SAP Customers – May the FORCE Be With You

SAP-ERP-force-be-with-you-LinkedInSAP has been #1 in the ERP software market for decades. They created the first enterprise ERP system back in the 1980’s and have exploded into the enterprise software universe with innovations like HANA.

Still, as many SAP ERP customers bought systems like SAP R/3 and Business One back in the 1990s, SAP users increasingly need help with their older ERP systems.

The Beginning

A long time ago (1972), in a galaxy not so far away (Germany), SAP AG was launched by several former IBM engineers including Dietmar Hopp and Hasso Plattner.

Dietmar Hopp was the CEO of SAP AG from 1988 until 1998. He is widely considered to be an enterprise software pioneer. In the SAP universe, while Hasso Plattner was (and still is) its Yoda, Dietmar Hopp was its Obi Wan.

A Rift in the SAP Universe

Although SAP’s growth exploded through the ‘90’s, there were still some problems that Hopp and the other SAP Jedi knights were facing in the galactic storms of the 2000’s. There was a Dark Side that threatened, particularly in the manufacturing ERP space.

  • The core SAP ERP “back office” systems could be slow to show ROI because of the complexity, cost of customization and relatively lengthy ERP project cycles.
  • Lower margins meant that manufacturers increasingly had to implement “lean” initiatives, and ERP was anything but lean.
  • Manufacturers in industries like automotive were instituting just-in-time (JIT) programs and Kanban to “pull” inventory through the shop floor, as they could no longer afford to “push” a la Henry Ford.
  • SAP’s traditional material requirements planning (MRP) engine assumed “infinite resources”, which was turning out to be unrealistic in some cases because of resource constraints.
  • Many SAP customers did their initial ERP projects back in the ‘90s, so their applications were becoming antiquated.
  • SAP users had been slow to upgrade because they feared the costs and risks of a “re-implementation”.
  • Increasing automation on the shop floor meant that the focus of productivity gains turned to the machines rather than the labor. The feedback from the machines themselves was becoming more important.
  • Old style ERP software couldn’t take advantage of innovations like data visualization to quickly assess how workers and machines were doing. In some important ways, SAP customers (frankly, any ERP customers) were flying blind.
  • Rapidly emerging technologies like the Internet of Things, mobile applications and cloud were threatening to leave plodding “on premise” systems light years behind.

“To some SAP ERP customers, it was as if they had bought a Millennium Falcon back in the ‘90s that was showing it’s age in the 2000’s. They couldn’t upgrade to the latest Jedi fighter because the cost of retrofitting was (potentially) high. So they stuck to their Millennium Falcons and applied duct tape.”

As SAP manufacturing customers cut costs (staff), outsourced and automated, the focus turned from efficiency on the people side to optimizing the machines. They had to squeeze more from less.

In other words, in the ‘90’s it was common to have legions of C3PO’s raise the alarm and to unleash a clone army when there was a problem. In the 2000’s, they needed a small force of R2D2’s to talk to the machines and fix the problem.

There was a widening hole in the SAP universe, a rift that needed to be filled.

A Protégé is Born

During the heady growth of the ‘90’s, a young Jedi named Franz Gruber had been studying under the tutelage of Dietmar Hopp. Gruber had been with Hopp at IBM in the ‘80’s and had come over in the ‘90s to work with the Jedi master at SAP.

Gruber had been focused on the manufacturing space and had studied other manufacturing masters like Taiichi Ono, the creator of the world renowned Toyota Production System.

Although SAP had some functionality in the emerging field of Advanced Shop Floor Management, Gruber realized that it didn’t go far enough to fill the rift. What was needed was a new Manufacturing Execution System (MES).

Where the SAP ERP assumed labor and machine time was infinite, a new system was needed to do finite scheduling and track actual machine utilization. Where the ERP assumed that machines were always productive, a new system needed to let the machines talk to the operators and tell them how productive they actually were.

So, in 2001 Gruber left SAP with two of his colleagues to form FORCAM GmbH in Ravensburg, Germany. He did so in a wise way, without cutting ties to his Obi Wan. In fact, Gruber’s mentor Dietmar Hopp invested in FORCAM and remains a big investor today.

Rise of the Machines

Gruber’s vision was to fully connect the “top floor to the shop floor”. To do this, he started with the assumption that the FORCAM MES software needed to connect directly to the machines to measure their performance and bring full transparency to the plant’s Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE).

Then he needed to introduce finite scheduling to move shop floor operations around in response to rapidly changing conditions of machine down time, operator errors and other disruptions.

Fortunately, most modern machines were connected to PC’s and the Internet via terminal controllers. FORCAM’s biggest challenge was to talk to legacy (read old) machines that weren’t computer compatible. This challenge was overcome by developing hardwired controllers that got crude measurements from the old machines, such as when they were on or off.

