Speed, Flexibility And Adaptability Are Key In Shop Management Software

It was 1999, and Precision Plus of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, was fairly satisfied with its 10-year-old DOS shop management software. However, the vendor would no longer be providing DOS updates.


It was 1999, and Precision Plus of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, was fairly satisfied with its 10-year-old DOS shop management software. However, the vendor would no longer be providing DOS updates.

"Although the software had met our needs well," says David Krause, CFO, "it lacked many features that companies currently seek in a shop management package—like integration with other software systems and the ability to communicate with customers via e-mail and the Internet."

Mr. Krause and company general manager Mike Reader visited trade shows, including IMTS 2000; talked to others at screw machine companies; surfed the Internet; and sent away for information. Prior to attending IMTS, they watched several demonstrations and obtained some hands-on experience with several shop management packages.

The features available in much of the shop management software were similar from one package to another, they felt. "If it has accounting, there are just so many ways to do debits and credits, pay bills, and receive cash from customers. For shop management, tracking inventory is pretty standard, and so is collecting costs," Mr. Reader says.

"It is the value proposition that's important," Mr. Krause says. "That's the strong deciding factor: What am I paying for versus what am I getting?" An important aspect of Precision Plus's value proposition was the ability to carry over customer records. "Some software vendors pretty much told me, ‘You are going to be starting with a new database; maybe we can help you carry some customer or vendor information forward, but as far as job history, inventory-consumption, or your costs, that would be virtually impossible.'" Mr. Krause didn't feel that the alternative of maintaining historic information on paper was acceptable. "We had maintained substantial history files that would be important to us in the future."

Mr. Reader and Mr. Krause had narrowed the evaluation to three vendors in early December 2000. "Henning Industrial Software's Visual EstiTrack and Visual Books had been the leading contenders throughout, but several other vendors were getting pretty aggressive with price and talking about what they might be able to do with historic data and data collection," Mr. Krause says. Henning, however, was willing to work with the company to maintain and convert as much of the Precision Plus history as possible, Mr. Krause recalls. After considering all of its present and future needs, Precision Plus decided to purchase Visual EstiTrack.

Precision Plus started loading and testing the software in January 2001. The company then began working with Henning president Rich Henning on planning how to import company data into the new system. In February, Precision Plus began converting all of its data and talking with Henning about future data collection needs. Precision Plus continued working with Henning's engineers and programmers, and the cutover to Visual EstiTrack and Visual Books occurred in March 2001.

"We want to integrate as much as possible into a homogeneous software platform," Mr. Krause says. "Having separate databases for sales leads, shipping, UPS or Fedex, and then another set for e-mail messages and records received via e-mail is not the fork in the road Precision Plus wants to take. Henning expressed a willingness to incorporate these kinds of systems in future software releases."

Mr. Krause says one of the big reasons for choosing Visual EstiTrack was the "built-in understanding of the screw machine industry and of screw machines." The software also provided him with tools he could use.

The software enabled Precision Plus to create and map visual representations of the company's various departments. Visible are which machines are up and running, how long they have been running and what job is running on each of them. Reporting machine downtime has also been easy and straightforward, Mr. Reader says.

Mr. Reader says he likes the software's scheduling capabilities. "It displays the changing workload and what is available. Previously, scheduling was done mostly here in the front office. As shop personnel became more comfortable with the software, our department supervisors determined that scheduling was something operators could do themselves."

Other scheduling benefits are found in the software, Mr. Reader says. "When a customer sends you a print and indicates he'll take 2 million pieces, he wants us to price the order based upon the estimated annual usage. At the same time, the customer wants us to schedule work in process and raw material in just an 8- to 12-week window. This software helps me do that."

The software has many other helpful features. Mr. Krause was pleased with the idea that the software integrates with bar-code and handheld devices. Mr. Reader likes the fact that the software has a fully integrated accounting package—Visual Books—coupled with Visual EstiTrack. "We do our accounting, quoting, production recording, cost analysis, general ledger, payroll, and obviously all shipping and receiving functions using Visual Books," he says.

The software also converts reports, quotes, purchase orders, and other documents into electronic PDF files, which can then be e-mailed and viewed by customers or vendors. It can also maintain lot accountability.

Precision Plus's management team also plans to use the software to reduce the amount of paper it uses in its operation.

Mr. Reader, Mr. Krause and the Precision Plus management team give a lot of thought to how they want to position their company in the future. Job shops today face many survival issues, and they recognize the importance of making software and system integration a key business strategy.

Mr. Krause thinks the quick availability of information is vital in this era of greater customer demand and fast-paced change. "I want the ability to respond quickly to customer inquiries about a quote, a shipped lot or a quality issue," he says. "Shops must be able to respond quickly with the answer the customer seeks. That means being able to communicate with customers in the ways they choose, and software and technology are vital tools for doing this."

"We started our training in February 2001 and converted to the new system in March 2001," Mr. Reader says. "As of July 2001, we were using the EstiTrack inventory system fully. Now, we have inventory captured at every stage of the process, so if we have six different operations, we can see what the inventory levels are at any one or more steps."

"We went from first gear to overdrive in one step," Mr. Krause adds, "and it has been good for us. But there is not a day that goes by that we don't learn something new. Training gets you just so far. It's when you really dig into the software—reviewing the reports, analyzing the data, and taking the time to research issues and find out what you're doing wrong—that you learn."

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