At a time when enterprises are confronting the great change agents of reengineering, time-based competition, and mass customization, it seems odd that most manufacturing software systems are generally constructed to reinforce the existing organization. It is that enigma that motivated Monte Zweben to cofound Red Pepper Software Co. and offer a solution that could coexist with a user's MRP II or ERP software -- present or future -- and bring realtime planning and scheduling to manufacturing. His vision: to boost an organization's ability to respond to rapid change by facilitating the decision-making process. Using intelligent agents as software assistants, his planning and scheduling software can generate optimized plans, monitor critical manufacturing variables, alert users to problems as they arise, and recommend optimized solutions in real time. "While managers can reengineer their processes and devise better ways to run companies, often it is rigid, flexible software which delays or prohibits new process adoption," adds Chris Roon, vice president-marketing, for the San Mateo, Calif -based firm. "In the past, software was seen as a policy-enforcement mechanism -- to limit the number of people who could have access. In the management view, it was seen as a good control mechanism. Accountants loved it, since it couldn't allow anyone to do anything they weren't permitted to do. That traditional view needs updating as company cultures change to respond more effectively to new markets and new opportunities." Zweben's innovative product concept, dubbed ResponseAgent, was inspired by his artificial-intelligence research for NASA's Ames Research Center in the late 1980s. His work centered on the process-scheduling problems for NASA's Kennedy Space Center and led to new intelligent software able to quickly and efficiently optimize the complexity of shuttle launching and maintenance. The substantial savings in time and money resulted in his team being recognized with the Space Act Award, NASA's most prestigious prize. Then in 1993 he helped launch Red Pepper to bring his prize-winning technology to the commercial world. Although ResponseAgent is generally categorized with decision-support software, there are some key differences -- especially in terms of agent technology and flexibility, says Zweben. "Many decision-support applications deal with historical information in a very human, man-machine interactive fashion and only in an interactive fashion," he explains. "Our approach is to use the agent to proactively get information out of the existing information system [MRP II or ERP] and keep it in memory. Our application is not I/0 intensive, like a database application that is continually making transactions to a database." Instead, he describes ResponseAgent as compute-intensive, meaning that it grabs all the information and brings it into memory, allowing the agent to very quickly consider many different plans and schedules in a process of optimization. "The agent discovers the constraints -- such as material shortages, capacity overloads, and late orders -- and can be asked to optimize the schedule automatically -- as opposed to just giving you a report of what's wrong or allowing the user to fix the problem interactively." ResponseAgent's flexibility, the result of object-oriented design, grew out of the diversity of problems that confronted Zweben's team at NASA. "We had hundreds of scheduling problems, all different. They ranged from scheduling the astronauts aboard the shuttle, as well as the ground processing, to managing the observations of the Hubble space telescope and handling logistical transfer of goods and material across the agency. Our challenge was to devise an approach to decision-support software that could be easily tailored to the nature of each problem." Incorporating that flexibility uniquely prepared the software for use in the commercial world where he observes an equal diversity of planning and scheduling challenges. "Each vertical industry has special requirements. For example, in the electronics world the emphasis is materials [and] semiconductors are very capacity-minded, while the consumer package-goods world is very changeover minded -- they care about the utilization of their capacity by minimizing changeover. Each of these worlds has a different fundamental focus." It was obvious that the conventional approach -- targeting the requirements for a market and then building a product -- wouldn't work. Instead, Zweben opted for a building-block approach: "We felt we needed to be able to tailor the agent's business logic to optimize for specific industries -- and for specific customers in some cases. With the ResponseAgent Business Modeler -- an object-oriented application generator -- Red Pepper can accommodate a customer with a unique requirement, a unique piece of logic, or a unique object or building block that we need to incorporate. With the Business Modeler, our professional service people, partnering with our customers, can present new objects and new application logic at a very high level and compile out an application in C++. "Since the application generator only deals at the application