Doors, ornate and every-day, metal and wood, are what Steves & Sons have been all about for 147 years. The Texas-based company's reputation for excellence and reliability was earned in part by staying abreast of the latest manufacturing technology. Yet, it found itself last year paying for damaged delivery claims despite its meticulous packaging procedures. So the company turned to technology again, this time digital document technology, to provide an answer now opening the door to a whole new world in manufacturing technology at Steves.
"Our doors are crated and loaded with great care, yet they were arriving to the customer damaged," says Steves’ CIO John Andre. "Obviously, something was happening between our dock door and the delivery location. In the end Steves was stuck with the bill. Fixing blame wasn't working. We needed to fix the problem."
Taking pictures of orders before shipping was the obvious solution. But Steves' six manufacturing plants employ 500 people, among them dozens of inspectors. Solving the damaged door dilemma would take more than handing cameras to all those inspectors.
The company considered installing fixed cameras on the shop floor but needed the flexibility to use them anywhere in the plants, any time. Steves makes 3.5 million doors a year, some of them worth thousands of dollars. Thousands of pictures would need to be taken each year at each of the manufacturing plants. Steves needed a system that would insure the right pictures end up in the right purchase order folders, with the right documentation showing who took them, when and where. That same system would then have to provide instant access to all those properly filed photos to address any new damaged delivery disputes.
Andre's IT department was asked to build that system and he turned to his software engineer, Tracy Rickman, for help. Job No.1 was finding the right tool to take all those pictures. They considered using Motorola MC-9090 devices, already in use on the company's shop floors. Rickman opted instead for Samsung Galaxy Player mobile devices. The Motorola MC-9090 was doing its job just fine, but the $2,000 devices don't hold up well under the wheels of a forklift, and Steves needed to outfit a lot of inspectors with a lot of cameras.
"We've gotten several of the MC-9090s run over," said Rickman. "While nothing can stand up to that, at a tenth of the cost of the MC-9090, you can run over a Galaxy Player and it's not the end of the world."
While the version of MC-9090 that Steves owned did not have a built-in camera, other Motorola devices have cameras at a similar price point as the Galaxy Player. Moreover, opting for the Galaxy Player also meant moving to a whole new mobile operating system to track the movement of goods through the plants and onto delivery trucks.
But Rickman saw an opportunity in switching to the Samsung Player, not available with the MC-9090. It allowed Rickman to tie the manufacturing floor’s records system into Steves’ Laserfiche system, the document management software used by the company’s office operations. For the past two years the software had been used essentially as an electronic filing cabinet, providing instant storage and retrieval of purchase orders, inventory, HR files and most other company records.
As he was installing and expanding access to the digital records repository throughout Steves' office operations, Rickman realized there was much more he could do with the
software, including tying it directly into the manufacturing process. When Andre tapped him to solve the photo inspections problem, Rickman knew uploading the door inspection photos to the records repository could be the first step toward integrating manufacturing operations with the rest of the company’s records management system.
To get started, Rickman turned to the Software Development Kit (SDK) that came with the Laserfiche system. The SDK allows Rickman to use a computer programming language called C# (pronounced C Sharp) to custom-write the code needed for the integration. Rickman wrote a mobile app which was then downloaded to the Galaxy Players. That mobile app now allows inspectors to retrieve from Laserfiche the vital order information, called metadata, on each purchase order by scanning a barcode. The inspectors' pictures of the doors are then attached automatically to the purchase order file and stored in Laserfiche.
"Being able to directly access the underpinnings of Laserfiche using C# was very important to us," says Andre. "That gives us direct access to the software’s components and now our inspection photos and the metadata flow right into it. It's giving us a lot of great ideas for what more we can make this system do."
The damaged door dilemma has been resolved and that solution has opened Rickman's eyes to other areas of Steves' manufacturing that the SDK might streamline. Steves builds doors for the fanciest homes and the biggest box store shelves out of steel, fiberglass, and wood. It receives individual purchase orders for hundreds of wood doors that can be milled in minutes from in-house inventory as well as single-unit orders involving custom-order components from specialized suppliers.
Steves manufacturing floor and its staff need to be flexible and fast to accommodate all comers with some orders being almost completely automated while others can involve painstaking handcrafting. Yet, each step in the manufacture of every order is carefully choreographed so there is a record of workers and metadata involved should questions arise later, as was the case with the damaged deliveries.
That documentation is now handled by an ad hoc combination of paperwork and computer records that get filed piecemeal into Laserfiche after the order ships. Andre and Rickman are now designing the mobile apps to automate the record keeping in that choreography much the same way the inspections picture problem was solved. Automating such a variety of purchase orders will take some time and thought, Rickman says. What exactly will be automated and how, is more information than Andre or Rickman want to part with at this time.
"I can tell you the mobile applications will be happening company-wide in the very near future," Rickman says. "We do have workflows that we will do, but to date we have 13 Android mobile apps that have been created and more are on my list.”
As the workflows get built, Rickman also plans to deploy another software that will allow factory floor staff to receive orders digitally and continue to erase paper from the process. It's just another area of many on Steves' manufacturing floors that will be improved by mobile technology. With these kinds of efficiencies and automation, after 147 years, it is assured that Steves' best years lie ahead.
"The photo inspections are just the start of what we are going to do here, but they have also shown us what we can do here," say Andre. "Mobile integration with our Laserfiche system is quite literally going to change the way we do business.”
Chris Wacker is executive vice president at Laserfiche, a provider of electronic records management (ERM) and enterprise content management (ECM) software solutions. Wacker can be contacted at email@example.com.