The need for shop management software

March 1, 2002
Are you among the many small manufacturers that don't yet have shop management software or are making do with your first package, to avoid having to adapt the way you do business?

By Richard W. Herzfeld

Are you among the many small manufacturers that don't yet have shop management software or are making do with your first package, to avoid having to adapt the way you do business?

Industrial Laser Solutions editor David Belforte recently found that many laser shops looking at software think they want more from their vendors–especially customization. What are they really saying? Do they want more flexibility? More integration with other software? An ability to find data more quickly to make better decisions? Or do they want the software to more closely mimic their operation?

Customization can be a difficult, complex issue for software providers. Vendors may have thousands of customers, so adapting software to one customer's needs often is impractical, especially from the customer service point of view.

In the search for shop management software, some vendors may complicate the process. Vendors of discrete manufacturing solutions may promote their products to the contract manufacturer, but the differences between these processes may be downplayed by sales people. If you're a contract manufacturer, inventory and work orders to replenish inventory are typically not your concern. Those features often add confusion–and perhaps are the reasons many shops feel there is a need to customize. Remember the following.

Shop management software for . . .

  1. job shops or contract manufacturers concentrates on actual costs and is designed for making parts to customer specifications. Job tracking begins with the estimate or quote and is tracked through the order, production and shipping.
  2. discrete manufacturers is suited to firms making products specifically for inventory. Flow begins with the inventory master file through the sales order, work order, manufacturing, into inventory and then to shipping.

"One issue for many shops," says Kevin Bork, owner of CAM Solutions (Bloominton, MN) a Value Added Reseller, "is having 'done it this way' for 20 years. They need to put aside old ways of thinking, i.e., 'I just spent thousands of dollars for software and now I have to retrain everyone to do something new?' Shop owners need to view software as a productivity investment," says Bork. The company is a solutions provider that sells, installs and provides training and customer support for manufacturing software and DNC for machine tools.

People wrongly expect manufacturing software to be as intuitive as accounting software. Bork says, "Ac counting packages are always black and white–payables, receivables and doing a check line." In the shop, things are different. "Shop owners ask vendors: 'I've always taken an order and processed it this way; why can't I do so with your software?'"

Bork reminds us that shop management software must increase the efficiency of the operations being automated. "Some how, the shop owner must recognize that and accept the need for adaptation." Software promises that you can sit at any computer terminal, look at a screen and know what is happening throughout the shop. "To do that is really cool," according to Bork, "but often requires changes, like replacing job tickets with barcoding or shop floor terminals."

Companies that spend millions of dollars for software, make certain that all employees are trained. Yet small manufacturers display an aversion to software training. Shops will train and retrain people on lasers and other equipment, because it is easy to recognize lost machine productivity. Yet software, which can increase machine profit and efficiency and contribute directly to the bottom line, is often relegated to mostly unsupervised on–the–job training. Bork reminds shop owners that, "You use software to become more profitable, more efficient and more flexible, and you certainly want to keep good employees. With the right software, you can sometimes also slot less–experienced people into technical positions."

Billie Henning is a vice president at Henning Industrial Software, a shop management software provider that prides itself in giving customers what they want. She feels that, "We get more requests for changes as the mix and sizes of the businesses we serve expands. And we constantly find ourselves getting into different types of shops, including some very large manufacturers." Henning suggests another reason that vendors are getting more change requests: "Many shops now are migrating from their first shop system. This time around they know what to ask for, know what is available, so they're trying not to repeat old mistakes. Now they are comparing software again, looking more knowledgeably for features they've already grown ac customed to, but also demanding options they've done without."

Henning points to scheduling as the perfect example of the changes her customers have influenced. "In the past, we had a fairly rigid auto–scheduling routine." Then a customer came along and said 'I don't do it that way. I'd like to drag a job and drop it where I want to put it.' "That is one way we make our software better–as a result of a customer request." Today that drag–and–drop feature, according to Henning, is one of the more popular advantages of her company's system.

Lot accountability for inventory also grew out of one customer's request. "We tracked standard and average inventory, but had no lot traceability. At that time we hadn't yet developed our integrated accounting package, so we didn't have journal entries to show the actual flow of every inventory item. So we created FIFO, LIFO and lot tracking with multiple locations and bins. Our customers now can trace inventory back to the original material."

Henning gives credit where it's due: "Our customers bring great ideas, and often the issues are something others have recognized, too." A major path for program changes at Henning is found at its User's Conference. This yearly meeting gives customers a chance to network and assign priorities to a number of changes requested throughout the year. "We also talk with our customers constantly, so we have ever–expanding request lists," Henning says.

Software vendors must avoid the confusion of having multiple versions of software to maintain. Similarly, shop owners who choose to use systems integrators to customize their software must be aware of a pitfall. When the integrator doesn't understand all of the software, confusion can arise. The customized software must be 'evergreen'–that is, any changes made should not be impacted when the software vendor issues an upgrade. The custom changes must be reinstituted quickly and easily, and preferably at no charge to the shop.

Ready–made software has come a long way. It's hard to imagine that there's any shop procedure that someone hasn't programmed. Almost any shop management software gives you most of the functionality you need, even though it might not understand the exact way you conduct your business, and may not have the repository of knowledge, methods and idiosyncrasies with which you're familiar. But with the proper effort, it can–and your company will be better for that effort.

Dick Herzfeld is a freelance writer and public relations executive with TechComm Public Relations (Milwaukee, WI). Contact him at [email protected]. Billie Henning, Henning Industrial Soft ware, can be contacted at [email protected]. Kevin Bork, CAM Solutions Inc., can be contacted at kevinb@cam–solutions. com.

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