Volume 48, Issue 4- April 2013

feature

Uploads, Upgrades and Installations
From Buying to Developing to Modifying, Companies
Have Options When it Comes to Software

by Ellen Rogers

Incorporating the right software into the daily operations of any glass business is not an easy feat. While software packages are available today that are designed specifically for the needs and operations of the glass industry, finding the package that will best meet one company’s unique needs isn’t quite as simple as a trip to the local office supply store and picking up the latest version of Windows software. Glass companies are turning to software to interact and interface with every step of their operation. And since every company is different, buying an off-the-shelf product isn’t always the best option. Some companies choose to work with their suppliers to adapt an existing product to fit their own needs; other companies have developed proprietary programs. Whichever direction a company chooses, nothing will be cookie cutter. There will be challenges along the way, and finding the answer to the question of “what’s best for me?” is one that’s not always easily answered.

Many Options
Craftsman Fabricated Glass in Houston uses a number of different software products. President Bob Lawrence says they work with A+W for fabrication, as well as different products for order entry and accounting, which had to integrate with the fabrication program.

Likewise, Steven Powell, general manager for Tepco in Flushing, N.Y., also uses software designed specifically for the glass industry.

“We use it for all functions—order entry, quoting, inventory management, production status and routing of deliveries,” he says. “The only thing we do not use it for is payroll.”

Powell adds of their selection, “We looked for ease of use and simple processing and reporting.”

According to Carey Dyck, IT director for Seattle-based Hartung, there are a number of items to look at when thinking about a software purchase.

“You have to have a clear goal of what you want to accomplish,” he says. “Most software solutions will market a great number of features, many of which may not be applicable to your goal.” Dyck says other questions they set out to answer are, ‘Is this software used the way I want to use it, and do the bells and whistles really add value to our business goals?’

“If we are talking about Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions, it’s essential to have access to the database that plays well with others,” he says. ERP, he explains, refers to the main enterprise software package/system that handles everything from quoting, order entry and purchasing, all the way through to production, inventory control, and shipping. “That software may need to interface with accounting or payroll software, and will likely need to interface with other Cloud-based tools that may or may not have even been written yet.” (See article on page 28 to learn more about how companies are starting to use the Cloud.)

Channels of Communication
When it comes to a software addition, glass companies agree that a close, working relationship with their suppliers is essential.

“The bigger the role the software plays (e.g. ERP solution) the closer you need to work with the vendor,” says Dyck. “The vendor knows how their product works, but you know your business and how you want to use and configure their software to create the best value.”

“Software installations are a huge process. Just in our own installation and upgrades five years ago we had about six months of time with our supplier,” says Lawrence. “The bottom line is it’s very intensive and you’ve got to dedicate [time] to getting it up and running. The longer you spread it out the more painful it can be. Sometimes if you concentrate on getting it done it can be hard to concentrate on anything else. And there is nothing worse than software not working right.”

For example, there could be instances where incorrect glass types might be sourced, cut, etc. This makes it all the more important to work closely with providers.

“You want a commitment from your supplier that you will get their time,” says Lawrence, “because sometimes there can be issues.”

He continues, “You want to make sure everything is working properly; you might not know [something is wrong] until after you have a mess up,” he says. “Usually there is a lot of testing on site to make sure nothing was missed. I don’t think there is such a thing as an easy installation. It’s painful and it’s best that if whoever is buying it has someone in-house totally focused on what’s going on and that person should also have a backup.”

“[You have to work together] very closely so [suppliers] understand your business process and the information you need to effectively run the operation,” says Powell. “Sometimes you have to educate the developer on processes [in areas] about which they did not know. So you have to be able to communicate theses needs accurately.”

In-House Options
While some companies are content with the software products readily available, others choose to develop their own packages. Four of Hartung’s manufacturing plants, for instance, run off an in-house developed ERP solution. Dyck says developing these products in-house can afford a company a number of advantages over purchased software.

“If you have the right people, you can have a solution catered to the needs of your business,” he says. “Purchased software is designed to satisfy the needs of many customers, while software developed in-house only has to solve your needs. This often tends to make in-house solutions easier to use and maintain and often more efficient. Customization is not an issue but resource requirements can be a challenge.”