level [no low-level coding], we can lower the customer's cost of ownership -- especially for companies that are confronting dynamic change as they strive to coordinate new business models, reengineering, and the introduction of new products and processes. The Business Modeler in ResponseAgent provides the flexibility that allows us to easily and quickly change our software as customer needs evolve." For contrast, Zweben recounts what happens in some traditional MRP II implementations -- especially when unique customer needs stretch out the implementation cycle: "The consultants finally make the necessary modifications, the software is finally up and running, and then something terrible happens. The MRP II or ERP provider comes back and asks if the customer is ready for the next release! At this point the CIO's eyes roll back as he or she screams: 'Don't go near my software. It is finally up and running. I'll wait!'" Zweben says the unfortunate result of that scenario is that a few repetitions of it leave the enterprise essentially with custom code that the customer has to maintain because the vendor will not support anything that old. "With Red Pepper that doesn't happen. The Business Modeler allows us to extend the product in an object-oriented fashion. When we come out with a new release, we simply regenerate the customer's unique logic to get a new application that retains the unique logic for the customer. And that can be done in a few weeks." From a CEO's viewpoint, Zweben sees two compelling reasons for investing in a Red Pepper solution. "The first is the increased revenue that comes from customer responsiveness." His presumption is that today's customers demand reliable promise dates that can come only from planning and scheduling operations to stay on track -- and when that can't be done, to provide an early warning. "The second reason is on the cost side, not only by reducing excessive inventory levels throughout the supply chain, but also by optimizing capacity utilization." For prospects, Zweben is targeting firms that find themselves in very competitive situations -- "those confronting an increasing volatility in demand, process requirements, and vendor behavior. These are companies that, while questing for the ultimate in agility, find that the yields of their manufacturing process are difficult to predict or maybe their suppliers don't always do what they expect them to do. . . . "They are continually introducing new products to stay competitive, but they have less time to iron out all the intricacies of the manufacturing process. And they don't really have as much time as they would like to enable their vendors to really get in sync with them." Conversely, he also has a profile of the kind of enterprise that would not be a candidate. "That would be a company that has a very good forecast of what's going to happen to demand, an unchanging product line with few new product introductions, and long leadtimes -- in other words, a firm that can always predict exactly what to expect." But Zweben also believes those firms are quite rare today. More typical of today's business scene are firms such as 3Com Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., an active leader in the lively networking-hardware market. The company has used the ResponseAgent to improve flexibility and meet the increased demand for its networking products. "The ResponseAgent enables us to be real-time responsive to the requirements of our customers without incurring large overhead costs," says Randy Heffner, vice president of manufacturing for its Adapter Div. "We view the Production ResponseAgent as the next wave in manufacturing planning and scheduling technology, and we are very pleased with the results it is generating." Another adopter is Sun Microsystems Computer Corp., Mountain View, Calif. The workstation maker is applying ResponseAgent as it integrates its manufacturing into one global entity. "The ResponseAgent is playing a key role in our efforts to integrate all of our manufacturing and distribution facilities into one cohesive manufacturing enterprise," says Leon Williams, chief information officer. "In addition to the baseline benefits provided by the ResponseAgent products themselves, we have been very pleased with the speed of the system implementation. Our market demands real-time responsiveness, and the ResponseAgent is helping us achieve this -- without the long implementation cycle associated with many applications." In today's marketplace, Red Pepper's ResponseAgent is doing more than just complementing and coexisting with MRP II and ERP implementations. Some of those vendors, such as Oracle Corp. and Systems Software Associates Inc., are co-marketing ResponseAgent while others such as PeopleSoft have agreements for integrating or embedding Red Pepper's technology in their manufacturing-software offerings. Zweben says the ResponseAgent products have been designed for portability to different platforms and operating systems. Support for Microsoft Windows 95 and Windows NT clients and NT servers has been announced, in addition to support for Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, and IBM UNIX servers.