So how do these complex vertical supply-chain challenges get solved? Through a combination of customized code, configurable code, templates, and the aid of domain experts, who can support the process and the software with years of hard-earned experience. Take i2, which offers 10 tailored templates for 18 vertical industries, ranging from consumer electronics, durables, and packaged goods to automotive and industrial OEM, metals, and paper. i2’s Chatterjee claims there are 700 different configuration “flags” that can be set in i2’s software, of which 300 may be defaulted for one industry.
More importantly, the templates include workflows, modeling constructs, and “solver” optimizing engines, which represent best practices in each vertical industry but can be modified by customers who don’t necessarily follow industry-standard business processes or workflows. “You have to be able to represent the customer’s business processes, then set it up so he can optimize,” Chatterjee says. “The way Dell does work is very different from the way Compaq does work.”
Some disagree strongly, however, with the configurable template approach. “When I hear the term configurable software, to me that says software written the old way,” says Steve Banker, SCM service director at ARC Advisory Group in Dedham, Mass. “To the extent that you try to have features and functionality across all industries, you get this incredible tree structure; you end up with software bloat, version release becomes more and more difficult; it just becomes very unwieldy.”
Banker argues for a more granular, purpose-oriented approach to vertical supply-chain software development to avoid extensive customization of generic code. “The problem is, you want to do it differently with each customer, and configurable software doesn’t particularly handle that well,” he says.
But Udo Dengler, CTO of Los Angeles-based supply-chain vendorAdexa, says that you have to give experts in the field something to start with. "Put as much in the software as makes sense as a default," such as configurability steps that the field expert can implement, he advises.
According to Dengler, Adexa is focused on finding the commonalities between vertical industries to provide tools that its consulting organization can leverage. He calls these “generic, user-definable attributes” that are based on a “unified data model” — a language of data objects and “plug-in rules” to represent business problems and common attributes in the different verticals. “It’s object-oriented programming,” he explains. “You create a generic attribute object, and specific data objects like 'demand objects' make use of them.”
"Vertical solutions of the past were basically hard-coded solutions, nonconfigurable," Manugistics’ Plante says. UI and database configurability and an application’s capability of triggering industry-specific algorithms, even switching back and forth between algorithms on a per-SKU or demand-item basis, has made vertical capabilities more flexible. “It’s fundamentally Java built over a relational database that’s allowed us to do that," Plante adds.
The template debate may not be new, but Aspen Technology’s Williams adds that he doesn’t think the market “is willing to accept the type of standardization SAP imposed in its space 15 to 20 years ago. … They're not willing to buy off on the fact that their business process is wrong." And that reaction is helping drive the push for vertically specialized apps to match existing market-driven business processes.