Simple versus Simplicity: The MES App Conundrum

Some manufacturers latch onto solutions that never really address the core problems facing production.

By David Oeters, Corporate Communications with CIMx Software

A few weeks ago I sat through a demo of a new shop floor manufacturing app.

The marketing pitch seemed promising. Rather than charging for hardware and functionality you don’t really need, the app offered access to a cloud manufacturing solution built for production. For a single low cost, you could, “harness the power of the cloud.”

You paid a few dollars, gave them a credit card, and the app was downloaded on a phone or tablet.  From the app, you could load up work instructions and additional documentation, fill in order and operation information, and create a routing.  From the shop floor, you access the instructions, click a button to leave a note or collect data, and press “NEXT” to close one operation and open another.

There was a dashboard with icons and additional information. A planning screen let me click and drag work around, and for a few dollars more I could get reports.

The smooth-voiced “hostess” of the demo promised the app, “…had all the functionality you need, without gimmicks.” The questions and comments after the demo were so full of praise for the “simple” power of the app, you’d have thought it revolutionized computer technology rather than put a shiny veneer on a document viewer.

The pitch was clear. According to the demo, software companies swore you needed a big manufacturing solution, when all you really needed was an app.

The Difference between Simplicity and Simple

man under money on white background. Isolated 3D image

If you aren’t solving a problem or improving production, any money spent on a “simple” solution is wasted. Illustration by http://www.colourbox.com

I know software, manufacturing software specifically, and I know apps and computer technology. The solution I saw at the demo could be built and finished relatively quickly – perhaps 6 to 10 months with good developers and a clear plan.

The solution was also simple – get your planning to the shop floor with minimal routing. Get rid of paper and paper build books and access everything you need from your phone.  You can eliminate the need for expensive implementation teams and a bunch of annoying service charges. Forget requirement lists, integrations and implementations; you can now buy a manufacturing solution in an afternoon browsing the iPhone App store. It was simple.

But it never really addressed the core needs we see from the manufacturers we work with. Companies today need to improve production and work smarter. They need to do more with less, improve margins and cut costs. They need better control and visibility of the manufacturing value chain. Emailing work instructions to the shop floor won’t do that.

In my mind, this app was like a piece of tape stuck to a dam. Sure the app (or tape) did its job, but it never addressed the overall problem. It sold “simple” to an audience that really needed a solution.

I’m not arguing for complexity. A Paperless Manufacturing solution that adds real value doesn’t need to be complex or mind-bogglingly expensive.

There is a difference between simple and simplicity.  A solution needs to directly address the core needs of manufacturers to improve production outcomes, improve profit and deliver real value to the business.  It needs to be an integrated solution, because value isn’t made at just one point in the production cycle. An app on your phone may be simple, but it’s not a manufacturing solution.  It’s an app on your phone.

What the app was missing was a cohesive digital link between production activities – the value of a true Paperless Manufacturing solution. It felt like the app developer never really asked a manufacturer what they needed or did. They took a guess that manufacturing needed simple and the cloud and ignored everything else. The company wrote an app, and then kept telling everyone it was “simple.”

Simplicity helps manage complexity, rather than ignoring it. Simplicity contextualizes information so you can focus on what’s important. Everything else involved in production is still there and still being managed, but it’s been prioritized.

This is the difference between simple and simplicity. Simple is what you get when you want to throw an app on the web to make a quick profit. Simplicity is built into a tool to help you work better, faster and with fewer errors – letting you focus on work, rather than the tool.

It’s a subtle, but critical, difference I believe the app developers never really understood.

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