Sunday, February 3, 2008

Enterprise Resource Planning

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems attempt to integrate all data and processes of an organization into a unified system. A typical ERP system will use multiple components of computer software and hardware to achieve the integration. A key ingredient of most ERP systems is the use of a unified database to store data for the various system modules.

Origin of the term

MRP vs. ERP — Manufacturing management systems have evolved in stages over the past 30 years from a simple means of calculating materials requirements to the automation of an entire enterprise. Around 1980, over-frequent changes in sales forecasts, entailing continual readjustments in production, as well as the unsuitability of the parameters fixed by the system, led MRP (Material Requirement Planning) to evolve into a new concept : Manufacturing Resource Planning (or MRP2) and finally the generic concept Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
MRP vs. ERP — Manufacturing management systems have evolved in stages over the past 30 years from a simple means of calculating materials requirements to the automation of an entire enterprise. Around 1980, over-frequent changes in sales forecasts, entailing continual readjustments in production, as well as the unsuitability of the parameters fixed by the system, led MRP (Material Requirement Planning) to evolve into a new concept : Manufacturing Resource Planning (or MRP2) and finally the generic concept Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)[1]

The term ERP originally implied systems designed to plan the use of enterprise-wide resources. Although the initialism ERP originated in the manufacturing environment, today's use of the term ERP systems has much broader scope. ERP systems typically attempt to cover all basic functions of an organization, regardless of the organization's business or charter. Businesses, non-profit organizations, nongovernmental organizations, governments, and other large entities utilize ERP systems.

To be considered an ERP system, a software package must provide the function of at least two systems. For example, a software package that provides both payroll and accounting functions could technically be considered an ERP software package.

However, the term is typically reserved for larger, more broadly based applications. The introduction of an ERP system to replace two or more independent applications eliminates the need for external interfaces previously required between systems, and provides additional benefits that range from standardization and lower maintenance (one system instead of two or more) to easier and/or greater reporting capabilities (as all data is typically kept in one database).

Examples of modules in an ERP which formerly would have been stand-alone applications include: Manufacturing, Supply Chain, Financials, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Human Resources, Warehouse Management and Decision Support System.

High-Quality X-Ray Beams for Scientific Purposes

A Miniature Synchrotron

Researchers get a new tool to determine protein structures.

X-rays at home: A schematic of the miniature synchrotron (top) shows the electron beam injector (green tube) and storage ring. The electron beam circulates around the ring and collides with a laser pulse at every turn, emitting bursts of x-rays. Bottom: A detailed view shows the components of the miniature synchrotron, which fits inside a room.
Credit: Lyncean Technologies.

Synchrotrons are huge facilities that can produce intense, high-quality x-ray beams for scientific purposes. They usually span the size of a football field and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate. But now, researchers at Lyncean Technologies, a startup in Palo Alto, CA, have shrunk the synchrotron to the size of a room. This miniature synchrotron offers scientists a new way to perform high-quality x-ray experiments in their own labs.

Lyncean has built a prototype synchrotron and is constructing another to be installed this year at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA. The new synchrotron will be used by the Accelerated Technologies Center for Gene to 3D Structure, which is part of the National Institutes of Health's Protein Structure Initiative.

The tabletop instrument is "not as powerful as the big synchrotrons," says Ronald Ruth, Lyncean's president and chief scientist. "But on the other hand, it's far cheaper, and it's very compact." He likens the national synchrotrons to supercomputers, where many users must compete for limited time on one of the beams. "[The synchrotrons] address the state-of-the art," Ruth says. "They push the envelope. But their impact is only as broad as the number of people that are willing to travel to go there." The miniature synchrotron is more like a PC, he says, shared by a few users and readily available.

X-rays are useful in probing the properties of materials, since their wavelength is about the same size as atoms and the chemical bonds between them. For example, x-ray crystallography is an important method in determining protein structure. X-rays diffract as they pass through a protein crystal, generating a characteristic interference pattern. By analyzing the pattern, scientists can deduce the arrangement of the atoms and thus determine the protein's structure.

For these kinds of studies, synchrotron radiation has advantages over ordinary x-ray sources: It's a hundred million times brighter and highly concentrated, which allows for very precise, high-resolution experiments. Synchrotrons also produce a continuous source of x-rays, instead of the short bursts generated from common x-ray tubes. And a synchrotron's light is tunable, so researchers can match the energy to the material being probed.

The quality of light from the miniature synchrotron is as good as the big machines, says Franz Pfeiffer, a physicist at the Paul Scherrer Institute and École Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne, Switzerland. "That's what makes it so attractive," he says. "[It] combines the benefit of having something relatively small with the advantages of the extremely brilliant beam that is available through synchrotrons. It's a very nice thing to have."

