Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with end users within a broad range of vertical sectors concerning the rationale behind sourcing their particular Enterprise Resource Planning solution, how such systems can leverage business advantage during a downturn, and the roadmap for future development.
Within the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions market, prospective end users are in little danger of having a dearth of vendors and solutions to turn to with a view to sourcing a system that is an accurate fit for their specific business and operational requirements. But what are some of the key reasons to invest? Texecom – a member of the Halma group of companies – manufactures intruder alarm products; including a range of motion detectors, control panels, perimeter protection devices, heat and smoke detectors, external sounders and power supplies. IT manager Andy Bowden explained that Texecom previously used another business management system, alongside a multitude of databases and spreadsheets. Then in late 2006, it was decided that Texecom needed to move to a centralised system.
“We’re based across four sites in theUK, so data was previously being re-keyed all over the place and we simply weren’t able to provide financial information in a timely fashion, which is demanded by a plc,” Bowden explained. “So, when we were acquired by Halma in 2005, our systems requirements were assessed and we started looking at what was available in the ERP marketplace in early 2007, eventually assessing around 30 systems. We eventually got our list down to six vendors and, with a project team of ten people, attended half-day demonstrations of each system. We then undertook very specific grading criteria.” Texecom went live with Epicor Vantage in September 2007 after a five-month implementation project. “The core advantage of Epicor for us was its level of flexibility,” said Bowden. “It was the ability to modify the system to what we wanted it to do. Every system we looked at had to be capable of stock control, financials, marketing, inventory; all standard stuff. But then we also wanted to see that we could automatically process functions in the system and input data.”
Vitalograph is a worldwide provider of respiratory diagnostic devices, clinical trials and medical equipment servicing. Vitalograph’s relationship with Exact Software began more than ten years ago. “We implemented the Exact Globe financial management system way back in the 1990s and I have to say it has always been very reliable,” said Frank Keane, general manager of VitalographIreland. “You want your finance system to simply get on and run the business and with Globe I never hear of any problems.” More recently, the company identified that its manufacturing and warehouse systems were not working quite so effectively. “We were running information on production schedules and stock control on a variety of spreadsheets spread right across the company,” explained Keane. “This was hugely labour intensive and resulted in inaccurate stock information and no integration whatsoever. We knew there had to be a better way of managing the production process so we carried out an extensive search of the market before deciding to implement Exact’s Alliance/MFG.” ExactAlliance is a complete Material Requirements Planning (MRP) software system. It offers a Part Master, unlimited, multi-Level Bill of Materials, Inventory Control, Serial Number/Lot Tracking, MRP and CRP, Work Centres and Work Orders.Alliance provides a seamless link to Exact Globe, as well as other accounting systems.
Jonathan Collier of plumbing tools and drain cleaning equipment manufacturer and supplier, Monument Tools, explains that the company now relies on Solarsoft’s xVP solution. “We sourced xVP mainly based on the fact that we had dealt with Solarsoft for a number of years,” he said. “We did shop around, but the solution Solarsoft was offering seemed to be the right fit, and it was a mid-market ERP system, which is what we needed.” Rochester Meat Company, based inRochester,MinnesotaUSA, uses Ross Enterprise by CDC Software. Allyson Maurer, Rochester Meat Company’s business systems manager, explained that the company finalised the purchase in April 2004 and completed implementation in the Summer of 2005. Maurer pointed out that prior to implementing Ross Enterprise, Rochester Meat Company was mainly prompted due to company growth – including two further divisions by acquisition – as well as announced changes from the previous software provider. Personal wellbeing products supplier HoMedics relies onInfor ERP LN, of which phase one of go-live took place as recently as April this year. “Following significant sales growth of 27 per cent last year, we required a solution that would help expand our business intoEurope– Infor ERP LNis it,” enthused HoMedics’ Keith Alison.
And what about integration with other system within the enterprise? Maurer points out that most of the core functionality for Rochester Meat Company’s business resides within the Ross Enterprise software. “Integration with barcode data collection has saved us time and reduced errors,” she said, adding that integration with Microsoft Excel for import and export of data and integration with reporting tools such as Business Objects have been essential for managing data and, again, reducing errors. For Alison’s part, he points out thatInfor ERP LNis integrated with HoMedics’ Seeburger EDI to manage inbound outbound customer EDI messaging, as well as integration to third-party warehouse management systems.
Bowden explained that when Texecom was at the analysis stage of the project, it realised that it had about 15 different databases of stock information spread throughout the company. “None of them linked to each other and they were always out of date,” he said. “Now, Epicor Vantage is always to core; everything goes into it. In the case of purchasing, we still use the same spreadsheets that we had done before we went live with Epicor. However, the actual BOMs, structure and data is all directly driven from Vantage. So, if our engineering department changes a BOM, purchasing knows about it immediately.” Bowden added that the company still uses Access databases. “A lot of this is a very simple front end; for the booking-out process, for example,” he said. “We might say ‘these are the five products you’re aiming to book out, choose one of them, then tell us how much and press the OK button’. And that goes into the Vantage system in the background.” In addition, Bowden pointed out that there is a lot of integration with other programs. “We’ve written lots of bespoke stuff for the shop floor. We use an Altec document management system, so we automatically email sales-order acknowledgements to our customers. We also export delivery note data into the courier system, then that books all the deliveries for us. All stock inventory is dealt with by Vantage, so we don’t need a separate WMS.”
