Magazine Article | November 1, 2001

Hands-Off Manufacturing

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Integrating an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system with Web-based applications allows a high-tech manufacturer to expand its customer base and reduce human intervention.

Integrated Solutions, November 2001

Making sales without salespeople. Taking orders without customer service reps. Replenishing inventory and scheduling production without line of business managers.

Traditional manufacturers have long dreamt about such a utopian business model. But, they were never foolish enough to let themselves believe the dream could become a reality. However, if you have a non-traditional manufacturing background, like John Pawlowski, then you're less restricted by conventional industry thinking. Having founded an ISP (Internet service provider) before taking the reigns as president and CEO of Circuit Images, Inc., Pawlowski had a different perspective than most manufacturers. Through a combination of mature and cutting-edge technologies, Circuit Images would create a new reality for the circuit board manufacturing company.

Manufacturer Shoots For "Soup-To-Nuts" ERP Package
Before Circuit Images could invest in new technology, the company had to make some serious decisions about where it was heading in the future. The Boulder, CO-based company manufactures custom PCBs (printed circuit boards), while other vendors manufacturer and apply the components that reside on the PCBs. That's all going to change, according to Pawlowski. "We will be acquiring some of these component companies. Once those acquisitions are complete, we will be a one-stop shop for customers," explains Pawlowski. The acquisitions would add several more links to a Circuit Images supply chain that was already in need of an infusion of technology. Adds Pawlowski, "We were using a homegrown manufacturing system that was incapable of running the business in a way that we needed. The system wasn't working, and the person who developed it was constantly tending to maintenance issues."

The ultimate goal for Pawlowski was to marry what worked in the manufacturing industry with what he had learned as an ISP. With this in mind, Circuit Images sought an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system that could also extend many of the company's business processes to the Web. In searching for a "soup-to-nuts" package, from manufacturing to sales to accounting, Circuit Images landed on an ERP solution from Made2Manage (Indianapolis).

Circuit Images not only produces custom PCBs, the company accommodates different shipping times. Some customers want the PCBs in 10 days, while others need them in 24 hours. "There's a premium on how fast you can produce the boards and get them to customers," says Pawlowski. To capitalize on that premium, the ERP system from Made2Manage manages the more than 20 operational steps involved in the production of Circuit Images' PCBs. The ERP system also handles the financial side of the company.

While inventory management is important, the system's ability to plan and schedule production is what will separate Circuit Images from the competition. Over the course of a month, hundreds of jobs need to be scheduled for production and each job has unique production requirements and delivery dates. As rush orders come in, jobs in the queue need to be juggled to accommodate it. "The system has to schedule each job and make sure materials are on hand and also meet the shipping requirements," comments Pawlowski. "This whole process has to be flawless. You can't miss a delivery date, because that's the biggest element that distinguishes you from the competition."

Integrating Web Apps With ERP Solutions
Planning and scheduling the manufacturing processes are what ERP systems do best. To further leverage his investment, however, Pawlowski wanted to tap what he considers to be a burgeoning e-commerce market. Currently, the company is taking orders from customers through the Circuit Images Web site. The browser interface walks customers through the custom configuration of a PCB and then instantly provides users with pricing quotes. In addition to making sure that customers are configuring the PCBs properly, the Web-based software also has to ensure that the proper price is being supplied. If the customers accept the proposed orders, they are sent to a CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) system which starts the production process. "Right now, this electronic procedure is nothing compared to where we plan to take it," says Pawlowski. "We are still working to have perfect integration between the Web quoting system and the ERP system. When that's complete, customers will be able to configure products and get a reliable quote at any time of day without having to deal with any human intervention."

The result of this inward- and outward-facing technology implementation is a company that controls its manufacturing processes as opposed to being controlled by them. "Our old system provided us with so little data that we couldn't base any decision on it," recalls Pawlowski. "With the new software package, we have quality data in sufficient quantities. We can analyze all of our processes and more effectively manage the business."

In terms of Circuit Images' Web strategy, Pawlowski is already seeing the benefits. Sales have increased and customer service and satisfaction have risen as well. The online initiative has also opened up new markets for Circuit Images. The once local manufacturer is now accepting orders from outside its regional headquarters and building a bigger customer base.

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