Today's ERP systems are customizable. Key elements that sold G&W staff on the Plex system were integration of statistical process control (SPC) charting and the infinite amount of storage capabilities.Click image to enlargeby Noelle Stapinsky

The Problem
A dated process tracking system

The Solution
Company culture that champions an ERP solution

G&W Products may have had to start from scratch, but the fruits of its labour implementing a new ERP solution has it basking in the benefits of efficiency

When Jeff Karan joined G&W Products, a custom metal fabrication company, some 19 years ago, it had just purchased enterprise resource planning (ERP) software from a local company. A good first step, indeed, but G&W had only implemented a small portion of the software, and the company that provided it was primarily focused on the medical distribution area.

Karan explains, “I guess the understanding of just how powerful the system could be was initially missed. At the same time it was a very cumbersome system that required a lot of paper. All of the job travellers were paper that had to be printed, stapled and manually carried through the facility. As time went on it became very antiquated.”

This very scenario seems to echo across the small to medium sized metal fabrication operations. And while ERP systems have been around for some time, there are still some myths and viewpoints–such as the need for a large IT infrastructure or that there isn’t a system out there suited for such unique processes–that keep some manufacturers from considering the technology.

But today’s ERP systems are incredibly customizable, and with the introduction of cloud-based systems, the overall cost has dropped significantly.

A view from above
G&W Products has been in business since 1968. Today, this medium-sized contract metal manufacturing and coating company operates in a 13,006 sq m (140,000 sq ft) facility in Fairfield, OH, employs 155, and produces product lines for everything from military land vehicle components and heavy earth moving equipment components to electrical gears for the automotive industry. “We have everything from small stamping presses to large ones–30 ton presses up to 500 ton presses,” explains Karan, director of IT and project management. “We have a handful of press brakes, we do resistance welding, MIG, TIG and robotic welding. [We also do] grinding and dressing assembly and have a powder coating line. We actually do all forms of plating for both ferrous and nonferrous metals.”

Shop floor operators interact with the Plex ERP system every day. Click image to enlargeSuch diversity is what got G&W through the recession, not to mention maintaining its competitive edge in today’s not-so-friendly market. But when Gary Johns purchased the company ten years ago, it was clear it needed a new ERP system.

Johns hired a consultant to source ten to 15 of the industries best ERP system providers. “He then presented them to a small group of personnel, who visited various sites and participated in demos to gain an understanding of the different systems,” says Karan.

G&W personnel then pared it down to three ERP companies, and eventually they all landed on Plex’s cloud-based solution.

“Gary had recognized this early on, but didn’t want to force it onto us,” says Karan. “As a small company, you want to get that buy in from your employees.”

Some of the key elements that sold the G&W staff on Plex were that it integrated statistical process control (SPC) charting and infinite amount of storage capabilities. “So any data is there forever and accessible,” says Karan. “If you’re doing an inspection or gathering data, the SPC charting is just one click away. The other thing is that, as a small business, you really can’t have a whole lot of infrastructure. Because it’s cloud-based, you can get the information in real-time, anytime you need it.”

Going Live
Getting started posed a few hurdles for G&W. It discovered that the old system didn’t have a lot of usable data to upload into Plex and it had to start from scratch–hiring a data entry team to manually input about 18,000 part numbers. “It was a daunting task but we overcame it,” says Karan. “If you have data that can be uploaded, you get a big leg up on implementing [a new ERP].”

“The other thing we fell down on was training for our shop floor personnel. You don’t realize that not everyone deals with computers and smartphones in the same way or on a regular basis,” says Karan.

The shop floor operators interact with the ERP system everyday. Karan explains that the control panel that you enter the data in shows your consumption of material items and creates the produced parts in the system. “The operators are probably giving us the most important input of anyone in the company,” he says. “Their training needs to be extensive enough that they understand the ramifications of what they’re entering into the system.”

For training purposes, a small Internet café was developed in the employees’ lunchroom. There are six computers all facing the same way so that Karan can train employees and be sure they’re all on the same page and understanding how to navigate the system. The employees also have access to the computers for personal use during off-hours and breaks.

Getting Results
With the old system, there was no way of knowing how much spare material or excess material was left after a run. “Our inventory levels were out of control,” says Karan. “We went from about 4,000 sheets of raw material down to 750 sheets… big improvements on raw material [inventory] and it’s allowed our cash flow to make a turn for the better.”

Using the ERP, G&W can also track employee training and scheduled maintenance for its tooling and equipment, making it more proactive rather than reactive when it comes to productivity and downtime.

Having real-time access to product documents and procedures has not only improved its customer service capabilities–not having to track down multi-page component specification documents–but also the work/life balance of those required to troubleshoot on the fly or answer customer inquiries.

“As far as deliverables, we were able to achieve a 98 per cent on-time for 2015. It was about 70 per cent prior to Plex,” says Karan. “I don’t think anyone quite understood the accessibility it gave us. Having the ability to access drawings, work instructions, weld procedures… all the things customers require of us is now just a click away.”

ERP systems such as Plex allow you to track virtually every aspect of the operation, right down to employee productivity, accounting, and even visitors to the facility.

G&W went live using only 40 per cent of the available system modules. Karan is now working on phase two, slowly implementing more–the company is currently using about 80 per cent of the modules. “We had an idea of its capabilities, we just didn’t realize to what degree it would help us,” he says.

For any company looking to implement such a system, Karan advises to get the personnel that will be using the software involved. If you don’t have people willing to champion and take charge of their areas, you’re going to struggle. And don’t be afraid to fall back. G&W learned from its mistakes. But once it went live, all the fruits of its labour started paying off quickly. SMT

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