Volume 36, Issue 8, August 2001
A Look at the Changes, Advances, Benefits and Future of Glass-Industry Software
By Ellen Giard
In this technological age humans have grown to rely on computers for just about everything: balancing the checkbook, paying taxes, shopping, the list goes on. And somehow the glass industry found a part in the arena, offering software products that have evolved to become the lifeblood for some companies. While there are still those in the industry who have not yet ventured into the computer age, many went forward years ago. The question remains—how did the introduction of glass-industry software change us, and what does the future hold?
In the Beginning
Determining who introduced the first glass-industry software is as questionable as the age-old query of which came first, the chicken or the egg? Regardless of who the first company to get its product to the market was, we do know the first programs were created in the 1970s. In 1975, Billco Manufacturing of Zelienople, Pa., worked with a plywood-cutting software supplier to develop glass-cutting software.
Dr. Bernd Wirsam, founder of Albat + Wirsam of Oakville, Ontario, created his first optimizing software in 1977 as a favor to his next-door neighbor who owned a glass shop.
Not too long after that, glass shops also saw a need to improve overall business management. One of the first companies to launch such software was Portland, Ore.-based GTS Services, which was then known as Pacific Computer Information Services. In 1982 Bruce Hawkins, who is today the company’s vice president of software engineering, and a glass shop owner worked together to write their first program—GlasPac, which is a point-of-sale package used in estimating and invoicing.
Why did companies choose to break into this line of work, and from where did this demand for industry software come?
“Software licensing was really an unconscious decision on the part of its first customers,” said Paul Christian, president of PMC Software based in Flemington, N.J. “The goal was to reduce the amount of pre-cut inventory. Automated cutting tables promised this by making it possible to produce custom sizes from larger sheet stock. However, controlling the operations of the cutting head required a new language of machine codes.” He continued, “While generating the machine control codes, why not optimize the glass usage as well? This would minimize the need for the user to interface with the computer for each layout … thus, the birth of the first glass optimizers.”
A number of machinery manufacturers branched out to offer their own lines of software. Billco, which has been manufacturing processing equipment for tasks such as glass cutting and washing since the 1900s, is one such company. Billco worked with outside sources in the 1970s to create software that described free-form shapes in X and Y coordinates that would generate the codes to operate its CNC machinery. It later created its own software package for optimization and shape forming in the early 1980s. Since then Billco has added other products to its software offerings including the Billco Optimization Software System (BOSS), which has been available for about six years. BOSS software is designed for use with either the company’s glass-cutting equipment or for hand cutting. “Those [companies] that want to optimize but either don’t use the machinery due to cost purposes or because they don’t have the floor space can still incorporate BOSS,” said Jay Campbell, sales representative for Billco. “We created [BOSS] so our customers would not be forced to go to another for their software—they can purchase the equipment and software from a single source. ”
Austria-based Peter Lisec, another long-time machinery manufacturer, launched its line of software about 12 years ago. Lisec software service manager Paul Stansberry said the decision to create software was just a logical extension of the business. “As computer technology developed, the software was developed to better control production,” he said. “It was a natural extension and logistical way to incorporate computer technology.” Jonathan Cullum, president of Lisec America Software adds, “Writing our own software better positioned Lisec to be able to develop and offer both [machinery and software].”
With more than 15 basic software products and available options for each, Lisec offers software for everything from order entry and pricing to optimization and product sequencing. Cullum says Lisec designs its products for use by glass manufacturers and fabricators. According to Stansberry, the products can be used with either Lisec equipment or machinery made by other companies. “The machinery doesn’t have to interface with all components of the software. There’s a lot of flexibility,” he said.
