OR/MS Today - February 2002

Software Review

Resource Manager

Quick and easy Excel-based MRP software for small and large manufacturing operations

By Vijay R. Kannan

Resource Manager by User Solutions Inc. provides an intuitive, easy to use, production planning system for a material requirements planning (MRP) environment. The software has the ability to, among other things, build production schedules from forecasts using simple-to-develop bills of resources (BOR), analyze capacity constraints, automatically identify resource loading problems, and develop an array of reports for monitoring and control purposes.

Resource Manager offers two particular advantages over many other production control software systems. First, it is Excel based. Other than familiarizing oneself with the specific functions and procedures of the software, which are easy to learn, the user is not faced with learning a fundamentally new or different software system. Each system module is represented by a single spreadsheet residing within a common workbook. This organization makes moving between the integrated modules fast and simple. The Excel format also gives the software the capability to interface with other systems and data formats. For example, data can be easily imported and/or exported from other planning systems using simple copy and paste operations.

Second, the software is compact, both in terms of hardware requirements, and, more importantly, cost. Users of Resource Manager are not using a costly, data- and resource-intensive application, but an inexpensive yet fully functional system that allows them to manage typical planning activity without unnecessary computing or financial overhead. This makes the software particularly suited to smaller organizations with a need for a fully integrated and functional planning and control system, but that lack the resources or need for added complexity.

System requirements

Minimum requirements to run Resource Manager are a Pentium running at 200 MHz, 32 MB RAM, 3.2 megabytes of hard disk space, and Excel 97 or higher installed on a stand-alone or network PC. The software was tested on a 933 MHz Pentium 4 with 128 MB RAM. On this configuration, small test scenarios ran rapidly. Larger scenarios running on a slower computer will likely see a noticeable difference in execution speed, but not to the extent that this precludes operation in a real-time mode. Beyond hardware and software requirements, the software requires a working knowledge of Excel, though nothing more sophisticated than data entry, menus, file retrieval and saving, and printing.

Documentation and Installation

Software installation is quick and easy. The software comes as a single file in either floppy or CD ROM format, and unzips to a single .XLS file and readme.txt file. Running the software involves no more than opening the .XLS file from within Excel. Other than revealing the Resource Manager user interface and adding three drop down menus, the screen has the familiar look and feel of an Excel spreadsheet. (The user manual mentions four or five additional drop down menus, but one of these is the standard Excel Help menu with help for Resource Manager included, and the other is for an Accounting option which was not included in the version tested.)

Documentation for the software is well organized. For each module, the documentation walks through the functionality of the module, provides step-by-step directions, and highlights dos and, more importantly, don'ts of software use. In particular, it draws user attention to data entry considerations. Given the Excel platform, data entry is an area where there is potential for the user to compromise the integrity of the software by corrupting system parameters, spreadsheet formulas, formatting, etc. While the software has some post-data entry error checking capabilities related to the operation of the software, these do not extend to preventing users from deleting/editing areas of the spreadsheets that they should not be able to (an area for possible improvement), thus the tips on data entry are particularly valuable.

In addition to the user manual, the software comes with a 12-step tutorial that allows the user to get a feel for the software as well as develop a schedule for a simple product schedule. This tutorial, upon which the review is based, allows the user to develop a feel for the system's capabilities within a very short period of time. The developer also supports a "walkthrough" designed to help individual users understand how the software can be adapted to their specific needs, though this is not necessary to get acquainted and running.

User Interface

The user interface is well organized and makes system navigation trivial. The opening or Settings spreadsheet, to which the software opens up, consists of a menu of options as well as a graphic representation of how the software works. This graphic illustrates in a logical manner how the different system modules are linked and illustrates the MRP orientation of the system. Modules can be accessed in one of three ways: by double clicking on the corresponding entry in the top portion of the Settings spreadsheet, by clicking on the Menu bar, or by using the F4 key. The latter two options reveal a dialog box listing all system modules, which is organized the same way as in the screen interface (Figure 1). Modules are organized within the menus in a logical manner under the headings Initialization (primarily database functions), Scheduling and Reporting. A useful feature of the opening interface is that for each module, comments have been included that describe the module's purpose as well as providing additional information regarding the module. Comments can be accessed by simply dragging the cursor over the corresponding red flag. This annotation feature can be found throughout the system.

Figure 1. Resource Manager¹s opening user interface.

Figure 1. Resource Manager's opening user interface.

Forecasting and Scheduling

Scheduling begins by taking an existing database of products and operations or adding new products/operations to the database. The database of products and operations are contained in a well-laid out Build spreadsheet. For new products, the Build Bills-of-Resource (BOR) function allows linkages between end products, sub-components and operations to be defined in a logical manner. Once products and their BORs have been defined, requirements can be entered via the Initialize Forecast Calendar module. This allows forecast requirements to be entered based either on a production start date or a required completion date.

Figure 2. Data records for products, operations and forecast entry.

Figure 2. Data records for products, operations and forecast entry.

The Master Scheduling module automatically links the forecast requirements with corresponding BORs and existing load characteristics to develop a schedule. The output of this process is not only an end-product schedule specifying both start and end dates and product cost information, but also a detailed schedule of sub-component and resource requirements and costs. Once the schedule has been reconciled with inventory information, a final schedule can be easily developed. The Resource Calendar computes several load-related statistics, automatically flagging (in red) problem areas. Graphs of resource availability and load by date and by operation can be generated with a single click of the mouse. For purchased items for which vendor information is known, Resource Manager has the capability to automatically generate purchase orders. In addition, the capability exists to track receipts and automatically update inventory records.

