Fairborn Manufacturing, out of Sandusky, OH, has been in operation since 1975. They are a mid-cap-corporation which builds and installs dock seals. A dock seal is a flexible fabric barrier installed on the outside of a loading dock. The purpose is to join the warehouse with the back of a trailer, providing a weatherproof, secure seal.
When a semi-truck backs its trailer up to a loading dock, there’s a gap left between the building and the trailer. The dock seal extends from the building to cover this space. The main advantage (outside of weatherproofing) in warehouse situations is that the trailer can be left in place and serve as an extension of the building itself – artificially adding new floor space. For example, a retailer who wants to run a blow-out special on Coke products can order a trailer-full, seal it to the dock, and unload pallets of product as needed, all without having to lose any existing storage space in the store.
While simple in concept, creating a dock seal that functions properly requires quite a bit of custom engineering. You can’t modify the bay door opening or the dimensions of trailers. The seal has to “disappear” when not in use, and has to surround the open back of a trailer securely when in use. Not quite like docking to the space station, but plenty of engineering nonetheless.
In the bad old, pre-digital, dinosaur days, when Fairborn was starting out, everything about a customer and their order could be handled by a single file. An actual manila folder file. Order sheets, measurements, drawings and billing information were all in there. This was the days when fax machines had place of pride in the office.
This was fine for a start-up. But with expansion, serious problems emerged. For example, if the customer has one version of a drawing/spec sheet, and the master file had another, and the guys on the factory floor cutting and sewing vinyl had a third… Well, it didn’t take more than a spilled cup of coffee to create panic. Then there was the matter of record keeping. A customer from five years back asking about maintenance or an upgrade meant a frantic scramble to (hopefully) find their old records.
Digitization offered a huge improvement. As engineers, the principles saw the advantages immediately. They were fairly early adopters. By 1999, the last time they had a serious upgrade, they were running a custom software package that met their needs. Yep, that 1999 – their legacy software was booted up around Y2K – and it was still being used.
Time marches on. 15 years is forever in software terms. Critical software was no longer being supported by anyone, making “tweaks” impossible. Over the years, platforms have evolved as well. New modules are in use by different facets of the business: CAD for design, accounting software, logistics software, and others. The add-ons don’t always play well with the legacy system. Instead of having a “master file” in a physical folder, they now have the opposite problem: the business process is too fractured.
The problem is most obvious when you find employees entering the same data into different sub-systems. The duplication of effort almost makes you wish for the fax machine and copier back. At least then, you could scan and copy a drawing and hand it to someone.
Shopping for “solutions” has its own problems. First of all, Fairborn liked their old system. Until it grew too cumbersome, it did just what they wanted- kept track of an order and customer accurately. Adding a new, off-the-shelf product might fix one difficulty, but in the process would add another – as well as requiring a whole suite of functions employees would have to learn and then never use.
Data migration is an issue – old customers are repeat customers, and one income stream is maintenance and repair. The size and format of attachments is an issue too – engineering drawings as attachments, along with customer requirements, tends to balloon file sizes, making them unwieldy and, if the format is unfamiliar to a client, cause customer care problems.
There’s another whole dimension Fairborn needs to access in the meantime. To really become current, they need to move much of their communications, payments and tracking online. This means streamlining order tracking, shipping, and installation on a web-based platform, and that has to blend with their in-house systems.
The answer, for Fairborn and many, many other mid-caps using legacy software, is holistic. Adding another patch won’t do. What’s needed is a custom blend that starts with understanding their business process and works with it. This is a direct contrast to off-the-shelf packages which require businesses to change to meet the software requirements. You want a tool that works for you instead of working for it.
Fairborn did look into several ready-made products, such as MS Dynamics. However, these didn’t fit their needs well enough – leading to the decision to go for a custom solution.
MiSoft Solution’s role starts with coming to grips with the business as it functions already. What’s working? Where are the collisions between software used by one business function but no others?
We want to keep the same “feel” – at least for those things the client likes now – instead of putting together a system that introduces another level of confusion. Some of it will necessarily be new: migrating to the cloud and adding online functionality. But a great deal will be using existing strengths in new ways.
Customer Relationship Management (CRM) doesn’t have to be just a sales tool. A design engineer needs access to client information as well. And the salesforce ought to be able to access pricing and design options, scheduling information, and send a picture of a problem they take with their cell phone to someone who can answer the relevant question. That can mean the difference between a sale and a “maybe we’ll talk next week.”
At all levels, MiSoft Solutions is keeping an eye out for metrics. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) isn’t just about capturing data, but capturing relevant data and displaying it in a way decision makers can use. This is where between-package customization really pays off. Business metrics are generated in every software module being run by the company, but no one wants to get swamped by trivia. Tell us what you need to know and we’ll figure out a way to capture it.
Finally, we want to avoid falling into the legacy software trap again. That means documentation and a plan for ongoing software maintenance. Successful manufacturing businesses understand this. They prefer to buy quality tools that won’t fall apart in a year or two. This is especially true when they’ve already been hurt by outdated, legacy software. We keep an eye on scalability, regular updates, and evolving as the IT industry and standards of practice evolve.
UPDATE: Two months after final delivery, everything is working smoothly. Fairborn has a system that doesn’t stand in the way of getting the job done. They also have the source code so future enhancements won’t be a problem.