Monday, June 22, 2009

Replacing formula manufacturing systems – when it is time to change? – Part 2 Obsolete Software

vicinity software
While on a trip back from visiting clients in Barbados I was listening to some newly downloaded tunes on my trusty 5-year old iPod. I was blissfully content with my eclectic mix of Bob Marley, Rolling Stones, Katy Perry and Rhianna. Little did I realize the "kid" sitting next to me was doing the same on his brand new iPhone. The difference was that he had all these really great applications on his iPhone that I did not realize existed.
Not to be outdone with multi-tasking I pulled out my notebook computer to get some work done while I listened to my music mix. My new friend continued to read downloaded new stories, queue up emails to deliver when we land, update a white paper he was working on as well as sort through hundreds of photos stored on his phone. He was a busy fellow.
As a self-proclaimed "geek" I was amazed at how far behind I had fallen with my poor single purpose iPod.
For me it was a wakeup call that the world had moved on. Instead of multiple large devices this kid was running circles around me and loving every minute of the experience.
That got me to thinking about my clients and potential clients. How much has changed in technology that we are not taking advantage? What am I doing to help these realize the potential that can assist them today? That brings me to the second installment of "Replacing formula manufacturing systems".
Many formula manufacturers are running on systems purchased and implemented in the 1990's. Many of these were selected as a reaction to the Y2K issues in 1999 and 2000.
Since that time much has changed in the formula manufacturing industry.
  • SQL Server has become the default database
  • .Net Framework for easy integration with other systems
  • Virtual servers or hosted environments
Work environment
  • Teleworking
  • Toll Manufacturing / Outsourcing
  • Mobile access to data (smartphones/iPod)
  • Country of Origin Labeling
  • Allergen disclosure
  • MSDS / Nutritional Analysis
Customer/Vendor interaction
  • Relationship tracking with CRM
  • Electronic Funds Transfer
  • Web based access to data (MSDS, COA)
The challenge for many companies is to look internally and see what their old legacy systems are offering and what have they just learned to live with. Has the world passed you by? Is your system living in the 1990's while your customers are living in the present?
I good way to get a reasonable assessment of your current system is to ask your colleagues. I would suggest asking your existing suppliers about their systems. What features do they have that might assist your company? How are they addressing similar business issues and can you get that out of your legacy system? If not – it might be time for a change.
In working with our clients or new prospects a couple common reasons emerge.
  • Hardware is obsolete but the company is concerned that the software will not be supported by the new hardware
  • Sales is requesting more information about customer demand
  • Compliance officer is addressing issues with outside applications such as excel
  • Scheduling is performed manually or with limited system assistance
  • Communication with customers/vendors is manual and not tracked
The fact is that the world has changed. Software has really stepped up to the plate for formula manufacturers over the past 10 years and it is not uncommon for new systems to pay for themselves within 12 months. That is a quick return on investment and is progress that pays dividends for years moving forward.
So how do you go from the 1990's into the 2000's without breaking the bank? How do you pick from qualified manufacturing systems?
Here are some key points to remember if you feel you have room for improvement
  • There are a few large ERP players in the market right now – look at them first (Microsoft, Sage, SAP, Infor)
  • Eliminate all discrete/assembly/BOM manufacturing applications from consideration – there are plenty formula manufacturing applications out there
  • Be careful of the "boutique" message that "all-in-one" solutions is the only path – a small company writing all the software running your business is very dangerous and often falls short as times change and the small company can't keep up with the changes
  • Select a new application to solve key business issues not just features – take some time to look at what you could do that would bring cash into your company and find an application that delivers on that vision
  • Ask vendors, trusted customers, advisors and search the various web sources to find candidates to replace the legacy system – if the application does not speak about your industry on the first page of their web site - move on
  • Forget the RFP process. If you cannot tell that an ERP system is written for your industry then you need to move on. When you come across one that focuses on your industry you will know it. There is no reason to pay a consultant that knows little to nothing about your industry to help you find potential solutions. The software developers have done a great job making them known. Instead search the web using words key to your industry, review trade show exhibitor guides, ask the major ERP suppliers how they handle formula manufacturing and ask anyone who knows your industry.
