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‘Big D’ or ‘little d,’ Optessa Helps Clients Weather Supply Chain Disruptions

One challenge for Optessa’s food and beverage customers is “optimal blending” — controlling variabilities among ingredients to produce consistent products. (Image: Shutterstock/Watchares Hansawek)

Optessa has made a name for itself in the past nearly 20 years by solving “unsolvable” schedule challenges for automotive OEMs. But the Alberta, Canada-headquartered company is no one-trick pony — its advanced planning and scheduling (APS) software has helped bring greater efficiencies to operations in sectors as diverse as food and beverage, consumer electronics and pharmaceuticals.

“One thing I should say about our system, even though we found a lot of success in automobiles, the technology itself is very general,” says Ashok Erramilli, CEO and co-founder. “If you ask me, I’m one of those people who believes that planning and scheduling is a scientific discipline in its own right.

“And what that means is that regardless of what industry you’re in, there are certain core aspects of the problems that are universal,” he stresses. “[That’s] why our system is widely applicable across all verticals, including food and beverage.”

A common challenge for its food and beverage customers is “optimal blending” — how do you control or reduce variabilities among ingredients to produce consistent products? That’s no easy task if, for instance, you are a coffee roaster blending beans from multiple farms or regions. “Any one batch of samples you get from any one location or supplier is subject to variability,” Erramilli points out. “But what you can end up doing is combining them and planning them in ways to reduce the variability. But how do you do it in a way which is the most efficient or cost-efficient way of doing it?”

Your morning joe might not have much in common with the car parked in your driveway. But Optessa addresses challenges in the production of the former with the same discipline it applies to helping auto OEMs solve their own complex problems.

“You might think that [coffee] has nothing to do with automobiles or anything else, but it is something that we solved out of the box [for a customer],” Erramilli says. “It just required a little bit of creative mapping. But we were able to solve this optimal blending problem. And, with the same software, we didn’t have to write any new code or develop new algorithms. The same kind of core algorithms that, let’s say, helps auto people allocate cars across different factories, can also help [food processors] with blending.”

‘The Name of the Game’

Disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic is the supply chain topic of 2020. But Optessa has been helping organizations deal with supply chain disruptions of one kind or another since the early 2000s.

“When you talk about supply chain, disruptions are the name of the game,” Erramilli says. “You have ‘big D’ disruptions like what we’re going through right now … but you can also have ‘small d’ disruptions like particular issues with one particular supplier. So what we found is the moment you lay down a plan or schedule, things change, and you have to replan and reschedule constantly. What we do is we help our customers cope with this kind of disruption, big and small, by allowing them to replan and reschedule very quickly.

“But that’s not the only thing,” he adds. Erramilli says Optessa’s APS can help customers maintain stability and minimize the “bullwhip effect” in which disruptions are amplified as they travel through the supply chain.

Of course, the pandemic has been no ordinary disruption, even by “big D” standards. For one thing, it has impacted both the demand and supply sides, making it considerably different and more impactful than past disruptions, such as the 2011 Japanese tsunami (which interrupted supply) and the Great Recession (which squelched demand).

In the case of the pandemic, “what it does to our customers is it brings out the importance of having a very flexible APS solution that can help them respond,” Erramilli explains. “That’s what we do: We give them tools to respond to these kinds of situations.”

‘Planning and Scheduling 4.0’

Optessa not only helps clients prepare for what’s coming down the assembly line today or this week. It also helps them prepare for the longer term, particularly in their adoption of Industry 4.0 and their ability to adapt to the buying preferences of today’s e-empowered consumers. It is supported in this mission by the thinking of its late co-founder, Srinivas (Vasu) Netrakanti, a “serial entrepreneur” whom Erramilli remembers as an industry “visionary.”

“Even when we formed the company, he had this notion of mass customization, and that that was something we’d have to support,” Erramilli explains. “So the way we set up our data models and our algorithms to tackle the range of problems from high-level planning to detailed scheduling and everything in-between,  I can get down to the level of individual units or individual orders. We don’t make assumptions that customers produce a limited set of part numbers.”

This is critical because consumers not only assume they can easily and efficiently order a product from their laptops or phones, but also customize details such as its color and features to fit their own tastes and requirements. Optessa’s software allows manufacturers to satisfy these demands, something they could not easily accomplish with spreadsheets.

“I’m actually a big proponent and believer of Industry 4.0,” Erramilli says. “I see that unlocking huge value to our customers. And I also think that in order for customers to get the full benefits of Industry 4.0, they need what I call ‘planning and scheduling 4.0,’ which is that the same technologies that are going to enable huge strides in manufacturing and in the supply chain are also deployed to give a huge jump in the capabilities of planning and scheduling systems.”

Erramilli looks forward to solving clients’ current and future challenges , no matter how tough. After all, Optessa’s very first job was for a major car OEM that had scheduling issues its consultants claimed “could not be solved.” The young firm proved that was not the case, and has continued to disprove assumptions ever since.

“In case after case, there are real world complexities that many of our customers have been told are unsolvable,” he says. “But we solved them.”