Doors—ornate and everyday, metal and wood—are what Steves & Sons has been all about for 147 years. The Texas-based company’s reputation was earned in part by staying abreast of the latest manufacturing technology. Yet it found itself last year paying for damaged delivery claims despite its meticulous packaging procedures. So the company turned to technology again, this time in the form of digital document workflow, to solve the problem.
“Our doors are crated and loaded with great care, yet they were arriving to the customer damaged,” says John Andre, CIO. “Obviously, something was happening between our dock door and the delivery location. In the end, Steves was stuck with the bill. Fixing blame wasn’t working. We needed to fix the problem.”
Taking pictures of orders before shipping was the obvious solution. But Steves’ six manufacturing plants employ 500 people, among them dozens of inspectors. Solving the damaged door dilemma would take more than handing cameras to all those inspectors.
The company considered installing fixed cameras on the shop floor but needed the flexibility to use them anywhere in the plants, any time. Steves makes 3.5 million doors a year; thousands of pictures would need to be taken each year at each of the manufacturing plants. Steves needed a system that would ensure the right pictures ended up in the right purchase order folders, with the right documentation showing who took them, when and where. That same system would then have to provide instant access to all those properly filed photos to address any new damaged delivery disputes.
| ||Laserfiche Workflow automatically routes order images taken from tablets on factory floors to corresponding purchase order files in Steves’ back-office records repository. Multiple images can be uploaded and automatically attached to purchase order files, along with corresponding order specifications, eliminating filing mistakes.|
Andre’s IT department was asked to build that system, and he turned to his software engineer, Tracy Rickman, for help. The first step was finding the right tool to take all those pictures. They considered using the Motorola MC-9090 devices already in use on the company’s shop floors. But while the Motorola MC-9090s were doing their jobs just fine, the $2,000 devices didn’t hold up well under the wheels of a forklift. Instead, Rickman opted for the less expensive Samsung Galaxy Player mobile devices.
“We’d gotten several of the MC-9090s run over,” Rickman says. “While nothing can stand up to that, at a tenth of the cost of the MC-9090, you can run over a Galaxy Player and it’s not the end of the world.”
Opting for the Galaxy Player meant Steves had to move to a whole new mobile operating system to track the movement of goods through the plants and onto delivery trucks. But Rickman saw an opportunity in switching to the Samsung Player, not available with the MC-9090. It allowed him to tie the manufacturing floor’s records system into the company’s Laserfiche document management software. For the past two years, Steves’ office operations had used the software essentially as an electronic filing cabinet, providing instant storage and retrieval of purchase orders, inventory, HR files and most other company records.
As he was installing and expanding access to the digital records repository throughout Steves’ office operations, Rickman realized there was much more he could do with the software, including tying it directly into the manufacturing process. When Andre tapped him to solve the photo inspections problem, Rickman knew uploading the door inspection photos to the records repository could be the first step toward integrating manufacturing operations with the rest of the company’s records management system.
To get started, Rickman turned to the Software Development Kit that came with the Laserfiche system. The SDK allowed him to use a computer programming language called C# (pronounced C Sharp) to custom write the code needed for the integration. Rickman wrote a mobile app that was then downloaded to the Galaxy Players. That mobile app now allows inspectors to retrieve from Laserfiche the vital order information, called metadata, on each purchase order by scanning a barcode. The inspectors’ pictures of the doors are then attached automatically to the purchase order file and stored in Laserfiche.
“Being able to directly access the underpinnings of Laserfiche using C# was very important to us,” says Andre. “It gives us direct access to the software’s components, and now our inspection photos and the metadata flow right into it.”
Steves builds doors for high-end homes and the biggest box stores. It receives individual purchase orders for hundreds of wood doors that can be milled in minutes from in-house inventory, as well as single-unit orders involving custom-order components from specialized suppliers. Steves’ manufacturing floor and its staff need to be flexible and fast to accommodate this vast array of orders. Yet each step in the manufacture of every order is carefully choreographed so there is a record of workers and metadata involved should questions arise later, as was the case with the damaged deliveries.
Andre and Rickman are now designing the mobile apps to automate recordkeeping in much the same way they solved the inspections picture problem.
The documentation is now handled by an ad hoc combination of paperwork and computer records that get filed piecemeal into Laserfiche after the order ships. Automating such a variety of purchase orders will take some time and thought, Rickman says.
“I can tell you the mobile applications will be happening company-wide in the very near future,” Rickman says. “We do have workflows that we will do, but to date, we have 13 Android mobile apps that have been created, and more are on my list.”
Rickman also plans to deploy software that will allow factory floor staff to receive orders digitally. It’s just another area of many on Steves’ manufacturing floors that will be improved by mobile technology.
“The photo inspections are just the start of what we are going to do here, but they have also shown us what we can do here,” say Andre. “Mobile integration with our Laserfiche system is quite literally going to change the way we do business.”