Manufacturing BI software boils down to generic vs. specialized

Brenda Cole

It's no secret that a company's proficiency at analyzing -- and reacting to -- business data is a cornerstone of long-term success. Manufacturers in particular have a lot of data to sort through, as well as manufacturing-specific requirements that depend on reliable business intelligence (BI) and analytics. Considering the plethora of BI software vendors, they can afford to be picky when they select manufacturing BI software.

Any BI tool can be used in a manufacturing environment, but manufacturing-specific packages have more analytical muscle than traditional, one-size-fits-all packages, according to Boris Evelson, vice president and principal analyst for application development and delivery at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "Getting real-time analytics, such as tracking conveyer belt processes, requires new technologies," Evelson said. "Older BI relied on batch samples and stale data. Today, manufacturers need split-second response time now for complex event processing."

Companies that don't have some sort of manufacturing BI software in place are in the minority, according to Evelson. A 2012 Forrester cross-industry study showed that 60% of manufacturers consider BI to be critical to their businesses. Additionally, 31% of the manufacturers polled had immediate plans to increase their use of BI.

Vendors of BI software are scrambling to attract more manufacturing customers, said Kenneth Brant, manufacturing research director at Stamford, Conn., research firm Gartner Inc. "Almost everyone is targeting manufacturers. The horizontal players in particular are targeting manufacturing because it's a large, data-rich market segment," he said.

How the big players handle manufacturing BI

Manufacturers searching for the best BI software vendors will be confronted by several vendor categories, according to Bob Parker, group vice president at IDC Manufacturing Insights, based in Framingham, Mass.

First off, there are the big-name, strategic vendors: SAP AG, Oracle Corp., Microsoft and the like. "The majors are an option for manufacturers," Parker said. "You get to keep a deep platform, but the industry-specific content can vary. You need to really assess these vendors to see if they fit your needs."

Oracle's Manufacturing Operations Center is best suited to manufacturers that already are Oracle ERP users, Parker said. Oracle has acquired Hyperion, a performance management software company that created one of the early online analytics processing engines, he said. "IBM has Cognos, which is less immersed in industry and has less to offer on a plant level, but it does have a Smarter Commerce edition," he added. And IBM has acquired ILOG, a vendor that produces decision-management and supply chain management and visibility software.

On the Microsoft side, Parker suggests that manufacturers look at PerformancePoint, a third-party consulting ecosystem built on the SharePoint platform.

SAP's HANA in-memory database "gives it a strong footprint for manufacturing," Gartner's Brant said. "The manufacturing intelligence capabilities help integrate the IT and OT [operational technology] worlds, and bridge plant and corporate data."

For discrete manufacturers specifically, Brant recommends Dell Inc.'s Product & Profit Analytics package, which "looks at the elements that go into product success and profitability."

Horizontal and vertical manufacturing BI software vendors

The next category of BI vendors, according to Parker, are the horizontal BI specialists, which are more focused than other BI vendors on the analytics and data warehousing side of things.

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Teradata Corp. has logical data reference models for specific industries, Parker said, and has a partnership with SAS Institute Inc., another business analytics vendor. "Together, they are a good option for manufacturers, but can be expensive because you need to build a lot of your own database on top of the package," he said. Business intelligence and performance management vendor Silvon Software Inc. also has some manufacturing-friendly capabilities, including supply chain visibility, he added.

Forrester's Evelson points to several smaller BI specialists as viable options for manufacturers, including MicroStrategy Inc., GoodData Corp. and Birst Inc.

Last but not least are the vertical manufacturing BI specialists. Parker highlights myDIALS Inc., which offers cloud-based BI and analytics, and allows users to build custom dials to fit manufacturing-specific needs.

For manufacturers in need of data historians, Gartner's Brant suggests OSIsoft LLC and its PI System for real-time data and event management. "As you move data from plant floor to enterprise, you have to decide to how to store and compress it," Brant said. "Ask, 'What should I take out of this mass of data? What measure do I take to be representative of the system I'm interested in?'"

Wading through the manufacturing BI waters

With so many options, choosing manufacturing BI software could seem overwhelming. The key is to go into the selection process with a clear understanding of your goals, according to Brant. "If you need general intelligence, there are many solutions to choose from. If you need a focused, analytical approach, that's very different from general BI," he said.

Additionally, manufacturers should examine whether they have the correct in-house experts -- not just IT staff but data managers, analytics experts and data scientists -- to use the new BI systems effectively, Brant said. If not, a hosted or cloud BI option could be the best bet.

"The software proposition for manufacturers is just getting more complex, even for the midmarket," IDC Manufacturing Insights' Parker said. "People say we need to reduce complexity, but there's a difference between complication, which is waste, and complexity, which is a fact of life. To do better with complexity than competitors, learn how to really analyze that data."

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