Mobile Cloud Computing in the Biomass Industry

Mobile supply chain management integrates software applications with mobile devices to allow users to wirelessly operate at any location.
By David Waechter | November 16, 2014

To understand the biomass-to-energy supply chain, first divide it into two parts: suppliers and end users.  End users in the biomass energy sector include pellet manufacturers, fuel producers, biogas producers, and combined heat-and-power facilities. Suppliers are also diverse, and include loggers, farmers, land clearing companies, sawmills, furniture mills, demolition companies, feed mills and many others.  The supply chain only grows more complex from there, with a myriad of opportunities for success and failure. Factors may include: weather, transportation, contractors, employees, biomass specification data, storage management, sustainability, public opinion, public policy, regulatory enforcement and more. Mind-bogglingly, every single one of the above factors may affect one another and also has its own interconnected and consequential subcategories. 

Putting all of these factors into perspective is a great challenge, especially when one is trying to accomplish this on paper, in their mind, or on a spreadsheet. Large companies often have internal IT development teams that set up and manage data systems for their internal use.   Numerous versions of generalized and industry-specific Enterprise Resource Planning Software have been developed, which may assist managers with understanding their supply chains more clearly.  ERP software was a great leap forward in supply chain management because it was able to collect, store and manage the vast array of data points in any given supply chain. What’s more, ERP software made it possible to make better decisions based on real and meaningful analysis.  No more would managers have to base all of their decisions on unqualified or bad data and information.  As ERP solutions gained in popularity, industry-specific solutions began to appear and the biomass energy sector can now benefit from this.

A second leap in information technology for business operations was made recently with the advent of cloud computing. Cloud computing enabled ERP solutions to be deployed without the need for organizations to purchase costly servers or other computing and network infrastructure, because the software could be implemented as a virtual Software as a Service (SaaS) anywhere using the Internet.   Other improvements came into being along with the cloud. Updates to the software no longer required additional copies or licenses.  Users could be added easily on the fly, and a per-user or group-of-users licensing model could be offered.  Since licensing was on a per-user basis, companies no longer had to pay high costs for software capacity they never used.  Another benefit of the cloud was databases and functionality were shared within each user organization on a “need-to-know” basis, so when someone in the user community entered data or made a modification, each approved user could see it in near real time.  A true community of users was emerging and costs of implementation were lowered.

Today, ERP software has taken a third great leap forward by integrating and leveraging the power of mobile technology.  According to the Pew Research Center, as of January, 58 percent of American adults had a smartphone, and 42 percent of American adults owned a tablet computer.  The amazing part of this statistic is that each one of these individuals in carrying a highly sophisticated sensory device capable of video, photos, voice and text communication, Internet access, weather reports, and a host of applications ready to deploy.  Mobile computing is a truly disruptive force, and we are all aware of just how disruptive it is.

Mobile supply chain management integrates software applications with mobile devices (e.g. cell phones, personal digital assistants, pocket personal computers, personal computers) to give users the flexibility to operate in a wireless  computing environment at any location. This enables users to take advantage of information systems linking business processes among different functions within the company and between companies at remote locations.

Mobile has enabled ERP solutions to take another step toward real-time data management.  Imagine being able to communicate directly with your supplier, the delivery truck, monitor progress on work orders, receive a photo or video of a remote job site, or instant document review not only on your desk, but across the organization based upon a “need-to-know” basis.  The possibilities grow each day, and you will want an ERP solution provider who not only understands how to grow with your industry, but since biomass is a niche industry, it would behoove organizations to rely upon software solution providers who have built solutions especially for the sector.

When selecting an ERP solution, no one size fits all.  Factors such as cost, user friendliness and deployment models are all important.  Most importantly, find an ERP solution that is specifically designed for the biomass industry. Make certain you understand what side of the supply chain equation the ERP solution is made for—producers or conversion facilities. In the case of biomass, there is a number with varying costs and user friendliness, as well as differing models for deployment (cloud-based or enterprise solutions). Make sure to understand security and do not jump to conclusions.  Is having all of your data stored on server in the closet more secure than a datacenter with 24/7 security patrols and redundant power supplies? As you begin to review these options, predefine your selection criteria, and do your research. Consider your business model, its weakest links and what knowledge would strengthen them.  Review your risk management approach to determine what functions are important or unimportant. The additional time it takes to perform a thorough due diligence effort is well worth the investment. It will pay dividends for many years to come, and ensure your satisfaction with a solid ERP solution for your entire supply chain team.

Author: David Waechter
President, Verdanté BioEnergy Services