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As APS solutions evolve, will planners still be needed?

October 14, 2014

As APS solutions evolve, will planners still be needed?

Production planning has been one of the most important verticals from the shop floor operations management perspective. Traditionally, this activity is performed by an individual or a team of planners, depending on the scale and complexity of an operation. Over the last few weeks, we have been discussing the revolutionary effect that APS, or Advanced Production Scheduling, software embedded in an MES system can cause to a plant’s operation in terms of improved uptime, resource utilization, efficiency and overall profits. A question which naturally comes to mind then is, if the new scheduling software is capable of providing optimization of the process, based on potent information collected by the MES in real time, are the planners or the planning vertical still needed? Are these personnel just a redundant cost or are they needed even after investing in high-end hugely capable and analytical scheduling application and MES.

Today we will explore how and why planners are needed to better manage a modern plant and why they perform better with an APS built into an MES application. Planners are traditionally people who deal with all kinds of data encompassing all verticals of the organization from procurement to logistics. They deal with information such as the inflow of orders, demand trend, vis-à-vis production capacities, customer priorities, machine availability/schedule, delivery dates and so on. The most important part a planner plays in a manufacturing plant is to provide a clear picture to both sales and production verticals, as to what needs to be done, what can be done and what should not be done. They are able to do so considering multiple optimization criterion and process constraints, coupled with the knowledge they have gathered doing the planning exercise over the years. Personnel working in this particular functional area, have a keen eye to detect where a small almost harmless machine break-down or shortage of material might affect an order which needs to be shipped two months from now. Here it’s important to highlight that this functional expertise of connecting and comparing disparate data sets along with events which generate them, then using it to predict the future workflow, is what makes planners a vital part of plant floor management.

Software applications are extremely important for manufacturing, especially the applications like the MES equipped with a scheduling module or APS, as we have come to know it. The MES application collects process data which is almost instantaneously available for analysis by its other modules, such as the APS. We have previously seen that an APS may use the data collected by the MES to predict and create an optimum or near optimum schedule, considering the optimization criteria/criterion which has been defined as needed by the plant’s management. Please bear in mind that these optimization criteria are generally aligned to the overall strategy of the organization and is coherent with the tactical plans/schedules made. We will discuss them in greater detail soon. However, coming back to the APS application, the main reason why these applications become a must have, is because of the fact that they detect events and issues as they arise both on and off the shop-floor. Also, they provide best possible schedules based on the information available and provide decision makers a logical and actionable course to consider. But like all software applications, the MES application is also meant to provide information to aid better, faster and more accurate decision making. This statement implies that although an APS may help optimize planning, it does not necessarily eliminate the need to have production planners.

Imagine having an advanced scheduling software which detects a break-down in a critical piece of plant equipment. Then it analyses the current production schedule and the load on that particular machine uses optimization criteria to provide best possible solution/s. However the personnel in-charge of finalizing the schedule, overlook the breakdown and simply override the schedule suggested by the application and thereby cause production to get bottlenecked and cause a loss of thousands of dollars. The fact of the matter is that although the APS might be the ideal vehicle to steer the production, through information based, real-time and dynamic scheduling, the personnel driving the vehicle should be capable enough to utilize the application and its functionality better. Experienced planners may be able to save millions of dollars for the company, by using the information from the APS to better schedule the production. It is this unique amalgamation of technology and experience which provide long-lasting synergies for the organization. Planners may frequently alter the optimization criteria based on current situation of order flow or machine capacity or strategic implications, or reconfigure the APS to provide coupe of options of probable schedules based on different criterion. The planners may then consult sales or customer service to finally decide on a schedule. This human aspect which planners bring to the table, truly completes and compliments the advantage provided by an APS which is built into the MES.

So if you are the operations director of a plant and have recently deployed an APS in your MES application, please bear in mind good planners are still one of the most important positions in a manufacturing company. It’s extremely critical to realize that the APS only provides the means to achieve optimization and it’s the planner who steers the actual operation to meet this optimum schedule. It is the unique marriage of experience and real-time, analytical data from the APS/MES which will truly make the scheduling activity more fruitful. Either one of them when employed separately might still be useful, but they provide true value when put in action together.

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