Then and Now
Like any product to hit the market, changes are sure to abound, most of which are usually for the better. Just look at any appliance or electronic device in your home or office; chances are the one you use today is faster, quicker and better than the one you used ten years ago. Computers and software are no exception. According to Andrew Narynski, North American sales manager for Albat & Wirsam, today’s software simplifies the production process for glass companies, making the job easier than it was before computers. For example, with software an order only has to be keyed into the system once and remains there unaltered for when it is needed next. Orders do not have to be keyed in continually as before. “Programmers or highly sophisticated people are no longer required to run the package,” he said. “All of that is done up front by the software’s creator.”
Cullum agreed. “Today’s products are more functional [than the first ones available]. First they were purely for optimization and now they offer a group-wide system solution. Software now deals with every concept of optimization, from profitability to overall glass usage,” he said.
Software professionals expect the products to continue evolving, offering more benefits and ease of use to the user. “The first software packages for the glass industry were created with only a fair understanding of how a glass shop operates. Now software producers have a much clearer knowledge of the industry and how efficiency can be improved,” Hawkins said. “This means the quality of the software is better and it’s easier to use.”
Dan Czekalski, vice president of sales and marketing at GTS Services, said it’s the evolution of software that will help companies stay competitive. “Our software, which began as a point-of-sale, part-look-up product, has evolved to become a complete business management system,” he said.
According to Christian, with computers serving as standard devices in offices, software’s emphasis has moved from remote processing to local processing. “Inexpensive memory and disk space along with improved graphics capabilities make it possible to provide more complex solutions, while interfacing with users has been simplified,” he said.
Although the different software packages are each designed for specific segments of production, they all carry common selling points: using software is a time and money saver. Who wouldn’t benefit from turning out more of the same product in less time and at a reduced cost? Software can take on manual tasks such as creating reports, tracking sales and evaluating how the business is doing, while giving employees more time to interact and work with customers.
“There’s an extensive number of parts that need to be priced, and [this] software can price multiple lines,” said Tom Carpenter, Breakaway sales manager for GTS Services.
Those using software programs can also expect less waste and better yields. With software taking on many of the tasks once done manually, handling is minimized and there is less glass breakage than before. Overhead is increased and margins are reduced. “There are very few people who can look at the orders, see what needs to be cut and then determine score placement as efficiently as computer-generated optimization,” Campbell said.
But the true testimony of what software can do for a business comes from those already using it. Companies that have incorporated software into their operations agree on the pluses they’ve seen since making the change. According to Kathy Carter, a customer service specialist with Louisville Plate Glass of Louisville, Ky., her company began using optimization software four years ago. “It’s the only software we’ve ever used,” she said. “Before adding it, jobs required a greater [workforce] and our cutting losses were high. We lost a lot of unused glass and our overhead was higher. Now it takes fewerworkers to handle the glass, so our labor costs are lower and we’ve reduced our cutting losses. It’s also made our operations more efficient and improved our quality control,” she added.
James Bryant, systems administrator with Nashville Tempering Glass Corp. of Nashville, says his company has also been using an optimization package for about four years. “It gives us automated optimization and allows a certain amount of [vertical] integration,” Bryant said. “In other words, we can take a full-size diagram, digitize it, send it to the person setting up the job and then straight to the cutting machine.” Like Carter, Bryant says using the software has also helped his company’s efficiency. “It’s made repeatability easier … with the software if we get an order for a pattern we’ve done before, we just open the saved pattern [rather than having to start a new one].”
Other companies, such as Trulite Industries Ltd. based in Mississauga, Ontario, use both accounting and optimization software which interface with one another, allowing information to flow back and forth. Gerry Duffy, chief operating officer for Trulite, said his company has been using both order-entry invoicing systems and production systems for about seven years and has seen the benefits. “Production is more accurate and quicker, we have better control, increased productivity and less manpower,” he said.
Despite the praises from both the users and software manufacturers, the actual number of companies employing software in their operations is lacking. According to a recent USGlass reader survey conducted by Research USA Inc., 46.1 percent of readers surveyed work for companies that own between one and four computers. But the results also showed that the number of those companies using computers for production-specific purposes carry a gradual reduction (see chart page 70). “It seems we are somewhat cavalier when it comes to technology,” Campbell said. “We’re quick to have the new high-tech machines, but it frequently seems that supporting software, which could enhance the system, is an afterthought.”