The truth is that most companies review their ERP solutions at least every 5 years and most change system or significantly upgrade systems every 10 years. How old is your system and is it time for a review or a replacement? The odds are you have unsupported business issues that can be solved by an updated application. The odds are also good that the new system can be paid for within 12 months. So what are you waiting for?
For me – I am going to start looking at alternative systems to my trusty Blackberry and iPod. I am ready to do more with my single handheld device and do more with my time when I am ready to do the work. That is where technology has progressed and I need to get on board.
So check back in the future and monitor my progress. Also if you find your systems are less than ideal and are looking to change feel free to contact me. Also check out Vicinity Manufacturing at to see what a formula manufacturing solution can do for you today.
Up next? We will talk about replacing the custom written software. See you then.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Replacing formula manufacturing systems – when it is time to change? – Part 1 Excel

vicinity software
Change comes hard to many of us. My friends will agree that I am not immune to this. I personally over analyze the situation looking for reasons to keep the status quo. While on occasion this serves me well its result is often missed opportunities and sticking with a situation much longer than warranted.
In more than 20 years of implementing systems for formula manufacturing companies I would suggest that there are many of you in the same boat. Many of us are holding onto existing ERP system well beyond their useful lives.
Like me holding onto my obsolete phone system many are holding onto formula manufacturing systems well longer than we should.
In the following blog entries I will provide insight into the primary reasons formula manufacturers typically hold onto their obsolete solutions, key indicators that a time has come for a change and alternatives to the current systems.
In my experience there are 3 primary categories of formula manufacturing systems that need to be reviewed and serious consideration should be given to determine if they are still providing value to your organization.
  1. Excel spreadsheets running the formula manufacturing business
  2. Obsolete formula manufacturing application that is no longer up to date
  3. Custom written solution that has not been updated with changes in the business environment
Excel spreadsheets – While I have never seen a static supporting this claim I think it is a fair assertion that the most prolific formula manufacturing solution on the market today is – EXCEL.
You would be amazed at how many companies trust their greatest asset – their formulas – with an easy to customize but impossible to integrate tool such as spreadsheets. Every month I am approached by companies that store all of their formulas in hundreds – if not thousands – of spreadsheets or one mammoth spreadsheet. Over time they have become obsolete and the company is dependent on one person to update and maintain the data. Great job security if you can get it.
It is obvious to me why these installations exist.
In the infant stages of a formula manufacturing company the R&D director (or equivalent) decided that writing the formulas on the backs of envelopes or in the lab notebook was "old school' and there was a better way to centralize the formulas. Armed with their version of Excel that shipped with their desktop computer version of Microsoft Office they began creating spreadsheets to store this data. After all the software was already owned, Excel is easy to use and new employees already had experience with the tool. What more would we want?
Well as time went on one copy of a formula became the basis for another formula. Someone requested more information to be tracked and every subsequent formula had this new addition. Changes to existing formulas made duplicates of the master formula and often multiple copies of the formulas were stored on various workstations. You know – just in case something happened to the original.
This approached worked fine as long as only one person maintained the formulas or virtually no changes to the formula structure changed. Also as long as no one needed any information across multiple formulas or the inventory data (such as price) never changed – then you were golden.
Well life does not work that way. Things change. Yes I said it – things change – and so should we.
With the growing compliance requirements such as Country of Origin, allergen disclosure, SQF audits and HACCP our life is no longer simple enough to be trusted with a spreadsheet written in the back room of an R&D laboratory. Instead formula manufacturers need centralized formulas that feed production data. We need formulas that have integrated QC functionality and the ability to perform cost rollups on the fly without additional data entry.
Excel spreadsheets are fine for analysis of existing data – such as yield trending or material usage – but to store master data such as formulas and batch tickets – we need a database oriented formula management system.
