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10/09/2012

New technologies for integrated planning

Let's consider the following business case: a salesman is abroad and must prepare a sale proposal for a customer. Beyond the technical offer, he has to compute a price and he would like to put in the proposal also a delivery date of the requested product. Most of the manufacturing companies will follow these paths to answer the question:

  • they provide a generic and standard answer like "4 weeks from today", without considering current workloads
  • the proposal manager asks the production planner for a delivery date. The planner takes his time to find an answer but usually (depending on the tools he can use) he returns an estimate little more precise than the one of the previous paragraph.

Considering the technologies available today is almost unbelievable that most of the companies accomplish these activities slowly and roughly. It's for these reasons that people talk more and more frequently about S&OP (Sales & Operations Planning) and IBP (Integrated Business Planning). In particular, the second acronym betrays reality: we want to plan a business in an integrated way because until now it has been little. ERP vendors have had a lot of commercial success along the years promising to allow management of enterprise resources in an integrated way. In general we can say that this result has been achieved in few cases, especially if the integrated management of resources must include production (this is demonstrated by the fact that spreadsheet, not ERP, is the most widely used planning tool in manufacturing companies). In the Cowry realease currently being tested there are new features about connectivity in a wider meaning: not only connectivity with other databases but, more in general, with other applications, also remotely. These features allow to integrate the planning and control processes in a new fashion: no more with a compromise (the technology of the ERP system) but fully exploiting the advantages of the various tools. In the following video is presented a new answer to the problem of computing a delivery date, using a spreadsheet and Cowry. It's importante to stress that with this approach the spreadsheet's users don't need to learn new tools and, by the other side, the APS offers its features to salesmen unobtrusively for the planner. The use case shown in the video is simplified to be clearer but it can be made more complex quite easily. In the video the APS and Excel are on the same PC but they could communicate from different machines on a network. In future posts there will be examples of the possibilities of innovative process management given by these technologies.

technical insights

Recently, new and interesting technologies have reached popularity. One of them is DataNitro, a tool and a company that are gaining visibility because they make Excel programmable with the Python programming language. For several years libraries have been available that let work Excel from Python and for long Cowry has been able to transfer data from and to Excel, both by means of scripts and simple cut and paste (this too in both directions). But now things are getting really interesting because you can interact with Python and the world of Python libraries directly from Excel. In other words: the Excel user can interact with everything Python makes available to him, also third party libraries. There is still some things to be polished for DataNitro (to name a couple: hide the console at script launch, let modules to be imported automatically at Excel startup, etc) but the tool is already very useful and easily manageable. In our demonstration we have used also the zerorpc library to let Cowry and excel interoperate remotely. This is a great library for distributed computing that lets you focus on business processes. In the following image you can see the code of the Python script used by Excel in the video above.