There’s an app for that (in manufacturing)

Posted on Jul 1, 2013 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

If you’re not familiar with the term “big data,” you may consider yourself fortunate. The buzzword describes a massive volume of data, from numerous sources such as the Web, sales, customer contact centers, social media, mobile data, etc. – a volume that is so large and complex it’s difficult to process using traditional database and software techniques.

While the term may be nebulous, the concept is clearly understood by many manufacturers struggling to keep their systems moving smoothly amid rapidly developing technology.

“What happens is there are multiple systems they’ve built up over the years – one delivery system, another customer service system, a different billing system,” explains Mitch Weckop, CEO of Skyline Technologies Inc., an IT consulting firm with locations in Appleton, Green Bay and Pewaukee. “The problem is the way technology has grown up over the years and the way a lot of people have invested, many times those systems aren’t connected.”

Having various systems in place which aren’t compatible with each other is a common problem plaguing manufacturers today. But it’s not just the systems that aren’t connected.

“We have a fairly sizeable percentage of our workforce that doesn’t have ready access to a computer because they’re on the floor or in our distribution centers,” says Chris Moore, vice president of information technology at Uponor, Inc., a plumbing and heating systems manufacturer based in Appleton. “We’d really been struggling with how to communicate with these employees.”

Like most manufacturers, Uponor realized the limits to posting information on a bulletin board in hopes of it landing in the hands of workers.

“We were having to rely on, ‘Did you walk from your forklift the 1,000 feet to the bulletin board to see about the company picnic?’” Moore says.

But there was something the company noticed which was already in the workers’ hands.

“We thought, ‘Who doesn’t have a cell phone?’ And most people have smart phones. We really need to find an application, at no cost to the employee, that provides a way for us to communicate with them,’” says Moore.

Enter Red e App, a private, secure mobile messaging platform which provides communication via personal smart devices rather than using traditional email.

“Fifty to 70 percent of the population has a smart phone,” says Red e App owner Jonathan Erwin. “It opens up a whole new world of communication and employee engagement.”

Web applications like Red e App are proving to be a useful operations tool for an increasing number of manufacturers. While the technology isn’t new, the widespread use of smart devices among employees is an element that didn’t exist, to its current extent, a decade ago. That is the factor which opens up a whole new way to communicate, as well as a whole new acronym.

BYO What?
“BYOD – Bring Your Own Device to work,” Weckop explains, describing the technology trend sweeping today’s industries. “Fifteen years ago it was just cell phones and the question was, ‘What do we provide and what does an individual provide?’ Now fast-forward 10 to 15 years and we all have technology at home. We all carry smart phones and many people would rather bring their own device to work, so the question becomes, ‘Why don’t we just go to one device?’”

The answer to that question presents a complex issue to employers: security. Companies were challenged with trying to listen to their employees’ desire to use their own smart devices while also trying to manage the complexity and security of sending company information to personal smart phones. The market for outside IT help was ripe.

“That’s why people hire us,” says Weckop. “More and more people are going to the model of ‘use your own phone, we’ll manage security.’”

Companies like Skyline and Red e App provide the software to ensure security through specific web applications.

Another example is the software solution Wipfli Connect for Manufacturers, recently launched by the Appleton-based accounting and business consulting firm. Powered by Microsoft, the system provides a simple-to-use interface across a manufacturer’s entire enterprise, allowing a company to more effectively manage information on its customers, distribution channels, assets, warranties and service claims.

“Companies find themselves living in a kind of spreadsheet nightmare,” says Terry Kerscher, Wipfli partner and customer relationship management consulting practice leader. “Things get even messier when they attempt to manage the entire customer lifecycle. Wipfli Connect for Manufacturing simplifies complicated customer relationships by getting everyone on the same communication page. And it puts information in the hands of those who need it.”

Manufacturing currently represents approximately one-third of Wipfli’s overall business, according to Kerscher, and he says that number is on the rise.

“We have been experiencing double-digit growth in manufacturing with our consulting practice for a number of years,” Kerscher says.

Also on the rise with the technology trend is a critical aspect to any company’s overall success: employee engagement.

“When people understand how their job is connected to the overall company strategy, every employee becomes a player,” Moore says.

After implementing Red e App less than six months ago, Moore says Uponor has seen more than a 30 percent increase in the read rate of company transmitted information.

“Roughly less than 50 percent of our workforce was seeing that information before Red e App,” Moore explains. “Now we have 80 to 85 percent reading the information.”

The direct result of that improvement in communication, according to Moore, is higher employee engagement, which leads to better retention rates in a highly competitive employment market.

Whether it’s bringing workers closer to their company’s strategy or merging multiple systems throughout the production process, the connections through technology are adding up.

NSC, Inc. Software Solutions of Brillion recently helped a company streamline a cumbersome and outdated method of quality control.

“What they had was a thick sheet of paper that they would have to pass around to multiple managers to check off on either samples or all the products,” says Eric Nies, Larry Nies’s son and NCS lead developer. “Within a year they ended up saving close to a million dollars from the use of the web application.”

Still, as helpful and profitable as it can be, even the experts will point out that sometimes technology is not the answer.

“Sometimes technology doesn’t solve the problem,” says Larry Nies, NSC president. “What solves the problem is the fact that they took the time to go through the process to really see what is happening.”

That’s where they say bringing in an IT consulting firm with an external viewpoint occasionally uncovers a solution that had been there all along.

“Getting people together in a room and communicating is the big factor,” Larry Nies explains. “It’s just a matter of having the communication between various departments in the corporation and actually going through the whole process and saying, ‘Yes, this is the best method for us to use. Now we can improve our bottom line by doing this.’ You make one little change, and it may be technical or not, but it can just have a ripple effect on the whole corporation.”

In fact, that ripple is spreading far beyond individual corporations, according to industry experts, who say the two key factors to the technology trend – communication and connection – are having a positive impact throughout the manufacturing landscape statewide.

“What I’ve seen in manufacturing is a tremendous amount of shared best practices between manufacturers,” says Weckop. “There are all kinds of New North connections and all kinds of manufacturing networks popping up. We in the IT world invest a lot in being a part of that and participating in those leadership activities because that’s how you keep up in your industry.”

Weckop points to the University of Wisconsin E-Business Consortium as an example of the kind of partnering forums he’s seeing.

“There are a couple hundred businesses that get together and share best practices. There’s a supply chain track, which is where manufacturers’ and engineers and product development people go, there’s a technology track and then there’s a marketers’ track,” says Weckop. “I just really love what I see in the state relative to people participating in the forums like UWEBC or New North because those are ways people can keep up, see ideas and say ‘How can I bring those ideas into my company and help me compete?’”

• Red e App  Uponor Inc., a plumbing and heating systems manufacturer based in Appleton, recently adopted Red e App, a secure mobile messaging platform, to provide a better way to communicate with its employees. “We have a fairly sizeable percentage of our workforce that doesn’t have ready access to a computer because they’re on the floor or in our distribution centers,” says Chris Moore, vice president of information technology. But most of those employees have smart phones, Moore says, which provides a new opportunity to deliver information.

• Wipfli Connect for Manufacturing  The Wipfli Connect for Manufacturers app helps companies manage multiple sources of information, avoiding the “spreadsheet nightmare.” Managing the customer lifecycle gets messy without such programs, says Wipfli’s Terry Kerscher.