What software features are key for process manufacturing ERP?

Chemical companies, food processing companies, makers of pharmaceuticals and other process manufacturers have specific ERP needs. Here's what you need to know about finding the right software.

Process manufacturers often have different ERP software needs than their discrete manufacturing counterparts.

That's because process manufacturing deals with either materials or products that pour -- for example, liquids and powders -- and that must be measured, typically by weight or volume. Process manufacturing can be contrasted with discrete manufacturing, which deals with materials that can be counted. In many cases, there are differences in how these products are made that impact the suitability of EPR functions.

The primary characteristic of process-oriented ERP is the ability to handle the liquids and powders. That includes sufficient decimal places in all transactions, calculations and balances, and flexible units of measures and conversions -- milligrams of a particular ingredient in a 500 liter batch.

For some process industries, there may be a need to handle additional measurements and characteristics like:

  • Potency. Often the strength of individual batches of ingredients is important.
  • Shelf life. Process ingredients and products often become unusable after a certain length of time.
  • Graded materials and products. Measured quality level may determine the identification of the item.
  • Strict batch or lot accountability. Many process products are regulated and subject to recall.
  • Quality monitoring and record-keeping. These are used to meet regulatory requirements.

Process manufacturers are more likely to engage in production activities that are not planned and scheduled in the same way as discrete processes -- for example, machining, welding and assembling. A process company may use:

  • Expensive high-speed or high-volume production equipment that is difficult to change over from one product to another. Planning and scheduling must be more focused on equipment utilization than on material requirements.
  • Continuous flow processes that are scheduled differently. (These companies don't even like the word "schedule.")
  • Processes that split and merge; for example, one initial process produces an intermediate that can then feed several secondary processes -- without the intermediate going into inventory -- that produce different products. Several intermediates can feed multiple secondary processes, defined as "process trains."
  • Upside-down bill of material, in other words, one raw material makes a number of products. This can be described as coproducts or byproducts.

Process manufacturing is a very broad category that nevertheless has some or all of these general characteristics that bear on the suitability of a particular ERP system. ERP products are seldom marketed as "process ERP."

ERP systems come in many varieties, each tailored to address the needs of specific industry segments -- for example, on the discrete manufacturing side there are industrial equipment makers, and on the process manufacturing side there are food and beverage processing companies. And it is to these types of distinctions that process manufacturers should look. It is far more likely for an ERP software package to be identified as designed or tailored for the needs of food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, chemicals or some other more specific industry segment than to simply be given the broader "process manufacturing" designation.

With this in mind, process manufacturing companies should look for ERP products that are targeted at their specific industry segment, for example, fruit and vegetable processing, or the aforementioned industry-specific category, such as food and beverage.

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