Volume 8, Issue 7 - July/August 2007

 

Technology Two-Step
How to Integrate Off-the-Shelf Products into a Custom Line
by Alan B. Goldberg

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part series about how software and machinery suppliers work with their customers. Part II will appear next month.

Life was so much simpler when standard doors and windows were just that—the standard. The same could be said for equipment, materials and components. For reasons that range from using doors and windows as a design element to the consumer’s need to be different, custom has become the standard in many operations. Door and window manufacturers know this only too well. After all, many of their off-the-shelf products must be customized to some extent before they can become part of a production line. In the first part of this two-part series, DWM takes a look at how software companies and machinery suppliers work with their customers to integrate the tools they make into manufacturer’s system.

What Is Needed?
Although it may be said many different ways, the message is the same: Listen to your customer first and understand his operation before developing a way to improve it. 

“We must spend a lot of time with our customers to determine their needs and their customers’ needs,” says Dan DeMuth, president and chief operating officer for TDCI of Columbus, Ohio.

TDCI began supporting the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system of Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co. of Wausau, Wis., in the late 1990s, according to Hank Hosler, director of information technology. Kolbe & Kolbe now manufacturers complete doors and windows, in addition to millwork.

“In 1999, we worked with TDCI to develop a web-based system that could leverage the product knowledge we had already implemented in MAC-PAC,” he says. 

One of Kolbe’s primary goals, says Hosler, was to have a quote system that the company could make its own and improve continuously. “TDCI has delivered that ability to us,” he says. 

Ron Crowl, president of Fenetech in Aurora, Ohio, is just as emphatic about the importance of customer visits, particularly the initial one.

“We prefer to visit a client prior to providing a demo of our software. This allows us to view the operation in action … to understand the existing strengths and weaknesses,” he says.

How Are Products Marketed?
Friedman Corp. of Deerfield, Ill., conducts several telephone interviews to learn about the customer’s sales channels. Among the questions the company asks is, does the potential customer sell to a dealer/distributor network or directly to major builders?

Company president Mark Thompson says with visits to the facility and plant tours, more can be learned about the business and how his company’s system can move it forward. He explains that it is important to understand how the customer plans production today and the improvements he can expect from their system. Only after the company fully understands its customer’s needs does it tailor a presentation that highlights how issues will be addressed and goals will be met.

The R.O.W. Co. in Joliet, Ill., has been working with Friedman to develop a fully integrated, configuration-based system. “We had been using home-grown systems in our plant, and we realized that we needed to make dramatic changes,” says Bill Gebhardt, co-owner.

Lynn Hartl, owner and founder of WTS Paradigm in Middleton, Wis., points out that people at a high level in business believe the systems are just managing frame, glass beads, etc., but the reality is, the business process varies from company to company. “How [does the customer] market? What are [the customer’s] pricing methods? How [does the customer] ship? What are [the customer’s] manufacturing processes?” Hartl asks.

He says the real test, once information has been gathered, is how solutions come into play.

How Software Solutions Work
National Vinyl Products of Chicopee, Mass., needed a system for the front end (order entry) and the back end (manufacturing) (see related story in the February 2007 issue of DWM, page 54). President Scott Channel says WTS Paradigm offered him both features. In addition, he found that the order entry system was easy to use and was easily accessible by his customers online, two features that are extremely important in selecting a software company.

He says the integration of the system was not without challenges—although they were more internal than external. The dilemma, he explains, has more to do with the size of the company.

“For a fabricator of our size (small to medium), there are some choices. Either we pay the software company to develop the programs, we do it internally or we use a local source,” Channell says.

Channell elected to make this an internal project, utilizing personnel with IT skills.

“We are not large enough to support an IT staff so the challenge is to wear another hat and find enough time to get this done while managing our business,” he adds.

Overall, though, he says it was a smooth transition.

“We’re very happy with this system, which has been online since 2006,” adds Channell.