And there can be further challenges when it comes to developing in-house solutions.

“The biggest challenge is personnel bandwidth. The person(s) responsible for the software specifications need to understand our business, including production, as well as understand software development and true innovation,” says Dyck. “If you are developing major software projects, you also have the challenge and cost of cross-training key people and developing effective internal documentation. Smaller projects are often neglected and not maintained after the person who wrote it moves on.”

Developing software in house is not for everyone, however.

“In today’s environment we did not consider developing in house since there are some many companies that have already done all of the work,” says Powell. “There’s no need to recreate the wheel so to speak.”

He adds, “Plus, the costs of initial development and the ongoing resources to keep customizing are very high.”

Lawrence agrees. “I don’t think it makes sense to develop software yourself. You have to integrate with every piece of equipment you have, cutting tables, drilling machines, etc., and that’s tough to do.”

Purchasing Power
Companies also see a number of benefits to purchasing a complete package.

“Typically, purchased software solutions are kept current and up-to-date, where in-house solutions are often dated and may lack the flexibility to incorporate new technologies as they are developed,” says Dyck. “Generally, if a solution already exists for your need, it will be available faster, have fewer issues, and include more features than if you developed it yourself. The software vendor can and should more readily help train your personnel.”

There can also be unique challenges when developing your own.

“Ultimately, you are responsible for configuring the software, how to setup the database, and decide which features to use. For larger projects, unfortunately, this is often required before you have a full understanding of the software and how these configurations will impact the overall system,” says Dyck.

He continues, “Additionally, there is some exposure of continuity and maintaining a proprietary system with your own staff compared to the larger staffs available from some larger software vendors.”

Speaking of software selections, Lawrence says it’s ideal to work with a SQL type of product that will allow users to make modifications themselves, without having to pay [suppliers] to do so. He says SQL based software enables information to be gathered from proprietary software and put into meaningful reports that the fabricator needs to manage production, sales, etc. “This allows the software customer to create reports from all the data that is available, rather than paying the software provider to create special reports that would typically be subject to additional fees for future modifications,” he says.

“You also have to be careful, even if it does have SQL, that the programming language is one that you understand,” he says, explaining that sometimes the programming languages can be in German, Italian or other languages your IT people may not understand.

Best of Both Worlds
The other option companies have when it comes to software is that of a hybrid solution: purchasing an existing product and modifying it to meet their own specific needs. Many fabricators and software providers say this is a common practice.

According to Ron Crowl, president and CEO of FeneTech, 95 percent of what glass companies do is common: cut, temper, insulate, fabricate, etc.

“The remaining 5 percent is what differentiates them in the market. How they move material through the plant, how they offer products for sale through an online quoting tool, how they service the customer,” he says. “This 5 percent is what endears a customer to them and has them return to do more business. That 5 percent is what leads companies to try to find the competitive advantage that requires customization of any standard product.”

Lawrence says his company has taken existing programs and modified them for their specific needs. This, he says, is where the SQL packages come into play. These allow users to make better use of all of the production and manufacturing information stored in the software’s memory “and create reports that are more meaningful to your needs,” says Lawrence. “Customers will want a package that allows their own IT people to generate those reports rather than paying someone to [do so].”

Crowl says his company is often involved in custom software development.

“In some cases this software is proprietary and for a single customer use only. Other times we work with our customers to develop new features and functionality into our base products,” he says, explaining they use a detailed project execution methodology when developing custom software and/or making enhancements to products to meet specific customer needs.

“The first step is to clearly identify the requirements through a detailed white-boarding process. After this is completed the functional requirements are documented and agreed to between the parties. Technical specifications are then written and the development begins. The time frame varies widely, from one week to one year, based on the scope.”

Making the Connection
Whether companies choose to buy the ready-made products, modify or take a leap and develop their own, the bottom line and reasoning are the same. Incorporating software allows a company to improve its efficiencies and better meet the needs of its customers.

Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. She can be reached at erogers@glass.com. Follow her on Twitter @USGlass and like USGlass magazine on Facebook to receive updates.


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