A useful feature of the software is its extensive reporting capabilities. In addition to Gantt charts that graph schedule completion for both sub-components and end products and automatically highlight bottlenecks, Resource Manager provides several reports that summarize both product and operation activity. These reports can be generated in multiple formats (i.e., by product, operation, routing, etc.) and degrees of detail (i.e., product only, product and components).

The only apparent example of the product not delivering all that is advertised is in the area of "what if" analysis. Both the product documentation and user's manual list "what if" analysis as a feature of the software. However, it is not clear from the user's manual what "what if" capabilities exist even though they have a unique listing in the manual. While the ability to run alternative scenarios within the individual modules exists, this does not take the form of a traditional "what if" applications.

Figure 3. Complete MPS schedule and summary product and operation reports for sample product.

Figure 3. Complete MPS schedule and summary product and operation reports for sample product.

Concluding Remarks

Resource Manager is a complete MRP system that is designed to be adaptable to a user's specific needs as opposed to being a one-size-fits-all application. The Excel platform makes it easy and intuitive to use even for a novice. Within an hour or two it is possible to understand the basics of system operation. While the user's manual is comprehensive, the tutorial alone allows one to get up and running rapidly. A more elaborate tutorial test case would, however, be helpful in allowing a new user to get a more complete sense of the software's capabilities.

The software may not have the functionality and breadth of more expensive systems, but it is a complete system suitable not only for managing in a MRP environment, but also for familiarizing those new to MRP. It is also an ideal tool for teaching purposes. Not only could it be used to illustrate the concept of MRP in an introductory operations class, it can be used to bring a practical element to an advanced course in manufacturing planning and control.

Product Summary

Resource Manager is produced by

User Solutions, Inc.
11009 Tillson Drive
South Lyon, MI 48178-9318 Phone: (800) 321-USER (8737), (248) 486-1394
Fax: (248) 486-6376
Email: us@usersolutions.com
Web: www.usersolutions.com

Resource Manager retails for $2,400 for a single user version. Instructor and Student versions are available at a discount.

Also available: An Advance Scheduling Module featuring detailed work-center calendars and alternate routings ($1,500); Peachtree accounting link for Peachtree Accounting (versions 6-9, $500); a Data Integration Wizard for integrating order entry and sales reporting with ERP systems from other vendors ($1,500); and a bar code generator for Resource Manager ($500).

Vendor Comments

Editor's note: It is the policy of OR/MS Today to allow developers of reviewed software an opportunity to clarify and/or comment on the review article. Following are comments from Jim Convis, president of User Solutions, Inc.

We would like to thank OR/MS Today for publishing the review of Resource Manager and thank Vijay Kannan for the time he invested and the final result: an honest, accurate and complete analysis of Resource Manager for Excel.

Resource Manager is a product line of which there are two versions: Resource Manager for Excel (RMX), upon which this review is based, and Resource Manager DB (RM-DB), which is the upgraded, database version of RMX. RM-DB utilizes a run-time version of the popular Microsoft Jet Database Engine, which is the same as used by Microsoft Access. RM-DB also includes a subset of RMX for report generation using Excel. These combined offerings provide unsurpassed flexibility for leveraging Excel on local PCs and sharing data across a network.

In the review, Professor Kannan mentioned an area for possible improvement in the way of protecting certain parts of the spreadsheet from user access. In reality, we have not had any customers, in more than 10 years, cause any damage that they weren't able to easily and quickly recover from. For example, RMX provides internal tools to find and correct any problems, allows for quick upgrading of select data into new versions, and finally, our support is only a quick e-mail away. By sending us any problem, as an e-mail attachment, we can support customers in near real-time. However, Excel is a wide-open platform, and RM-DB addresses several inherent limitations of the Excel based version. Some of these include: networked, multi-user, concurrent operations, multi-level security and data integrity, detailed inventory transactions, and the ability to feedback and reconfigure BOMS and Routings, on-the-fly, to reflect real-time production decisions.

Another area in the review was the apparent lack of "what-if" analysis. In contrast from most any other manufacturing software offering, Resource Manager was built from the ground up to accommodate a variety of requests from a number of customers in very diverse industries. Some of our customers have mentioned they are using RMX for "what-if" analysis and this is why we included it in the manual. Some of the users are using the two schedules (Forecast and Plan) to compare various scenarios, others are running a schedule, then copying the results to a blank part of sheet, then running another scenario, and performing some matrix arithmetric to compare results. We will gladly revisit this and clarify the use of "what-if" analysis.

In the concluding remarks, Professor Kannan mentions the use of the tool in teaching. We do have an educational program that offers the products (Instructor and Student editions) at significant discounts for this market. Also, the professor suggests a more elaborate test-case tutorial would be valuable. We offer a customized phone walk-through with application specific data, for each customer's application. There is also a full set of training videos on our free CD.

Due to the products flexibility, in addition to MRP, Resource Manager has been used for process (batch), shop control, service and repair, project management, lean manufacturing and other types of applications. In addition, the product has been used by large companies to complement existing ERP systems, small companies as their initial system, and those in-between. We look forward to continuing to support the manufacturing and operations management community with MS Office-based planning, scheduling and tracking solutions that are flexible and affordable.

Vijay R. Kannan is an associate professor of operations management at Utah State University. He serves as an examiner for the Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing, and has written several articles in the area of manufacturing planning and control.

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