Ruth first determined that a miniature synchrotron might be possible in the late 1990s, when hewas a professor at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Ruth and a graduate student, Zhirong Huang, were looking for a way to cool electron beams by getting them to radiate. They found that hitting the beams with a laser not only cooled them effectively, but also generated x-rays.

This effect proved to be the key to shrinking the synchrotron down to size. Big synchrotrons use magnetic "undulators" that wiggle the electron beam from side to side as it circulates around a large storage ring. Ruth explains that that wiggle, on the order of one centimeter, generates x-rays that are thrown off on a tangent to the circle, much like a spinning searchlight shines light.

The miniature synchrotron uses only a moving laser pulse that interacts with the electron beam each time it goes around the storage ring, which fits on a tabletop. The wiggle is one thousandth as small -- just one micrometer -- and the x-rays are given off in a single beam.

Wii Remote

Moving In on the Wii

A unique motion-based controller from Motus is designed to create a more realistic experience for video game players.

Reaching for realism: Motus Corporation hopes its Darwin game controller (above) can transplant the popularity of the Nintendo Wii’s motion control to other consoles and PCs. Slated for release this fall, the Darwin is intended to feel more realistic than the Wii Remote.
Credit: Motus Corporation

Consumers seem enchanted by the Nintendo Wii's motion-controlled remote, buying more than one million units of Wii hardware last December alone, according to market research firm NPD Group. A Boston-based company, Motus Corporation, hopes to take advantage of the Wii's popularity through a new product: the Motus Darwin , which allows motion-based control on non-Nintendo game systems, including the PC.

Motus is not the first company to compete with the Wii; the Sixaxis controller for the PlayStation 3 also provides motion-based control, for example. But Motus chairman Satayan Mahajan says the Darwin, expected to retail for $79-$99, allows a more realistic game play experience than is currently available.

The Darwin, which was designed to resemble a samurai sword, has its roots in specialized golfing hardware called iClub, also made by Motus. Mahajan says the iClub was designed to help serious golfers improve their swings by sensing and analyzing minute details of the motion. Mahajan hopes to continue this verisimilitude with the Darwin. Where players often operate the Wii Remote one-handed in sports games, Mahajan wants the Darwin to feel more realistic, allowing players of a golf game, for example, to put two hands on the remote and swing it like a real golf club. "The Wii is a great device," he says. "But they're going from very simple applications, and trying to become more complex and capture more complex motion. We've gone from this very complex [process of] capturing very precise motions of the human body to something that's actually less complex."

As part of developing realistic game play, Mahajan says, Motus designed the Darwin to calculate its position differently than the Wii Remote. The Wii Remote tracks its position via an infrared sensor that users must attach to their televisions. However, the Motus Darwin measures absolute position with respect to earth itself. Using gyroscopes and accelerometers, the controller orients itself to the magnetic north, and senses the direction it is pointing.

Mahajan explains that this method has not been used before because the gyroscopes and accelerometers have a tendency towards errors. Through Motus's work on iClub, he says, the company has designed a combination of hardware, software and firmware that corrects the error. Finally, the system relays its positional information to the console in fewer than 30 milliseconds, Mahajan says, adding that this is faster than the human ability to perceive delay.

David Riley, NPD Group's senior public relations manager for entertainment, software, and toys, says that for a controller like the Motus Darwin to be successful, it must be properly marketed to a group willing to pay for a premium realistic experience, such as golf-game enthusiasts. "There's a complaint with 'Tiger Woods' on the Wii, for example, in that some bloggers feel that it has actually harmed their ability to play golf," he says. "They've adjusted over the winter period to the Wii to play this game, and then when they actually pick up a club, they're not swinging the way they did the previous season." If the Motus can be marketed as such a realistic controller so that it helps, rather than harms, real-life game play, Riley says, it could find its niche. However, he adds, the price of the controller is "borderline."

Though Riley notes that peripherals such as controllers sold very well last year, he worries that current and coming economic troubles could leave consumers unwilling to pay for a high-end controller. He says that much will depend on the library of games that are compatible with the Darwin, and how well the controller is integrated with those games.

Mahajan says that the list of games supporting the Darwin is not yet finalized. But, he says, Motus is talking to a variety of console makers and game publishers; is working on building in integration with popular games already on the market; and closely integrating with games that have not yet been released. Mahajan says the company expects to have the Darwin on store shelves in time for 2008's holiday shopping season.