ever-changing externalities: new orders, machine breakdowns and maintenance downtime, unavailability of personnel, and other unpredictable situations.

When is the right time to start thinking about the APS system?

The more difficult the market and technological conditions in which a company operates, the more advanced and state-of-the art tool it will need to plan its production processes. The right time to invest is when the company sees the first symptoms that serious trouble may be just around the corner. These include time-consuming generation of production plans and difficulties in driving changes quickly. Production processes become more complex and their management by team leaders and production managers results in chaos and confusion among the staff. As the company grows larger, the need for specialist IT tools becomes evident. Without them, the company will never be able to compete with other players with specialist IT systems already in place.

Author: Piotr Becela
Consultant, production control systems at PSI Polska Sp. z o.o.

Piotr Becela specializes in production planning, scheduling and reporting. His work consists in designs, tests and deployments of process-related and functional solutions for the clients. He participated in a number of system implementation projects in Poland and in Asia. One of the largest projects was the multi-stage deployment of an end-to-end production management tool at the Chinese train manufacturing site in Qingdao.

See also:

System APS / MES / SCADA
APS in 30 days, or why being agile pays off