So are you one of these companies relying heavily on spreadsheets to store your master formula and production data? If so take a long hard look at what you are building. Do you really think it can continue into the future? The odds are against that design. Fortunately with enlightenment comes education and with education comes change. I am a poster child for that enlightenment – once again ask my friends.
Over the past 20 years many solutions have come and most have gone. The key is that each of the successful applications are built around a central database of master file data that multiple users can access. There is only one set of data and a change in one place affects all other parts of the organization. In this case that is a good thing.
If you are interested in a state of the art solution priced at a reasonable level then you should check out Vicinity from Vicinity Manufacturing (www.viciintymanufacturing). There are others but this one was written from the ground up with the sole purpose to address the formula manufacturing needs and is not attempting to be everything to everyone.
So take a look at your existing system. Are you using excel to store data or to analyze results? I challenge you to dig deep take a long hard look and make changes where they make sense. Once centralized source of formula data will do wonders for your company and believe it or not will save you significant profits in the months and years to come.
In the meantime stay tuned to the next couple installments where we look at obsolete market leaders and what to do with that custom solution the "Bob" wrote before he headed to Tahiti.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The root canal for the formula manufacturer

vicinity software
In working with a bakery prospect last week I was inspired to write this blog.
I was having some pain in a tooth for quite some time and my dentist sent me to an Endodontist for a root canal. While there I was taken aback by the degrees, diplomas and accreditations proudly displayed by the doctor. When I asked about the educational requirements to perform my root canal my appreciation only increased. This person really knows what they are doing. I was impressed.
My bakery prospect is a family run company and has very limited resources and does not have a defined IT department. That is pretty typical for our prospects. When they came to me they were wrestling with the development models being presented to them – All-in-One vs Best of Breed.
I told them – "I am just glad that my general practitioner did not perform my root canal. The same can be said for business software."
It seems to me that the software development world is firmly planted in one of two worlds related to formula manufacturing. All-in-one (general practitioner) vs Best of Breed (Endodontist).
The All-in-One model of development requires one software vendor to develop, write, support and document every aspect of an information system for a formula manufacturer. This includes financials (AP, AR and GL), distribution (Pos, Sales Orders and Inventory), manufacturing and every other related feature (warehouse management, CRM, eCommerce). Some notable examples are SAP and Ross on the high end. On the lower end you have small boutique development firms that are pouring all their available resources into the products and barely keeping up with technology changes and changes in manufacturing, compliance and scheduling. Some are not even on SQL as the database and few are on .NET as a platform – each have been available for many years but some of these boutiques have not yet managed the transition to current technologies.
The other group of applications takes a best-of-breed approach where one central application is the key and additional functionality is added by smaller laser focused development firms. With this approach 75% of the features most companies require are delivered by out of the box widely distributed software such as Microsoft Dynamics. A company buying into this approach will rely on Microsoft for core functionality such as financials (AP, AR and GL), distribution (Pos, Sales Orders and Inventory). The remaining functionality is often industry specific and is delivered by ISV (Independent Software Vendors) that work very closely with the core ERP system.
So which approach is better for me?
Each has strengths and weaknesses and each has their own legacy.
All-in-One – The biggest advantage of this approach is that all development is controlled by one company. That is also the biggest liability. With exception of some large developers (SAP, Ross etc) these firms are rather small - less than 50 employees. The development resources are pulled in the direction that results in more sales, often leaving core functionality unaddressed. For example: most boutique formula manufacturing development firms spend most of their time on manufacturing issues (that makes sense) but they often overlook new developments in core product offerings such as electronic disbursement, CRM, sales taxes, commissions, warehouse management, eCommerce just to name a few. Finally – as the product matures so too does its development platform. If a developer is not careful either the product will become obsolete or a significant re-write of their product will be required – stopping all new development for at least a year. Neither is good.
