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What ERP software features support discrete manufacturing?

One expert differentiates between discrete and process manufacturing, and gives discrete manufacturers guidance on what considerations they should weigh when choosing an ERP system.

Manufacturing can be divided into two broad categories that define some of the requirements all ERP systems must meet: discrete and process manufacturing. Discrete refers to manufacturing that involves parts and products that can be counted -- individual items that are physically distinct, such as nuts and bolts, brackets, assemblies, and individual products. Process manufacturing, by contrast, deals with either materials or products that pour, such as liquids or powders, and must be measured -- typically weight or volume -- rather than what can be counted. In many cases, there are differences in how these products are made that affect the suitability of ERP functions.

ERP originated to serve the discrete manufacturing world. In the early days, MRP II -- manufacturing resource planning, as it was called at that time -- was rightly considered of little value to process manufacturers. But software developers wanted to be able to serve process manufacturing, which constituted a significant slice of the market, so they identified the specific needs of that segment and added the necessary functions. These additional process industry functions do no harm to discrete ERP, other than making the programs a bit bigger and more complex, but they do provide additional functionality that can sometimes be important to discrete manufacturers, as well, including such features as batch and lot traceability, enhanced quality management functions, continuous flow scheduling, and yield and byproduct tracking.

It's a bit difficult to define specific needs or characteristics for a product -- namely, ERP -- since ERP has been focused on the discrete manufacturing market from the very beginning. It is more beneficial to look at support for the needs of specific industries within the broad discrete category.

When looking at ERP software, companies should look for a package that is designed or tailored for their specific industry -- for example, automotive, aerospace and defense, industrial equipment or electronics. Most developers start with a generic product, with a broad range of capabilities that can be applied in a wide range of industries. Then, a considerable degree of customizability is built in to allow users to activate or hide specific fields, functions and capabilities that they may or may not need. From this menu of possibilities, developers -- or, more correctly, their marketing departments -- pre-tailor versions of the product for identified target markets, such as automotive or electronics. Users can further tailor to meet their specific needs.

Discrete manufacturers should identify packages that are aimed at their industry segment (electronics, for example), then identify additional functions or tailoring needed beyond what's provided out-of-the-box (serial number tracking, for example) and make sure the package offers that option. If the function cannot be activated from the inventory of included capabilities that can be customized, or needs additional code modification to make it suitable, they should keep looking. 

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