This data was collected along with order numbers, operations, operator times, etc. and projected on color “maps” at each machine cell. The objective was to illuminate that “black box” of how the process was performing against key performance indicator (KPI) benchmarks. Then the data could be shown graphically in standard reports and charts through data visualization.

In short, the MES technology would pick up standard plans and routing information from the ERP system to assess what the process “should” be doing. Then the machines would talk back and tell the ERP what was “really” happening. Just visualizing the process was a huge step towards making the machines and the operators work more productively.

Early FORCAM customers like Daimler-Benz and Audi began to see 5-10% productivity improvements with ROI paybacks in 6-9 months. Because FORCAM came from SAP, there was a standard SAP adapter from the beginning. Other modern ERP systems like Infor LN also began to come on-line soon afterwards.

The stage was set for the next revolution.

The Force Awakens

In 2014, FORCAM began work on the latest version of the software – aptly named FORCAM FORCE. In many respects, FORCAM FORCE is a complete redo of the MES system that started with SAP in the early 2000’s. It takes advantage of the latest technology in cloud, mobile and user experience.

Here’s what SAP ERP customers can expect if the FORCE is with them:

  • A fully integrated, real time SAP ERP adapter
  • A web-based Graphical User Interface (GUI) that operates on any major Web Browser, like Google Chrome or Internet Explorer
  • Web apps to run the different modules on a phone or tablet, with iOS or Android operating systems (sorry, you’re toast on Blackberry)
  • Full multi-site capability, meaning that plants all over the world can be connected within one instance of the software
  • Multi-language capability for English, French, German, Spanish and others
  • Public cloud deployment through the leading cloud providers including Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services
  • The capacity for “private cloud” deployment in facilities such as Aerospace and Defense that are subject to ITAR government security requirements
  • A work flow engine that can be used to add automatic tasks, like sending an e-mail to a supervisor if machine utilization goes below 80%
  • A rule based engine that can be used to set conditions for different machines, such as what constitutes “productive time”
  • A library of around 150 standard reports and dashboards that can be accessed based on the “roles” of the user

OK, maybe an MES system can’t close the entire rift in your ERP system. Although it doesn’t replace an aging Millennium Falcon, MES can sure add some turbo boosters to that baby!

The Voyage Ahead

Gruber’s ultimate dream is software that can use “big data” to predict which machines can operate more efficiently, which will need corrective action and when. Ultimately he believes that machines can become “self-aware”. Maybe they can even affect their own repairs so that plant managers can sleep better at night.

OK, it’s not as creepy as it sounds! Think R2D2, not the Terminator.

Today Gruber and FORCAM are at the forefront of efforts to bring innovation to manufacturing around the world. They are working with organizations such as theDigital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) to provide an incubator for digital manufacturing in industry, government and academia.

FORCAM is also working alongside professors and ERP experts such as Dr. Jill O’Sullivan at Farmingdale University to help manufacturers and schools understand the concepts of Advanced Shop Floor Management.

A great example is the “Transformational Guide to OEE and Advanced Shop Floor Management” by Dr. O’Sullivan and Dr. Theresa Nick. They’ve even reached out to manufacturing and ERP enthusiasts like Dan Aldridge (yours truly), who wrote the three “customer success stories” for the book.

Collectively we believe that manufacturing companies shouldn’t have to fight with sticks…we should all have light sabers. Our goal is not just to help SAP ERP customers or to promote specific companies. It’s to help people understand that manufacturing is cool! Just like Star Wars.

Do you have more ideas for manufacturing ERP software users to help them in their fight against the Dark Side? If so, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

If you liked this blog and would like to check out some others, then here’s a sampling from our business blog and my LinkedIn posts.


Dan Aldridge is the CEO of Performa Apps, an ERP software consulting firm specializing in Infor LN and Baan. He has almost 20 years of ERP implementation experience. Dan has helped dozens of companies with their ERP software implementations and training including Carrier, Mercedes Benz, Snap-on Tools, Blue Bird, Flextronics and a host of other manufacturing companies. He is a serial entrepreneur and blogger with his new site You can reach him on e-mail,, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+,, WordPress,Slideshare, Pinterest, Facebook and Flickr. His company is on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube,Slideshare and the new community website.

I'm an Enterprise Software blogger, ERP enthusiast, CEO of Performa Apps and Founder of Love the NFL, basketball, manufacturing, ERP software and charities. Movie fanatic. Total nerd and computer geek. Love gadgets, but like some old school things like a good book. Fan of small business. Believer in the power of social media. Washington, DC native that can't stand politics.

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Posted in Entrepreneurship and Startups, Hot Trends in Manufacturing, I Love Enterprise Software, I Love ERP

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Dan Aldridge
Follow Dan Aldridge on Twitter @danaldridge1
Reston, VA
Dan Aldridge

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