Best of Breed – The biggest advantage of this approach is that the unique business requirements are developed by firms that focus entirely on solving that business issue. For example: a company specializing in formula manufacturing such as Vicinity Manufacturing writes this component, warehouse management experts provide their addition and eCommerce by people that eat sleep and breath those issues. It is all tied together by Microsoft Dynamics. In the end the total solution is tailored to meet the specific needs of the company at a very competitive price. Twenty years ago this approach would not have been feasible. But with .NET as a development platform Microsoft has made this model very attractive and the cost effective option for companies to consider. The biggest challenge of this approach is to ensure the local VAR (Value Added Reseller) can assist the implementation in ensuring the proper tools are brought to the table. In the Microsoft Dynamics channel that is easy to deliver.
So in the end it comes down to your comfort level as well as your understanding of technology advances.
If you feel your company is better served by a single (often small) company that controls all the feature functionality entering your company, if you are not interested in realizing technology improvements before changing software again and the all-in-one application has everything your company may ever need – then you would go with this approach.
If your company is dynamic in nature and experiences changes in requirements as years go along, your company has limited development resources in house to address gaps in your system functionality and you embrace competition as a way to reduce cost and increase functionality then the best-of-breed is a better model for you.
Personally – I am not excited about getting a root canal but if I have to get one then I want the person with the most experience, most up to date on the latest developments and only does root canals every day working on my mouth. If I have a problem with my foot I go to the Podiatrist or headaches to a Neurologist. While I like my family doctor I will take a team approach to my medical care thank you very much and I feel the same about my business software.
How about you?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Real life example of ROI – now it is your turn

vicinity software
I wanted to share a real life example of ROI and how yours truly ignored it for months if not years. I think I can also tie this into your business and formula manufacturing.
Last week we cut over our phone and internet service to CBeyond – a publically traded telecom based in Atlanta. While I was satisfied with my previous carrier my internal phone system was outdated and we had limited ability to change features without a series of expensive site visits. The phone system had to go – I knew that for years.
One day a month or so ago a solicitor for CBeyond stopped by my office. I used to get these visits into my office every couple weeks and I routinely dismissed them as an inconvenience. For some reason this time I gave them my card and told the salesperson to send me some information. What was I thinking?
Wouldn't you know it? Two days later I received a packet of information in the mail and a couple pleasant emails. Before I knew it I had an appointment with this salesperson in my office to talk about what they could do to help me with my business.
It was not until that face to face meeting that I had stopped long enough to see what I was doing with my existing system. I was paying my previous carrier about $1,500 per month for services that I did not need and did not receive services that I wanted. The salesperson was successful in showing me that I could get what I wanted for about $500 per month but I would have to change phone systems. Little did he know that a new phone system is really what I needed.
So like most people I bought myself some time and sent the salesperson away. In the back of my mind I was looking for why this deal was too good to be true. What is the catch? I had every intention of ignoring the data right in my face and continue down the path of my existing system. Honestly – I was not sure how much a new phone system would cost and was not interested in the change at this point.
I did not have all the data yet and was not ready to make a decision - much less a change.
A couple weeks later I was in a conference with some Microsoft Dynamics ISV owners - much like myself. The topic of internal phone systems came up and I asked the question - Has anyone heard of this new provider? Immediately a friend spoke up saying it was the best thing he had done in years and they were very happy. When I asked further about the physical phone system he replied that it was ridiculously inexpensive and he gave me the name of a consultant that does all the work.
48 hours later I had a quote for a phone system from Logic Speak ($3,000 for a 10 phone system) and we were off to the races.
The problem has been solved and we are a better company for the change. The total cost was $3,000 up front plus $500 per month in services.
Compare that to $1,500 per month. That is an ROI of 3 months! Every month after the first three months I am making $1,000 per month – and I have more flexibility and more control. THAT is a positive ROI.
So how is this relevant to formula manufacturers and how can you use my experience in your business?
How old is your existing ERP system? Did you replace it with the Y2K conversions? If you system is 10 years old you really should look around. You have gotten your value from your existing system and you may find that changing is not as expensive as you might think.