Collier believes the biggest advantage Monument Tools benefits from through using Solarsoft xVP is, at the management level, the company can see at any one point exactly what it is buying and selling. “We had a sales and warehouse system before, but we hadn’t been able to interrogate our bank or purchasing, sales ledger and everything at the same time prior to using xVP. Previously, we always had to walk into someone else’s office and ask them a question. It’s now all on the same integrated system.” As regards Vitalograph, Keane outlined the fact that Exact Alliance provides seamless integration with the Exact Globe finance system, which ensures that invoices are prepared accurately and sent out as soon as the order is fulfilled. “The integration with the finance system has a big impact on cash flow,” he said. “We can get an invoice sent out as soon as the order has been fulfilled, without having to wait for forms to be raised and data to be physically entered. This saves several days for each invoice, which means we also get paid several days sooner.”
Working as a team
In terms of processes during implementation leading up to ‘go live’, Maurer explains that Rochester Meat Company’s internal implementation team was composed of a project manager and representatives from key departments, as well as upper management ‘champions’ to whom the company could escalate issues that needed to be resolved. This group of people worked with a team from CDC Software that included technical support during installation, application consultants and a project manager. “This setup worked very well and we completed our phased implementation on schedule,” said Maurer. “We were a bit over budget, mostly due to customisation, but we had excellent change management processes; so these overages were not surprises.”
According to Maurer, the best part of the implementation was the way the Ross Enterprise implementation team came alongside to help Rochester Meat Company solve problems as they came up. “The biggest challenge related to our formula pricing customisation,” she said. “As hard as we tried to document details of our requirement, we assumed that rebates and trade promotions would be included. The developers did not take trade promotions into account and the result was that a significant portion of the solution was missing. Because this was a phased implementation, we went through ‘go live’ many times. The first was for all accounting functions for three divisions. This was the most difficult, but in retrospect it was quite smooth. By the time we completed our last phase, we were used to it. One thing we would have done differently was to make sure that required reports were developed and tested.” Implementation for HoMedics involved the establishment of a project team of two core staff, along with a wider team of ‘super users’ who partnered with the vendors’ implementation customers. According to Alison, key issues revolved around integration with HoMedics’ third-party logistics providers.
Business process change
Bowden pointed out that when Texecom began implementation, the company didn’t specifically outsource tasks to Epicor or a third party. “But I did spend around five days in total project managing with Epicor’s project manager as a resource allocation,” he explained. “We had two financial sales people that came to us to run the financial tutorials for us. Then, one of the technical personnel did a lot of the training on configuration and bespoke work, and explained the product to us. The information process went very well, and we helped ourselves out a lot because we changed a lot of our business processes to simplify them and to match what Epicor Vantage offered.”
At Monument Tools, Solarsoft xVP went live in July 2008, after an implementation period of approximately six to eight months, where all data was transferred from the company’s previous systems. “This involved a lot of work, because you have to know an organisation extremely well, but the consultant from Solarsoft was amazing,” said Collier. “Obviously, what she didn’t know was how our business runs in terms of getting product to customers. But the flexibility in the software allowed her to understand how the software integrated with this, which was very helpful.” As for integration internally, Monument Tools did not require much training. “The reason for this is accounts are accounts, full stop,” said Collier. “The way we used the product didn’t really change and our customers didn’t change; therefore, everyone knew that a sales order is a sales order and that they still had to key-in the same appropriate product code as usual. And this was one of the huge benefits we had.” Collier added that, although there was very little staff training, at management level there was a huge amount of work that needed to be put in, but only to make sure that the system was going to do what the company wanted it to do.
Exact Software reseller, MXI, worked closely with Vitalograph throughout the implementation and has since been heavily involved with the support of the Exact Alliance system. Vitalograph usesAllianceto handle materials management, stock control, MRP, forecasting and price control. MXI has also developed reports that allow Vitalograph to carry out detailed sales and stock analysis and other management reporting. “We have been manufacturing at our current site for more than 30 years and have some established and proven methods of operating that required some modifications to the system,” said Keane. “For example, medical regulations mean that we have to keep certain products or parts for long periods of time, and these need to be closely monitored and managed to ensure we don’t end up with obsolete stock. MXI has provided a number of special reports for us as well as carrying out modifications toAllianceto suit these requirements, helping us maintain optimum stock levels and having a major impact on the profitability of the operation.”
