The speed at which technology changes (I started to write improves but that’s not always the case) is not slowing down. Plastics processing technology might appear to change less often than new models appear in the electronics store, but that’s deceptive. To be sure, plastics still need to be melted so they can go into a mold or through an extrusion die, which may tempt us into thinking our technology has not changed as much as others. Not so. Everything around those basic aspects of the process has changed in a major way, from energy costs to the global economy.
For me the standout in change among process technologies is controls. That word makes most of us think of machine controls for temperature, pressure, and so on, but we also should include all the other control technology for the total business. That includes production, but should include controls for financial, project, human resources, supply chain, facilities, and maintenance management. Poor control of any of those can bring potentially serious problems to a processing business.
It should be obvious that I’m thinking about ERP – Enterprise Resource Planning, which ought to be called something like complete operation software. It watches everything, and you watch it – to watch everything. ERP isn’t new. Many processors have it. But it would seem we’re past the point where it’s an option.
How critical ERP is hit me in the face about four years ago during a visit to the startup Chinese operation of California medical molder APEC. They had barely moved in. Only three injection machines were in the clean room, though there was space for more and potential to expand further. But the first piece of “equipment” I saw just inside the front door was a black mid-range computer behind glass doors, up and running, and looking a bit like a trophy.
That was the host computer of the company’s ERP system, an exact duplicate of the IQMS ERP system used at APEC’s California facility. It was the first thing set up in the new shop because “that’s what runs everything else,” and everything else in the Shenzhen shop was an exact duplicate of what was working in the California plant.
APEC was acquired in 2008 by Freudenberg-NOK and is now part of that company’s Helix Medical LLC division. Helix Medical’s APEC Asia website shows the Shenzhen facility I visited, but with much more equipment. Not surprisingly, the fact sheet says the IQMS software also is still running.
Many successful processing shops have taken ERP to heart, learned it, and profit from its powerful control tools. If you run your business the traditional way – waiting for reports to reach you – it’s worth thinking about how you will compete with those who see their operations in real time and whose mobile phone tells them when something is just starting to look like a problem. This game won’t get any easier.