So here is the blueprint that I used for my phone system that I think is relevant to selecting an ERP solution.
  1. Identify if there is a need that has to be addressed – for me it was a better phone system
  2. Quantify that need – what cash will it bring into my company if I make the change? – for me it was reducing my phone bill from $1,500 to $500 per month – for you it may be reducing inventory or identifying low batch yields
  3. Talk to others about your issues and hear their solutions – search the web and find companies that specialize in your business. They have solved the problems before – leverage on what they have done.
  4. Engage with a professional that understands your business and can deliver the change that is needed. Be open and honest about what you are trying to accomplish and give the professional a chance to work with you to find a workable solution.
For me the key was in leveraging people that had been through the process before. I gained confidence in the hardware supplier immediately. He knew what he was doing. From there I let the professionals do their thing and got out of their way.
The result for us is a state of the art phone system that meets our needs today with a local service provider that makes our problems go away in short order and for a reasonable rate. I could not ask for better than that.
So if you are not getting what you should out of your existing system and you think it is time for a change then follow the steps above. Feel free to reach out to me and of course check out our solution at Vicinity Manufacturing . If you want to try out our phone system just call us at 770-421-1777 – we are a better company for the change.
I also feel it is important to share the names of people that have helped me in my successes.
John Stulak – Ethotech - Microsoft ISV friend who just switched to CBeyond and gave me the courage to move forward
Andrew Griffin – Cbeyond sales representative – he did all the right things at the right time
Jared Kee – Logic Speak Inc. – provider of phone system and the guy that made this work
So here is your take away:
  • What are the top 5 pains that is costing your money?
  • What is the value of solving those pains?
  • Who out there has solved these pains in the past?
  • Why am I waiting to solve these pains if there is a positive ROI?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Decision time: Wait it out or retool now

vicinity software
I would like to challenge some conventional wisdom during economic downturns in the formula manufacturing sector. I propose that during slow economic times it is critical to re-tool and invest in the future. It is much better to rework business processes while production is slow than when you are rushing to get orders out the door. Your project team has more time to focus on what makes your company great and what you customers really need from their supplier. When times are busy no one has time to address these critical topics.
I am working with number of formula manufacturing clients that are taking this relative slow time to rework their business and manufacturing processes. They are expecting that the market will rebound and when it does they will be ready. They are betting that their competition will be rebounding with obsolete systems and this will turn into huge market share gains when the sales return.
These clients are focusing on some of the following areas:
  • Reduction of inventory values to free up working capital by better inventory accuracy
  • Understanding future raw material price increases and the impacts on finished good costs to either identify cheaper substitutes OR differentiating their higher quality product in the market place
  • Retooling the scheduling process to better utilize existing capacity by implementing shop floor scheduling and MRP
  • Identifying formulas with lagging production yields to reengineer the formula or process or phase out the products if possible
By keeping a keen focus on the immediate goals that not only increase working capital today but also position the company for greater demand in the future, these companies are staying afloat today while becoming the leaders of tomorrow.
So the key is how to you pay for such an endeavor?
The items above are not as expensive as you might imagine. Vicinity from Vicinity Manufacturing coupled with Microsoft Dynamics is one example of an inexpensive ERP solution that addresses all these issues for formula manufacturers without breaking the bank. There are others in the market as well but one thing that makes Microsoft Dynamics so much more attractive today is financing available via Microsoft Financing. You owe it to yourself to take a look.
So what are you waiting for? Is your system a result of Y2K and approaching 10+ years old using outdated technology?
Is your competition sitting back waiting this out or are they preparing for the next wave? Can you really afford to wait to find out?
So I challenge you to think toward the future with an eye on today. It can be done with a reasonable budget and is more affordable then you might think.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Going Green – Replacing materials

Identify and replace current components with eco-friendly alternatives
I am not putting myself up as a research laboratory chemist. Instead I want to talk about some of the challenges and opportunities of identifying alternative eco-friendly alternatives.