During 2007, Vitalograph upgraded to the latest version ofAllianceand this has delivered even greater advantages, according to Keane. “The upgrade went really well; we worked closely with MXI to plan and prepare for it and managed to complete the entire upgrade inside four days,” he said. “The effect has also been significant. The new system has allowed us to improve the rate of on-time deliveries from 65 to 95 per cent.” And in terms of future enhancements, Maurer points out that Rochester Meat Company will continue to create reports and undertake simple customisations. “We believe that there is still a lot of value to mine from the tools we have currently,” she said. “We are doing as much of this in house as possible to minimise cost. At some point we will upgrade to the most current version of Ross Enterprise. This decision will be driven by new enhancements in the software that will justify the upgrade or technology changes that will render our current version obsolete.”
At HoMedics, the implementation was a ‘fast-start’ project aimed at delivering basic functionality to replicate the legacy system. “We are developing a plan to deliver further benefits thought extending the number of modules we use, and implement work flow and event management triggers to manage process exceptions in a disciplined and timely manner,” commented Alison. Bowden explained that Texecom recently went live with the Vantage CRM module for call logging and task-based issues. The company has also integrated the system directly into its Blackberry handheld devices. “We had quite a few Blackberries already in use, and we realised that we could link the Blackberry system with simple ASP web pages into the Epicor Vantage database,” said Bowden. “So a sales representative on the road can now look at calls, look at what tasks have been assigned to him, and investigate a particular customer’s orders. He can also look at product information such as what customers normally buy.” Bowden added that Texecom is also about to do engineering changeovers; “so BOM changes are going to be controlled with a task-based system, which Vantage has built in”, he said. Collier gave insight into the fact that, over the next few months, Monument Tools will be adding a Solarsoft telesales module for the benefit of the company’s external sales staff, as well as a module for web-sales, enabling customers will be able to buy online. “All these modules are non-bespoke, off-the-shelf modules, and we will probably only require a couple of days’ training for each of these modules,” he said.
And, in the wake of the current market downturn, are our commentators’ organisations changing their business or operational strategy to any notable degree? Maurer remarks that Rochester Meat Company has been tightening its belt and watching costs very carefully. “Other than that we have not changed our strategy,” she added. Alison points out that HoMedics is more aware of the cash-to-cash cycle. “And this is reflected in an increased focus on in tighter management of inventory,” he said. Bowden comments that, when market conditions are like they currently are, it always comes down to margin; what your costs are, whether costs can be trimmed anywhere – so a lot of margin analysis takes place. “We have a cost accountant who goes through the products and checks that the products are costed in the system correctly, so we can make the correct sales margins when staff go out on the road to sell the products,” said Bowden. And, as a company, Texecom follows Lean principles. “We do a lot of changes for single-piece flow on the shop floor, just-in-time delivery of goods, and most systems are needed in the background to back those up,” Bowden pointed out. “We also do automated purchasing now, whereas we used to do monthly deliveries and are looking to reduce these to weeklies. We’re holding less stock now as well, and this has been helped along by the system we now have.” Collier remarks that the downturn has not had a huge effect on Monument Tools’ use of its ERP system. However there are certain opportunities that the company has recognised, and which it is looking to leverage advantage from. “Telesales is one of the areas we’re going to look at,” said Collier. “We’re also trying to save money by reducing travel/fuel costs, and relying more on the benefits of technology. This seems the sensible thing to do.”
Reflecting on some of the relatively recent technological leaps, Maurer believes that the three most notable technological developments that have impacted ERP solutions have been improvements in relational database structure; the use of tools like .Net and Java to produce user-friendly and web-based interfaces, and the development of applications for mobile devices. She points out that first allows the data to be retrieved more effectively, and the other two allow Rochester Meat Company to get to the data from anywhere its staff might be. For Bowden, the impact of Service-Orientated Architecture (SOA) has been dramatic. “It allows a business to modify a product safely and put anything into it,” he said. “You can put any front end or any reporting system on the back end and call the functionality out of the system without breaking it. A traditional example is the financial director saying ‘I want to update this table’; just dump it straight into SQL and it can cause problems, so we flatly refuse to do this. Instead, we say ‘give me your data in whatever format you want, and we will put it through the system as if you were typing it in manually – including all the business logic – so you don’t break the system’. Also, you risk data corruption unless you use SOA. You need data analysis and a database programmer to put information into any ERP system because they can be so complicated.”
Looking at a longer timeframe, Collier’s view is that the biggest improvement business has seen is the generally increased storage space on computer systems. “We bought our first computer in the early 1970s, which was 0.8 of a megabit and the size of a small bathroom,” he said. “We used to have to delete product and customer information just to allow us to load information about other customers and other products. Now, with modern computer technology, there is of course no comparison in terms of storage size.” Also, Collier cites the fact that we now have integration with the Internet, and much greater transparency of information. And looking to the months and years ahead, Maurer anticipates that there will be more mobile applications. “People will be less and less tethered to a desk,” she said, adding that some of the more legacy types of applications, such as EDI and barcode data collection, will evolve and catch up with the core functionality. Kevin Moore, group financial controller, Vitalograph (Ireland), maintains that Web-based ERP solutions and the advancement of more modular systems are two developments to watch out for. “This should allow the installation to proceed in much smaller increments with less support from IT professionals,” he said. One thing is for sure, developments will not stand still in the ERP world and its broader technology environs.