Perhaps no expression evokes more of a disputed territorial discussion in a manufacturing environment than “Real-time” information. Process control engineers and manufacturing operations personnel have historically claimed the expression “real-time” within their domain. They openly scoff at IT professionals who refer to real-time activity that isn’t measured in microseconds. If you don’t know the value of some important information in less than a second then you are just reading yesterday’s news.


Traditionally, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) in the context of manufacturing is a planning and business function that executes on daily, weekly or even monthly cycles. This hardly matches the shop floor definitions of real-time. Not even the most zealous material manager would clamor for backflushes within microseconds of inventory consumption. Finance leaders don’t use sub-second clocks to close their monthly books. (Although I have met some that would if they could!)

So what does real-time mean for ERP and manufacturing operations? Real-time is a relevant descriptor when it is defined as the ability of a system to provide information and enable responses within strategic time frames. Too often real-time in our planning and operational processes is measured in the time that it takes to update and share a spreadsheet. The lags in information flow and inconsistent access to current status changes are very real detriments to optimizing both planning and responsive decision-making. Real-time for production order status is most likely measured to the minute, which would be a significant improvement for many manufacturers.

Even in automated environments, attaining real-time information is not always guaranteed. The integration between manufacturing ERP and third-party or home-grown shop floor systems like MES or machine-level operator interfaces can be challenging. The inherent purpose-built design of these distinct systems can still result in an integration that is dependent on batch loads and periodic lags of current status.

The solution to delivering real-time manufacturing ERP capability may lie in the ability of ERP software systems to extend into the operational functionality. No one should advocate for ERP software to actively control machines. However, extending core capability to the collection and coordination of relevant information is both possible and capable of providing real benefits.

So what information is necessary for real-time manufacturing ERP? Generally speaking, for most manufacturers ERP is production order-centric. The ERP software system converts demand into manageable portions of material requirements and executable orders with defined delivery windows. Correspondingly, the information needed to deliver real-time feedback at the ERP level is associated with these production orders. ERP capability needs to evolve to provide the interface that is appropriate and available to the shop floor. Order progress is best collected directly from the personnel doing the actual manufacturing. This requires an interface that is both appropriate for the operators on the shop floor and provides minimal disruption to the operators’ focus on the manufacturing process.

Modern manufacturing ERP solutions provide great capability in terms of comprehensive access to data and hierarchies of functions that are appropriate for planners and other business functions. The cockpit of an ERP planner looks like a spreadsheet on steroids with access to all relevant data.  Conversely, the shop floor operator interface needs to be highly visual, use simple navigation and always be contextual to a limited scope of geography and responsibility. The operator of a work center should only be presented with released orders in a relevant time frame, such as a shift or even the next few hours. There may be hundreds of planned orders but an operator should only deal with a finite and limited scope.

This allows the operator to take action and efficiently record progress in real time. This simplistic and visual access is far superior to the dreaded clipboard or paper travelers. These processes often result in delayed production reporting at the end of the shift via separate data-entry. The recording of production quantities by the operator themselves not only improves the timeliness of the data but also improves the quality of the data. On-line integrity checks and the avoidance of data entry miscues are a huge upgrade over manual collection strategies. The emergence of IoT as an enhanced path to process data associated with individual production orders completes a data set with real-time details around the order, operator information and equipment performance.

All of this may not sound like a new approach. The distinction is that adaptive ERP solutions can provide this capability by providing native operational extensions. The legacy layers of multiple systems and complex integration have been, in some ways, a barrier to real-time insights. ERP-provided awareness of shop floor activity as it happens can be used to make better-informed decisions. One very simple example is the potential for improved collaboration between planning and operations. If a planner can instantly see that a production order is near completion via real-time access, they could make decisions about the next order or the possible expediting of an unplanned order. Historically, the planner would have been blind to the current status and would have to resort to a cumbersome series of phone calls to floor supervision or worse just release orders blindly. The floor supervisor also benefits by having a clearer set of priorities.

Real-time insights into operational capability can make modern manufacturers truly rapid, agile and effective. Manufacturing ERP with native operational extensions may not be real-time at the microsecond level, but it can provide real-time, real-world results.