There are a number of challenges to replacing any raw material with any other raw material. I get that. The key is to reduce those challenges so the cost of change is not as significant.
When you identify that an alternative material exists which is more "Green" than a current material you must first identify all the formulas in which this material is used - a multi-level where used report is key at this stage.
Not only are you altering the formula receiving this new material but potentially every other formula that uses that formula as an intermediate. In other words if you have a multi-level formula structure you must also look at all the other formulas impacted by this change.
vicinity software

Fortunately formula manufacturing software applications handle this analysis fairly well. Specifically Vicinity from Vicinity Manufacturing addresses the challenge with remarkable ease.
Typically you will need to review the impact on the formulas from a physical properties perspective. Does this change impact the Viscosity or pH or Refractive Index?
Performing this analysis can be time consuming if the right tool is not utilized. Fortunately some of the more current formula manufacturing applications in the market – such as Vicinity - can assist with this review turning the task into a reasonably clerical matter.
Finally – once the impact is known for each of the formulas you will need to substitute the new material for the old material and potentially other supporting materials in the formula.
This task is tricky but is done by some of the better applications on the market. Take a look at the material substitution capability within Vicinity to see how this is addressed.
So what is the payoff?
Besides replacing a potentially harmful raw material with one that is more eco-friendly you are potentially reducing the overall cost of your formula. If nothing else you have built a model to replace raw materials based on price – not only because they are good for the environment.
So go ahead – take a look at a raw material that has a known substitute. How does your existing system assist you or hold you back? Know that today there are systems that can make this process much less painful than you may be experiencing. Hopefully this is one less barrier to "Going Green".
So this is the end of my "Green" message. I challenge us all to be more environmentally conscience in our manufacturing, reduce our carbon footprint and use materials that are easier on our planet.
And if you don't do it for our children's children then do it because often times you will become more profitable. In either case we all win.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Going Green – Increase batch yields

Increase yields to consume fewer raw materials per finished goods produced
vicinity software

This is the second installment of how formula manufacturers can embrace the "Green Initiative".
Well this seems to be too obvious. Don't all manufacturers attempt to squeeze every drop of raw material from their process to increase production yields? And why is this Green?
You would be amazed at how few companies actually look at their yield analysis by formula over time. It is more common than not that a company looking back at production over the past 6 months will find certain formulas or processes that are resulting in less than ideal yields. This can go on for years without being detected. The financial impact is tremendous.
The problem is that the yield differences from batch to batch may be minor and subtle shifts may not be detected on a single batch. Each subsequent batch is often compared to the previous batch. If there is no significant one-time shift the change is often undetected.
Comparing batch yields over time – 6 months or greater – can show alarming results. A formula yield may shift 1-2% over time and not be noticed. This has the result of passing profits right through the finished good and not realized by your company.
So why is fixing this issue being Green?
The less you consume to make the same finished good helps do your part in reducing the consumption of valuable resources. It takes energy to make most products we consume. We have to dispose of the raw material packaging and we consume energy to transport the materials from the supplier to your facility.
By increasing your yields by 1-2% for your highest volume items can result in a significant reduction in the consumption of raw materials. The reduction helps our environment AND saves you money.
So how do you do this?
Target a formula that has a significant volume. Look at the yields by batch for this formula over the pasts 6 months. Do you see a trend? Do you see variation? If either is true you have found a potential target. Once you have identified a formula spend a little time with production and R&D and see if you can identify the source of the variation or change. Watch the batch carefully the next time it is produced. What is causing the change or variation? The answer is probably staring you right in the face.
Vicinity by Vicinity Manufacturing ( has added a standard query that allows a user to view yields by formula/batch for any period of time. This data can be viewed in Vicinity or easily exported to Excel or statistical packages. Additionally Vicinity has added capability to notify key personnel when a batch is out of a tolerable yield range. Corrective action can be taken immediately.
So get started. This one is easy. Increase your yields and do your part in helping the Green Initiative. Along the way you will be saving your company a lot of money. Both are good things.
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