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Welding equipment maker plans long-needed ERP upgrade

Ten years after its last system literally went up in flames, Uniweld knew it was time for an ERP upgrade, but that has also meant a challenging database migration from Oracle 8i to 11g.

Sometimes it's obvious a company has no choice about an ERP upgrade, disruptive though such projects can be. For Uniweld Products Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based manufacturer of equipment for the welding and heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVAC-R) industries, that realization has struck twice in 12 years -- once for a reason no one saw coming.

Currently, the company is three-quarters of the way through a major upgrade that leapfrogs several versions of its 10-year-old IFS Applications ERP system. It is doing the work without the help of a third-party integrator or consultant, but in close collaboration with an upgrade team from its vendor, IFS North America, the Itasca, Ill.-based division of the Swedish ERP maker.

The upgrade has taken nearly a year of laborious script writing and testing, and much more will be needed before the expected go-live date in early 2012.

But IT administrator Chuck Witt has been through far worse.

Planning ERP projects under duress
Uniweld had what Witt calls a “huge iron” ERP system called Manfact running on PrimOS, a variant of the Unix operating system. Wyse dumb terminals linked the system first over serial cables, then terminal emulation software on an Ethernet network.

Then one day in September 1999, the system went up in flames -- literally.

“We got a shipment of MAPP gas,” Witt recalled. “Propane on steroids. Over the weekend a fire occurred, and all those tanks caught fire and were going off like rockets. The fire department couldn’t get close for four or five hours.”

When the smoke cleared, Witt discovered that the front office that held the business systems was destroyed -- including the ERP backup tapes -- but the manufacturing systems were largely untouched.

“The insurance company said, ‘Here’s a check -- get what you need,’ ” Witt said.

He had little data to work with, except for Excel spreadsheets on a few intact floppy disks and hard drives, but it was a start.

“We had price lists; we had a parts list; we had a customer list off our UPS’d computer,” Witt said.

He had to be resourceful, so he went to friends and “begged, borrowed and stole” four computers, set them up with a printer and network in the parking lot and installed a basic accounting package with a payroll feature. “By the end of the week we were printing checks and paying employees,” Witt said.

Uniweld had been comfortable plugging along on the old ERP system and wasn’t planning to change, according to Witt. The fire “forced us to go modern,” he said.

After a year of figuring out requirements, an extensive search, then a bake-off involving two other finalists, Uniweld chose IFS Applications.

“We needed something we were going to be able to implement relatively quickly, with minimal data,” said Debbie Felipe, Uniweld’s distribution manager. “We liked the open-endedness of it.”

After an eight-month implementation, IFS Applications went live in February 2002. At the time, Uniweld didn’t have a building to put people. As the company was implementing ERP, it was building a new facility, Witt said.

Making an ERP upgrade project plan
In addition to the financial, distribution and manufacturing modules, Uniweld uses the demand planning tool in IFS Applications. The company decided not to use the basic human resources module that comes with the package.

“It’s very difficult for IFS to provide software that works for everyone and that works with all the rules and regulations in all the states,” Felipe said. “[IFS makes] no bones about it. They know we don’t use it.”

A year ago, Uniweld decided to make the big leap from its original, 2001 version of IFS Applications to the current version, 7.5.

“Everybody realized the system we were using was getting pretty long in the tooth,” Felipe said. “It was like, ‘do it now, or never.’ ”

There was also recognition that the day might come when version 2001 wasn’t supported. “IFS has never, ever said to us that they would not support our version, but you can’t expect them to always support it,” Felipe said.

Witt said he had exhausted his ability to optimize system performance. With 50 to 60 people pushing on the server at a time -- 75 named users total -- “we got to a point of diminishing returns,” he said. “Our server’s old. Oracle expects [its databases] to run on a certain operating system, and IFS is approved to run on this. Everything’s got to be brought up together.”

Rick Bucchino, IFS senior client manager on the Uniweld account, agrees. Uniweld wanted both the new technology in the latest IFS Applications, including its new Web-based client, and to improve performance, he said.

For Witt, the Oracle database migration is the bigger deal. “We have Oracle 8i and we’re upgrading into 11g,” he said. “It’s like going from Windows 98 to Windows 7. It’s a major change.”

Uniweld participates in an upgrade program that pairs IFS consultants with in-house IT to avoid hiring a third-party consultant. “We educate them on how to execute the scripts, how to read the log file and how to troubleshoot,” Bucchino said. “Sometimes there are adjustments needed in the script where they have to go back to our upgrade team. It’s an iterative process.”

The approach has its challenges. Witt says there have been bumps in the ERP upgrade road as the company moves its data across both Oracle databases and the IFS Applications. “The people at IFS and myself are writing scripts that bring over all the data. It’s got to fill into 11g parameters, but it also has to go into the tables and views of IFS. They are very complex scripts.”

Witt’s role comes more in testing the scripts than writing them. Each test requires exporting a “snapshot” of the Oracle 8i database to 11g. “It takes a good 12 to 15 hours to run all the numbers and crunch all the data,” he said. This is true even though the Oracle server hardware is no slouch: a dual-quad-core Intel Xeon machine with 32 GB of RAM running Windows 64-bit software. A virtual private network connects users in the company’s distribution centers.

User testing is another hurdle.

“One of the biggest problems we are running into is manpower,” Witt said. “We do not have enough people sitting around to spend five hours a day, five days a week on the system.”

In fact, Bucchino said user testing is precisely where ERP implementations can typically bog down. He said Witt was able to get the upgraded test environment running quickly, in fall of 2010, a few months after signing the contract for the upgrade, but now needs to finish the user tests before IFS can make its final technical check.

Witt is nevertheless impressed with Oracle 11g.

“It’s really a hell of a system,” he said. “Oracle is just a great database. It’s solid. It runs. I can go well over a year without ever having to reboot.”

Changes in the ERP system’s reporting module have also thrown Uniweld, according to Witt. “The old version was pretty much based on external Crystal Reports. That has all changed -- in some ways, it’s good; in some ways it’s not so good.”

The new version comes with a large selection of canned report types and a report designer. “If you want to make your own reports, you have to buy the development studio,” Witt said, and it requires PL/SQL programming. The company seriously considered making the investment but has backed off because of budget constraints and the tool's complexity, according to Felipe.

ERP upgrade benefits
Other than the report function, Uniweld isn’t planning to customize the system, in part because doing so might introduce complications and expenses, Felipe said. “I much prefer to use it the way it is out of the box.”

She has learned important lessons about training and employee buy-in, though her first time implementing the software -- a literal trial by fire -- might not make the best basis for comparison.

“I’ve spent a lot more time on training this time, and IFS has much better training tools to use,” Felipe said. “The documentation is a lot better, and I’ve gotten a lot better at documenting things, too.”

IFS provides training videos, flowcharts and Microsoft PowerPoint presentations for on-site training, as well as e-learning tools that employees can access from the local server.

More effort has been spent on getting employees on board. “Last time, it was kind of imposed,” Felipe said. “This time we’re making them more part of the project.”

The implementation, now entering its second year, hasn’t exactly been quick, but Witt says the time has been worth it. “I would rather take a longer time to implement and do it right.”

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