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Manufacturer puts its stamp on the cloud with Plex ERP

When Principal Manufacturing wanted to untether itself from an in-house system, it turned to Plex ERP in the cloud.

Small manufacturers all too often have small IT departments to match. The smaller the staff, the fewer the resources available to keep up with a demanding in-house ERP system -- a reality that is making hosted, or cloud ERP systems, an attractive alternative. When Principal Manufacturing decided to turn its IT eye to the sky, it chose the Plex ERP system.

Ben BarnettBen Barnett

Principal Manufacturing Corp. is a Broadview, Ill.-based fineblanking, conventional stamping and plastic injection molding company that services the automotive, industrial and OEM industries. The company is an early adopter of cloud ERP, going live with the Plex cloud manufacturing suite in July 2009, according to Benjamin Barnett, vice president of finance, accounting, purchasing, HR, and IT. Barnett led the team that made the decision to adopt the hosted Plex ERP system, as well as the resulting implementation team.

"The decision [to adopt Plex] was based on the capabilities of Plex, compared to what we had. The cloud was an added bonus," Barnett explained. Prior to Plex, the company had been running the Epicor Vantage ERP system for years as one of that system's original users. Over time, however, Principal Manufacturing had added business functions that could not be integrated into the in-house ERP, and the disparate software systems were piling up.

"We were having trouble doing a lot of what we wanted to do and were running 13 separate databases outside of Vantage, needing separate databases to do things like customer labeling, time and attendance and gauge control," Barnett said. "We were able to condense all those into Plex, which made a big difference."

Better lot control was an ERP must-have for Principal Manufacturing when it began its software selection process, he explained, along with more reliable scheduling and costing functions -- all of which were either unavailable or not up to par in the old system.

Making the jump to cloud ERP

Barnett first heard about Plex from a salesperson at a metal-forming association meeting and requested a product demo. After team members at Principal Manufacturing saw the demo, they decided their cloud ERP search was over, according to Barnett. "We saw that one of Plex's biggest competitors was one that we were already using, and we weren't that happy with it," he said. "When Plex had the functionality we needed, we made a fast decision to get that functionality to our business."

Moving from an entirely in-house to an entirely hosted ERP system was a big leap, but one the company was eager to make. The chief concern during the transition was what would happen if Internet access was disrupted on a work day, said Barnett. The response was to put in multiple Internet connections, which makes an outing that completely takes out Internet connectivity very rare.

Data security -- a common worry among companies that make the switch to cloud services -- was never an issue for Principal Manufacturing, according to Barnett. "When we did the [Plex] demo, we had asked a lot of questions [about security] and were satisfied with the answers that we got," he said. During the in-person demo, Plex walked Barnett's team through how the system would work for Principal Manufacturing's business, including how materials would be ordered and received, how data would flow throughout the system and how production and purchasing would be recorded.

"The demo was great for my team, because they saw that it would work really well for the way we were doing it and we wouldn't have to change much," he said.

Transitioning to Plex ERP in the cloud

The Plex ERP implementation started with an on-site kickoff meeting with Plex, Barnett said, where the project timeline, budgets and training schedules were decided. Principal Manufacturing decided to use Plex rather than a third-party as its implementation partner. Instead of slowly phasing in the new system, Barnett's team went with a big-bang approach, where the new system is switched on in its entirety to save time and money.

"We did the implementation during the downturn, so we had to be very cost-conscious about what we were spending," he explained. Principal Manufacturing relied on a core implementation team, with Barnett as its project champion, to get it done without going over budget. Barnett brought unique perspective to the process, with a degree in economics and experience working in several business areas over his 15 years at the company, including IT, processing and operations.

"I'm very interested in business processes and making them more efficient, trying to eliminate all the paper moving around the office," he said. "I like seeing how [technology] makes people's jobs easier, so they can spend more time doing the stuff that really matters."

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In addition to Barnett, each project team core member came from a different department -- accounting, quality control, engineering and manufacturing, to name a few -- and each person became an expert on the particular Plex module they would be using. The experts then brought their training back to their departmental teams and shared the knowledge.

The implementation involved extensive online training with Plex via Cisco WebEx online conferencing, with "homework assignments" given to users for the first three months. In the final two months, system testing became a regular part of each day. In total, the Plex cloud ERP system was fully implemented at Principal Manufacturing in five months.

Today, Plex is being used across the company in every department, and each employee has a unique system login, Barnett said. The tooling and maintenance modules are getting more use than ever, and Principal Manufacturing has been working with Plex to enhance them to better suit the company's needs.

Moving to the cloud ended up being the ideal situation for Principal Manufacturing's IT staff of one, as it allowed him to devote his time to maintaining workstations instead of being bogged down with server maintenance. And the freedom afforded the company by switching to cloud ERP has inspired Principal Manufacturing to move even more of its IT needs into the cloud, according to Barnett.

"We've made a decision to switch to hosted on other things, like email and our phone system," he said. "The only thing we have on site now is file serving, so we've really outsourced as much as we can."

The cloud may be a bold choice for some, but for Principal Manufacturing, it came easily. "Because we're a smaller family business, we were able to make the decision to switch over [to cloud ERP] more quickly," Barnett said.

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