Christmas ornaments help make the season bright, but manufacturing them is a complex process that does not involve elves.
ChemArt Co., which has made the official White House holiday ornament for more than 20 years, needed a system that could improve manufacturing efficiency, and they couldn't rely on magic. They implemented the manufacturing-oriented Epicor ERP system and are now making ornaments with greater process efficiency, less waste, better insights and reduced redundancy.
Based in Lincoln, R.I., ChemArt uses a photochemical etching process on decorative metals and specialty alloys to create collectible decorative ornaments. Each product is unique, and order quantities can range from hundreds to several thousand. This makes for a great product, but the manufacturing process is a challenge to manage.
Sometime around 2009, it became clear that ChemArt's venerable Unix environment had seen better days, and the company set out to replace the network infrastructure. The company's Unix environment had a basic peer network, which it replaced with a domain network, which was the impetus for replacing its ERP as well, according to Susan Boynes, ChemArt's information systems manager.
"We had been running a Unix-based system for many years that had been extensively customized, so keeping up with the changing needs of the company required quite a bit of custom programming, and the modules were standalone, which resulted in a lot of data entry redundancies," Boynes said. "So, around that same time, we started to seriously look at a replacement for [our] ERP, and when we actually started the process, [we] eventually selected Epicor."
One reason Epicor made the cut, Boynes explained, was that ChemArt's network engineers were able to work directly with Epicor engineers to make sure that, when they implemented the Epicor server, it would have the proper specifications for good server performance.
"It was nice that we were actually able to get everything geared all at once toward this new endeavor that we were working on," Boynes noted.
Understanding requirements the old fashioned way
Before the Epicor ERP was selected, however, ChemArt needed to understand its requirements, so the company looked at each of its business processes and mapped them out on flowcharts. This was done the old fashioned way, with whiteboards and markers (subsequently converted to electronic files), but it did the job of laying out exactly what ChemArt needed in its ERP system.
"We were looking for a vendor who could best fulfill these requirements, with a big emphasis on the manufacturing needs, things that we would [need to] be able to engineer our custom product, build our custom bills of material and routings, basically all things that are required in our industry," Boynes said. "We looked at two other systems, and the third was Epicor, but quite honestly, when we saw the Epicor capabilities, and when they did the on-site demo, we really felt like we didn't need to go any further because it was offering everything that we were looking for."
The selection process took a little less than a year, and because there was not a hard and fast deadline to replace the old system, ChemArt took its time implementing the Epicor ERP the way that it wanted. That process took about a year, as the old system kept chugging along reliably. The Epicor ERP was installed on premises on servers for which Epicor and ChemArt had developed specifications.
Not all data is needed
One of the main decisions ChemArt had to make was determining which data would need to migrate to the new system and which would not. Customer data was required in the new system, so all of the account information, customer contacts and accounting data were migrated. Product information, on the other hand, was not required, primarily because of the nature of the business. When you make specialty ornaments, the vast majority of your products are ordered only once.
"We don't do a lot of reorders because the customer has a very specific event and they have a date on it," Boynes explained. "The White House order ornament, for example, is a different ornament each year, so it really was not an issue for us to not bring the products in because, typically, they aren't reordered. However, at the same time, we had to do a lot of cleanup on data [to make sure] there wasn't data in those other areas that we wanted to bring into the new system."
Also, the legacy system is still available for anyone that needs historical data on a customer, and Boynes was able to bring in sales dollar totals for all of the customers, which users can see if they run customer activity reports in Epicor.
Automating processes for better accuracy and efficiency
Once implemented, the Epicor ERP system allowed ChemArt to manage its manufacturing processes much more efficiently. The system's manufacturing-oriented functions have made a huge difference, Boynes said. One example is the Product Configurator module, which allows ChemArt users to easily calculate all of the materials required for manufacturing pieces, such as gold-plated ornaments.
"There are a lot of technical processes that have to go into place to achieve that, and the Product Configurator allows you to build all of those rules behind the scenes," Boynes said. "A nonengineering person can simply go through these prompts and say 'I want a gold ornament with a five-color screen print and a gold box,' but behind the scenes, it's building that specific bill of materials and routing, as well as doing the calculations -- how much metal do you require, how many boxes do we have to pull out of inventory. It also supports our ISO [International Organization for Standardization] quality management system, basically tracking labor through the plant and allowing us to track scrap, reasons for scrap, suppliers and their ratings, on-time deliveries, all of that."
Reducing redundancy and manual labor
The Epicor ERP also unifies all of the data into one system, eliminating the redundancies and manual effort that plagued the old system. In the past, users had to create payable invoices manually when something was purchased, whereas Epicor automatically creates an invoice when a buyer retrieves a receipt on the system. The integrated nature of the system has reduced the amount of information users have to enter, and puts all of the information in one place. In the old system, for example, users had to open the customer file to see customer data, and then open a separate order file to see their orders.
"With Epicor, we're able to have that all in one location," Boynes said. "You can see all the activity about a customer -- their open orders, their closed orders, their quotes, their shipments -- all of that is in one place. So, instead of having to maneuver through multiple screens, you're able to just load up a workbench or a tracker and see all of the information in one location."
The Epicor ERP also includes real-time dashboards that have helped ChemArt look at information in new ways to make better business decisions. Production information was previously available at weekly meetings in static reports, but Epicor's dashboards can display key metrics and allow users to highlight and filter the real-time information that they need to see.
"The production dashboard is not just all open jobs, as there's a tab for what's coming up in the next seven days, or a tab for late orders," Boynes explained. "We can really fine-tune the way that they see the information and have it right at their fingertips [as] they're running around expediting and trying to move product; they don't want to sit there running queries and things like that."
Ramping up the learning curve
The Epicor ERP was a radically new system for the old hands at ChemArt, many of whom had been working on the old system for years and faced a steep learning curve. So, as is the case with most new systems, change management was one of the biggest challenges ChemArt faced in the implementation. The old system was second nature to its users, who were used to getting and entering information without thinking about it. This was fine with the standalone modules, but Epicor's integration meant that information entered in one module affected all the other modules. Epicor's method is more efficient and opens up possibilities for better analysis of the data, but it's a problem if the data is entered incorrectly in one area.
"The accuracy of that information just became more and more critical, and we had to change our mindset away from data entry to more of a data-driven organization," Boynes said. "It's not only getting the information in and the product out, but using that data to help us make strategic decisions, such as to evaluate how we're doing with our on-time delivery and our scrap reporting and all of that. So, really, [we had] to become more of a data-driven organization and [move] away from that data entry mindset."
ChemArt has been trying to lessen the learning curve the old fashioned way, as well, with continuous user education and training. This not only helps users understand and use the system better, but helps the company find ways to continuously improve the system.
"There are still areas that we haven't fully tapped into; for example, the enhanced production scheduling functionality where we're just kind of using the basics, but we know that, for the future, that's something that we want to tap more into," Boynes said. "We're constantly looking at education and doing refresher trainings if needed, and we're always trying to improve and work toward best practices."
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