In addition, compared to the European market, Narynski says North American glass companies use industry software at a considerably lower rate. “The European market historically has been more automated than the North American market due in part to a much higher loaded wage per employee,” Narynski said. “The North American market is becoming much more software and machinery motivated due to the lack of qualified labor and reduced margins.”
To facilitate the use of their products throughout the industry, software manufacturers are taking steps to urge more companies to bring software into their jobs. And while there could be any number of reasons for a shop’s delay, such as the fear of change or simply a lack of awareness of the benefits, there are ways to reach everyone. “What we have done to encourage companies is go out on-site and evaluate with them where they could use software to reduce costs in their day-to-day operations.”
Learning how software has improved a company’s operations is another way of encouraging usage among others in the industry. “Testimonials of successful implementations continue to be the best means of educating others to the improved control and profits awaiting them if they integrate their operations through software,” Christian said. “They help remove some of the fear … because prospects can better relate to their counterparts in the industry.”
Industry competition as well as education are other ways to encourage glass shops and companies to use software programs. “Glass shops are beginning to realize that in order to stay competitive they have to be efficient. And they’re realizing that these software programs offer them productivity that they should take advantage of,” Czekalski said. “I don’t think in the long run glass shops will be able to survive without it.”
“It’s also an educational process as far as computers go,” Hawkins added.
While the number of North American companies taking advantage of industry software may be minimal compared to those in Europe, this is still a technological-boom period and both manufacturers and users of software expect to see more advancements and innovations in the near future. Carter, for instance who praised the benefits of ading software to her company's production process, still sees areas for improvement. "The glass industry does not offer very user-friendly software for this type of business - accounting, cutting, etc.," she said.
Other companies are finding ways to make changes themselves. Bryant says his company is looking towards expansions and growths centered on its computers and software. "Not too long ago we were looking into integrating everything...making all of our systems compatible with one another, but at the time were unable to do that," he said. "We definitely want to look into integrating in the future, but the problem right now is our system is horrible outdated. It runs on Novell, it uses DOS clients and some of the hardware is so outdated it would be almost impossible to find...I think the ability to intercommunicate is definitely a direction in which the glass industry is headed," he added.
Some see paperless operations as the next big change for the industry. Narynski said some companies have begun moving away from the paper chase by installing television monitors throughout their plants. "The industry has moved to short, and getting shorter, lead times for its products. Having software-controlled television monitors at various work centers opposed to paper allows production to commence immediately after the planning process," he said. "With a paper solution you have to wait for the printing and distribution stops to take place before you can begin." He adds, monitors help when it comes to tracking a product through the manufacturing process. "With TV montiors the system will be updated every time a piece of glass or unit goes through a process point on the shop floor," Narynski said. "This can be done by a mouse click, keystroke or pressing a foot pedal at the station. Consequently, customer service representatives can check orders for customers, and manufacturing managers throughout the plant are provided with the progress information per department or work center," he added.
In line with Nashville Tempering's plans for integration, Christian looks forward to more open systems. "[These] will make it easier to integrate machinery and software into a full plant-wide solution," he said. "However, for open systems to work, equipment designers need to understand the interface techniques available with today's software development tools. They also need to concede the fact that not every piece of equipment in a plant will be made by them...[pulling] everything together into an information system requires the ability to share data real-time."
Some also see the Internet playing a role in the industry's future. "The Internet is having a tremendous impact," Carpenter said. "We are building integrated programs to our software so users can link to them. All of our newest products are Internet-compatible and ready for E-commerce," he added.
"It's going to be more than just a website for looking up information," Hawkins said. "it's carrying out information that's driving a reduction in cost."
Regardless of what product a company chooses to incorporate into its operations, manufacturers agree one fact is certain: users can expect to find benefits through software.
Ellen Giard is managing editor of USGlass magazine.
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