April 2005 | Case Studies | I.T. Toolkit

Cutting out the Middleman

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Finding third-party middleware an ill fit, chemical coatings manufacturer Colorcon selects software for remote data collection devices that tightly integrates with its Oracle system.

If you've taken a popular medication and recognized the product by the color of the pill, you know something about Colorcon. Creating specialty chemicals used to coat pharmaceutical tablets is the primary business at the West Point, Pa.-based firm. Colorcon's coatings, polishes, colorants and non-toxic inks also add flair to many food items.

Formulating those products, and ensuring they comply with federal food and drug regulations, requires a carefully controlled manufacturing process. In 2001, Colorcon replaced an earlier version of an Oracle enterprise resource planning (ERP) system with Oracle Process Manufacturing (OPM), a system tailored for companies that blend ingredients to make products according to precise recipes.

After implementing the new system at its seven manufacturing plants around the world, Colorcon executives decided to add automated data collection devices—such as bar-code scanners and scales—linked to the ERP by a radio frequency (RF) network. The goal was to further boost efficiencies in its manufacturing and inventory tracking processes.

At the time, OPM didn't offer supply chain execution functions to support mobile devices. So Colorcon contracted with another vendor to implement a middleware system that transferred data between the ERP and devices on the factory floor.

Middleware Problems

"We thought it would be a good fit," says Perry Cozzone, Colorcon's chief information officer. But once the middleware was implemented, users experienced problems.

"We realized the middleware system did not leverage our architecture, which was built around Oracle and the OPM system," Cozzone says. The middleware product ran on a separate server, required its own database, and relied on a product from a third party for some functions. With that many combined elements, the system was set up for failure.

"You're only as strong as your weakest link," Cozzone says. "We realized the middleware system was not as reliable as the Oracle platform. Suddenly our remote devices were no longer responding or connecting.

"To troubleshoot, we had to determine the problem, then figure out which system was causing it," he continues. "Was it a database issue? Was it a connection issue?"

There were also disputes about which vendor was responsible for problems. In addition, the third-party vendor was headed for bankruptcy, Cozzone says. "These issues hindered our ability to effectively support our manufacturing sites," he notes.

Oracle was developing its own software for mobile supply chain execution in process manufacturing at the time, but the release date was too far off, Cozzone says. Instead of waiting, Colorcon replaced the middleware with Extended Mobile Applications (X.MA), a product from Austin, Texas-based software provider ClearOrbit.

The X.MA system extends the functions of different ERP systems to mobile and handheld devices. "We allow companies running ERP systems to take the worker to the work," explains Dan Kubala, ClearOrbit's director of marketing.

In many manufacturing ERP systems, the standard end-user interface is designed to run on a desktop computer. But employees on the production floor must spend time away from their work areas to interact with the system. And entering data at a keyboard invites error, especially when recording numerous transactions.

A Lack of Interfaces

Using mobile devices to capture data and provide security prompts increased efficiency and accuracy. Many ERP systems used in manufacturing, however, lack interfaces to these devices. Some users write their own interfaces, but that can be a large burden for companies, Kubala says. Others implement middleware, but these systems have drawbacks as well, as Colorcon can attest.

Middleware solutions generally include their own databases; rather than move data to and from the ERP's database in real time, middleware systems make periodic batch transfers. They also pose ongoing integration challenges.

"When the ERP changes, companies must re-test the interface to keep the two systems in sync," Kubala explains. Also, to enforce unique business rules, users must take the redundant step of configuring both the ERP and the middleware.

Rather than operating as a separate system, X.MA runs in close integration with the OPM system, using OPM's database and taking advantage of Oracle's application programming interfaces (APIs) to pass data in real time between the ERP system and mobile devices. X.MA users need to configure only one application with specific business rules—such as how much of a certain ingredient a manufacturing step requires.

"Once these rules are defined in the ERP system, X.MA inherits them," Kubala says. "X.MA references the ERP tables and provides the tolerance to the user for the transaction."

"ClearOrbit's technology gives us the ability to leverage the Oracle infrastructure and architecture," Cozzone says, providing a more reliable solution for Colorcon. "It eliminates the energy and costs we had to devote to managing a system outside the architecture of our primary business applications platform.

"X.MA co-exists nicely with Oracle," Cozzone adds. "As a result, it's easier and more cost-effective to support."

Because it uses Oracle's APIs, X.MA follows Oracle's rules. "And, because the system is consolidated within Oracle's framework, it's easier to troubleshoot," he says.

ClearOrbit's products are hardware-independent, supporting any type of data collection device, Kubala says. Colorcon uses RF-enabled data collection devices from Intermec, a technology solutions provider based in Everett, Wash., to collect data and display prompts to workers. Colorcon's lineup includes devices mounted at manufacturing stations and on forklift trucks, as well as portable devices workers carry throughout the sites. Colorcon utilizes the RF devices in the production process, and for receiving materials at its manufacturing sites.

Colorcon uses the X.MA software to manage several manufacturing and supply chain management applications, including receiving materials into its facilities. X.MA allows the company to receive material more quickly than in the past "and makes the process of moving material from one location to another more accurate," says Cozzone. As Colorcon implements additional transactions, X.MA will help it further improve its inventory management, he says.

The company is considering using a ClearOrbit module that integrates OPM with printers to produce labels for pharmaceutical products. "We want to ensure that our product identification labels are accurate," Cozzone says. "But we also want to streamline and simplify the process."

Managing Compliance

The X.MA software also makes it easier for Colorcon to manage its regulatory compliance processes. "It simplifies the process of maintaining our compliance and validated environment," Cozzone says. "At the same time, it allows us to extend the Oracle system more completely into the manufacturing and supply chain flow."

One improvement Cozzone would like to see from ClearOrbit is a simpler method for re-programming the remote devices. "I'd like X.MA to have an easier process for changing prompts or fields, as well as the flow of what the user sees," he says.

Overall, however, implementing X.MA brought solid improvements to Colorcon's manufacturing process. "We have confidence in its reliability," says Cozzone. "And the technology makes our process a one-stop shop."

From a platform perspective, Colorcon sees X.MA as a foundation for improvements. "Although this software implementation was operations-specific, it is really about providing better products and services to our customers," says Cozzone.

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