West Midlands based extruded brass products manufacturer Boliden MKM moved over to a packaged enterprise system, customised some of it, but still kept it supportable – and saved 75% on its IT, Brian Tinham finds out how
When replacing its mainframe system with a packaged enterprise (ERP) system, West midlands-based extruded brass products manufacturer Boliden MKM knew it would have to sacrifice some of its highly tailored functionality. But careful specification and selection, and an eye for built-in customising, have minimised the problem, kept it flexible without compromising ERP integrity – and cut IT running costs by more than 75%.
Established some 90 years ago, Boliden MKM supplies items like brass rod, profile/section, hollow bar and wire to customers across manufacturing, engineering, building, heating and ventilating, electrical and consumer markets around the world. Production plant includes a foundry, extrusion processes, power presses, straightening machines, coiling machines and the like.
But this apparent simplicity belies considerable complexity. The company makes some 12,000 different products, with 40 main routes plus hundreds of others. Also, system requirements are complicated by front end systems that have to provide for integrated sales order processing and materials purchasing from the commodity markets, with consignment stocks and all the rest subject to daily and hourly price fluctuations. Further, there are bottlenecks like the four power presses, and the firm has thousands of customers to manage.
Boliden MKM began reviewing its IT in 1995 with a team comprising planning, process management and IT first capturing and documenting all manufacturing and business processes. The firm was running highly bespoked applications on a leased ICL mainframe, and while it needed to preserve what had been successful functionality, it recognised that there were limitations – and the cost of leasing and maintenance had become prohibitive. Further, it felt its IT infrastructure was now preventing it from moving forward.
Logistics director Peter Hackett says, by way of example, that the old database system had been built over many years, and getting reports out of it had been a difficult process always involving IT. Today’s technology is much easier, making accurate, real time information much more available. “We wanted something less proprietary, which we could integrate more easily with other applications,” says Hackett. And project manager Stuart Rushbury adds: “We felt moving to a system based on a relational database would allow us to achieve that goal and give us better, easier access to our data.”
Deadline for a new system was pretty well dictated by the mainframe lease that was set to expire in July 1999. Following the initial IT review, Hackett says the firm initiated the project by expanding its cross functional team in 1997 with sales, purchasing and distribution specialists, plus more IT resource.
With a detailed and inclusive specification under its belt, Boliden was ready to talk to software vendors. But, says Hackett, “we’d done the specification, so we knew what we wanted, but we knew we couldn’t look into the market to see what would match it: we needed help.” The firm chose consultancy CCL to get it through the selection process. “CCL had a very clear understanding of our requirements; they understood their role,” says Hackett. And he adds that the firm then remained involved, providing project management and independent auditing of the implementation.
With CCL, Boliden evaluated four products in depth, eventually selecting SSI’s Tropos software. According to Hackett, key factors in this choice were “the strength and depth of the company, whether we could work with their people, whether the product could do what we wanted and particularly whether we could make changes to the way the system operated without rewriting the core product.”
SSI scored highly on all these, but Hackett says Tropos’ Developer Toolkit was most impressive. “Since mid 1970 we had developed our own software. It isn’t a simple business, so we knew that what we bought had to be developable. Tropos is all in Visual Basic, so with Developer Toolkit it can be adjusted.” And the point is it can all be done without making changes to the core modules. Hackett: “Tropos gave us the right mix between a bespoke product and package, giving us flexibility without compromising the core system.”
Other factors favouring Tropos included: its basis in the Microsoft platform; SSI’s relationships with Coda for financials, Spex for export handling and FormScape for printed documents; and its open architecture, allowing interfacing to other applications Boliden wanted to introduce in Phase Two.
With Tropos selected, Boliden went into implementation planning. “We wanted to have a conference room pilot in by May ’98, and then take the modular roll out approach. But we actually started it in September, so there wasn’t time, and we had to go for a rapid implementation with the big-bang approach instead.”
The firm followed SSI’s Talisman four-stage implementation methodology, which Hackett says worked well. It faced a stiff implementation timetable, starting in November 1998 and with completion due 30 June 1999. But Hackett says its pre implementation analysis and preparation, along with rigid adherence to the project goals and good project management and auditing from CCL, saw it through.
Hackett insists: “My recommendation is you must do your planning and specification [rigorously] before you start to select a package: otherwise you’ll pay for it either during the implementation, or afterwards. Because without a clear understanding you will make the wrong choices and the wrong compromises.”
In the event the firm went live with all modules on 7 June – and that included some customising with SSI’s Developers Toolkit in six key areas: three to support sales order entry, item copying transactions and consignment stock, and three more in raw material receiving. Says Hackett: “SSI delivered this work on time and within budget and we’ve been very pleased with the quality of the work provided.
“The front end has worked well: buying consignment stocks is a big part of our business. With most systems you can have stock in another place, but we need un-priced stock. Stock prices are like shifting sands.” And the same goes for raw material receiving: “We fix the price on the day: it’s not like buying manufactured goods – most ERP systems will only manage price and description.” As for item copying, Hackett explains: “Products are defined by shape, size, alloy and length, so we wanted the system to let us take an existing order and merely change one of these.
In parallel with the Tropos implementation, Boliden undertook other tasks, including developing external links to other systems, designing forms and loading and validating data from its legacy systems – “a mammoth task”. Additionally, the implementation required further infrastructure changes, moving away from the mainframe and Unix systems serving dumb terminals to Windows NT servers, an Oracle relational database and PC clients.
It’s been a great success. The system now handles almost all of Boliden’s operations, from sales order processing; to production planning and shop floor management (with integrated Microsoft Office/Access subsystems), quality assurance (third party), warehouse management, despatch and transport, raw materials receipt and financials (the latter through Coda). It’s used by around 100 of the firm’s 400 employees: 70 concurrently.
Most important, says Hackett, “annual cost savings on hardware and software are 75%.” This was main reason for driving it, he says and he claims the firm has also now substantially reduced its IT head count. Another key benefits, he says, is that users now find it much easier to access data. “Rather than relying purely on canned reports developed by programmers, we have given managers tools which allow them to get into the database and develop their own management reports,” he explains.
Further, he says, the fact that Tropos can be reconfigured means the company can implement process and system changes that would have been too complex or simply impossible with the legacy system. This, says Hackett, is one benefit which offsets the temporary step backwards in functionality in areas where the earlier system had become highly specialised. “A key factor in our choice of Tropos was that we would have a system that we could change to meet our needs.”
Boliden is now “consolidating Phase One” – working on the implementation to introduce some of the more complex, business-specific functionality and documenting and bedding in what it has. “You have to do this,” says Hackett, “because you don’t get exactly what you planned: choices have been made on the way so you need to ensure that everyone understand.”
“Then you can go on to the next development. For us Phase Two will be a new non-ferrous foundry system. We’re also at the specification stage for a new shop floor data collection system; and we’ll move on to activity-based costing.” On SFDC, he says, “we recognise that with our short lead time business, we need to offer better customer service. Salesmen need to be able to say, it’s been extruded, it’s on the finishing machines and it will be delivered on Thursday.”
Author: Brian Tinham