ERP systems, logistics and Industry 4.0

If you look at the technological situation in companies, you will see that over the years ERP systems have evolved from financial management systems to holistic, process-supporting software. Due to the evolution, the system landscape usually looks like this: in the past, self-sufficient best-in-class solutions were used for some systems and processes that only inadequately or not at all mapped a holistic solution. At best, these were connected to the ERP system via an interface so that a uniform evaluation of key performance indicators could be ensured. Where this didn’t help, Microsoft Office with its Excel tool came to the rescue.

In the past, this has been the case with production and logistics systems, for example. The providers of special solutions were able to complement the spectrum of ERP systems and thus had the advantage of implementing custom-fit solutions with a high degree of individualisation for customers. Supplemented by special software for quality inspection, maintenance and repair, a cosmos of islands could develop, each requiring (IT) experts. Where an interface could not be realised or was simply not profitable, each special provider delivered an export out of the box in a comma-separated text format (CSV) or a tabular form that could be opened and edited with Excel. The same was done by the ERP providers, who also made the complementary, commercial data exportable in corresponding formats. What has become of this in the long term can be seen in almost every company today. In production, MES still stands for “Many Excel Sheets” instead of Manufaction Execution System.

In the 1990s, production managers were the “kings” of value creation in the companies and thus had a great influence on the functionality of production planning systems. Data technology was not yet mature enough to allow machines to be controlled via interfaces. They were controlled quite elaborately by specially programmed PLC or CNC programmes. Over time, the interfaces became more intelligent and were able to export data. As a result, analyses could be carried out and conclusions drawn about production processes that supported business decisions.

Electrification, automation and the evolution of IT have helped to make us talk about Industry 4.0 today, a vision that in many parts is not yet a reality. We have driverless transport systems, automated high-bay warehouses and intelligent machines that can independently report maintenance needs and fault conditions and can exchange these among the various islands through open software architectures. Industry 4.0, however, is often interpreted as bidirectional communication between humans, machines and IT systems, much of which is automated. In my opinion, we are nowhere near that yet. For many, the cloud means a big step towards Industry 4.0, and that may be true because of the large, dizzying amounts of data that are processed. Against the background of functionality, however, I have my doubts as to whether the cloud will be the panacea in the B2B sector. Where is the customisation of an IT system? Can I afford to do without functionality in a “cool” app and install another app to support a different (sub-)process, as I do in my private life? Doesn’t this create further islands and mean that I have to rely on the app programmer to correctly assess my needs in the future? How would it be desirable to get the commodity processes for a branch or industry from a single source based on a single technology base? I look forward to your opinions!