Order entry capability also was a priority for Tony Pauly, vice president and general manager of Ventana USA in Export, Pa., when he decided to purchase a software system.

“[The system] gives us the ability to build a window unit on the screen so we have the advantage of this visual unit,” Pauly says. “We can move the grid around and notch and perform other functions, and we can add components.”

Pauly says the visual unit lends itself as a rollout to customers, making it easy for them to order.

But Ventana’s transition was not without its issues either.

He explains that, for a custom shop, the system is very complex and had to be customized as well, which was a lengthy process.

“We felt the software engineers were overwhelmed with the complexity of the product knowledge and the daily business activities. Trying to get a handle on this through telephone calls and e-mails proved to be difficult. At one point, we convinced the software supplier to send their engineers to our operation for a firsthand look and work with the users.”

Integrating an in-house system from Fenetech for order entry with the shop floor was the order of business for Polaris Technologies in Youngstown, Ohio, says Dave Cicozi, systems manager. “[Fenetech reps] spent time talking to the shop people, from those who cut to those who assemble, in order to develop the middle [manufacturing] section of the system,” Cicozi says.

Combining Efficiency with Simplicity
DeMuth says the challenge in generating the right kind of information for manufacturers is to develop a software system that combines efficiency with simplicity, which is no easy task.

Crowl agrees that efficiency is a key factor. He points out that the initial meeting is not only crucial in updating technology but in finding ways to make the customer more efficient by improving the flow of his business.

Sunrise Windows in Temperance, Mich., is working on an integration project to tie FeneVision to its accounting program so inventories can be managed better, says Cliff Langdon, vice president of operations.

“FeneVision system has worked very well in the seven years it has been in operation. It does a great job with shop orders, glass and shipping,” Langdon says (see related story in the September 2005 issue of DWM, page 54).He points out that Fenetech has done a good job of understanding his business and continues to bring new programs to see where improvements can be made.

“What [Fenetech] do[es] better than any other software company I have worked with is listen to [its] customers and continually evolve to meet [its] diverse needs,” says Langdon.

Thompson finds that a manufacturer’s focus may vary depending on whether it is producing standard products or custom doors and windows.

“Manufacturers of standard products have a tendency to use production schedules that are driven by forecasts with more inventory control requirements. Custom manufacturers may want to streamline order entry and quotations and create bills for materials and routing,” he says.

For Northeast Building Products in Philadelphia, (see related story in the October 2006 issue of DWM, page 66), the focus on implementing a new Friedman system involved every aspect of the business.

“There is an enormous amount of work that has to be completed when a process like this is to take place. I don’t think we fully realized the significance of the impact from our team to complete this transition,” says Jeff Watkin, executive vice president.

He says that as a manufacturing and distributing business with a point-of-sale function, the integration of a system was quite a challenge. However, he says the challenge of the transition was well worth it.

“The system will help us become more streamlined, more efficient and allow our customers to do online ordering,” says Watkin.

Providing Training and Support
DeMuth says that implementing a system is only part of the project. Proper training so the customer can operate independently is just as important. In other words, everyone has to be able to use the system without requiring constant assistance.

“We don’t want them to feel that they are being held hostage by the software company,” DeMuth says. “Our software must reach out to their customers [dealers and distributors] because [the manufacturer is] providing the tools,” he says. 

Crowl stresses the need for service and support because “the industry continues to change and the software needs to change as well.”

He says his company offers support agreements that provide software upgrades and 24/7 technical support.

“Many software companies outsource their support functions to an offshore location in order to lower their internal cost of doing business,” Crowl says. “We have resisted that.”

Service and support from WTS Paradigm also is extensive. Hartl explains the online knowledge base applications and customer forums allow continuous education as new features are developed.

Regardless of their capabilities and support, software companies recognize that flexibility and the willingness to customize or tailor to their customers’ operations are two of the most appealing features. 

Alan B. Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM magazine. He has 31 years of experience in the window industry.



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