Plex Systems Launches Cloud-Based Reporting Solution With InfoAssist

SaaS Vendor Automates Analytics for Enthusiastic Customer Base With Embedded BI Solution

Plex Systems Inc. is the developer of the Plex Manufacturing Cloud, an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution for the manufacturing enterprise. This nimble product suite offers industry-leading features for virtually every business domain, with 350 cloud-based modules. Plex Systems focuses on three primary industries: manufacturing, food and beverage, and aerospace and defense. Founded in 1995, the company is headquartered in Troy, MI and has customers around the world.

Built from the plant floor up, the Plex Manufacturing Cloud enables organizations to increase throughput at their manufacturing facilities, understand where they are most exposed to risk, respond to customer demands, and contend with the crushing volume of data emerging from today’s plant floors. Plex Systems has always had a rich information set, but until recently its customers had to create reports in an SQL programming environment. Today, this active customer base uses WebFOCUS InfoAssist from Information Builders to create their own business intelligence (BI) environments – complete with customizable portals, dashboards, and a tremendous variety of reports.

“In the last few years we have focused on cloud computing, with application services available via standard web browsers,” says David Shugars, senior software engineer at Plex Systems. “InfoAssist is perfect for cloud vendors since there are no downloads and it fits well with the multi-tenant model. Our customers don’t have to do any additional set-up to use these powerful reporting tools. They have single sign-on straight into this embedded BI environment. Reports are run from simple URLs that can be embedded in any portal or menu. InfoAssist runs in the cloud, giving users all the functionality they need.”

Reporting Services for the Cloud

The Plex Manufacturing Cloud uses a multi-tenant, software as a service (SaaS) model to deliver functionality to people over the Internet, from anywhere, at any time. The physical location and maintenance burden of the system that actually serves the software is outside the responsibility and concern of the end users. InfoAssist fits well with this model since all of its BI assets – including portals, dashboards, reports, and analytics – can reside in the cloud without requiring any on-premise software.

“We needed an easier way for users to get to the heart of their data,” recalls Shugars.

“We partnered with Information Builders to give them the opportunity to analyze information in a comprehensive way by embedding a BI environment within Plex.”  

Plex rebranded InfoAssist as “IntelliPlex,” exposing a set of web-based design tools that let people drag and drop data elements into custom reports and dashboards. Seamless integration simplifies the transition from the Plex Manufacturing Cloud to the InfoAssist reporting environment. According to Shugars, the InfoAssist architecture is popular with SaaS vendors since it can be readily embedded it into a larger solution or rebranded within a third-party application.

“Our customers want a complete solution. They want to be able to click a button and see BI functionality baked into the ERP module that they are using at that moment,” he explains. “They don’t want to have to maintain dual user IDs and login credentials. Information Builders makes it easy for us to provide this type of service.”

Shugars says people “without a technical bone in their bodies” can use InfoAssist to filter information, visualize it through interactive displays, and share it with others. IntelliPlex “Builder” users can create reports, charts, scorecards, and dashboards for IntelliPlex “Viewer” users – all without assistance from the IT department.

“InfoAssist lets them freely combine external data with results from Plex tables, standard views, and their own custom SQL procedures,” he adds. “They can customize their own reporting environments and leverage a library of standard reports as well.”

As reports are created, they can be automatically e-mailed to other Plex users or set up for scheduled distribution. Customers can build strategic plans and link them to metrics, apply filters, change chart types, and manipulate the data as they see fit. Many output formats are available including HTML, Excel, PDF, PowerPoint, Flex, and Active Technology for offline reporting.

“The enthusiasm has been incredible, and the InfoAssist reporting services have been extremely popular,” says Shugars. “Our customers have been clamoring for this type of reporting service and they keep asking for more.”

Shugars estimates that 40 percent of the customer base already uses the InfoAssist-based reporting tools. “We have been very happy with the adoption,” he continues. “I did four presentations at a recent user conference and all of them were packed. As we work with Information Builders and receive new features, we will continue to extend those enhancements to our customer base.”

The Right Data for Manufacturing Customers

InfoAssist’s evolving feature set is ideal for the special needs of manufacturing. Many Plex customers define their own KPIs to assist with traceability, which involves finding problems at the source and then taking action to remediate those problems.

For example, if a brake manufacturer learns about a bad shipment of brake pads, they can use IntelliPlex to trace the serial number and then track the associated lots through the manufacturing process to determine where the defect originated. A sales manager could follow the same approach to examine results by region or sector, and then drill down to individual invoices to determine which sales people are performing well. Other reports assist with inventory management by keeping workers apprised of projected and actual quantities during manufacturing, assembly, and distribution processes.

“Traceability is very important in the industries that we serve,” says Shugars. “Many of our customers have to respond to product recalls and accountability issues. Ultimately, these reports help them to pinpoint problems, maximize profitability and extend best practices from department to department, region to region, and even out to supply chain partners.”

IntelliPlex is also a popular solution for analyzing operational metrics. A typical mid-size manufacturer might have hundreds of machines working around the clock. Assembly lines generate information from networked sensors that can be used for equipment configuration, troubleshooting, quality control, and maintenance purposes. Each machine captures an immense volume of data at each stage of the manufacturing process. Manufacturers need to continually examine this data to circumvent problems and keep the operation running at peak capacity.

Pervasive Insight – From Shop Floor to Top Floor

Plex customers not only capture real-time insight about shop floor activities, but also look beyond their own walls to other parts of the supply chain. With ERP data refreshed every four hours, there is much information to analyze from this intricate web of interactions.

For example, a supplier can log into the ERP system to note when a product was shipped to a customer, to monitor raw material requirements, or to peruse problem-control records. Sharing data via InfoAssist facilitates collaboration and simplifies problem solving by making it easier to gauge production activity, track deliveries, monitor shipments, and analyze dozens of supply-chain activities.

“Other ERP systems are more concerned with financial information, but if you don’t have good information at the bottom, you are not going to have good information at the top,” Shugars contends. “InfoAssist is a huge enhancement over our SQL reporting tool. It removes barriers between users and their data. Our customers derive lots of value out of InfoAssist, and they are defining that value themselves.

“Information Builders has been a great partner, and we have had a very constructive collaboration,” he concludes. “They see SaaS and embedded BI as important markets so they have been very open to our feedback. Information Builders fosters a community-driven ecosystem with an open exchange of technology and ideas.”