The pieces fit beautifully at Stevens Industries
Making and assembling cabinets for institutional use has been the bread and butter of Stevens Industries, Inc. for nearly 50 years. Based in the small town of Teutopolis, Illinois, the 50-year-old company boasts more than 500 employees and $70 million annual revenue from its four divisions: flat-panel, components, casework cabinet and children’s furniture.
In the casework cabinet (institutional) area, Stevens makes 500 to 600 units each day. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, the cabinets cannot be assembled correctly unless all the required parts are available.
Unfortunately, the cabinetmaker had gotten all that it could out of a paper-based tracking system. Following cabinets from staging through shipping was difficult enough, but keeping track of all the parts that make up the cabinets was a particular challenge.
The paper-based data gathering system and two different computer systems into which the data had to be key entered caused company workers to play a never-ending game of “Where’s the Part?”, which they never seemed to win. If a single part was missing, the cabinets could not be assembled, resulting in product sitting in Stevens’ facility rather than being sent out to the customer, a disaster in today’s fast-paced business environment.
Stevens Industries needed two solutions in one, one that would track the parts and one that would track the cabinets through the manufacturing process. The combined solution had to be available to workers on the move throughout its 350,000-square-foot facility. And it needed to be easy to use, easy to program, and easy to maintain
Fortunately, the company found the critical piece that solved the puzzle. Stevens implemented a real-time wireless system using QuikTrac® data collection/management and screen mapping software from Integrated Barcoding Systems (IBS) and wireless hand-held terminals from Intermec. The new, consolidated system enables Stevens employees to keep track of every component and piece of furniture produced by its two divisions.
FACED WITH A PUZZLE
“We had no up-to-date data in our system. We had multiple associates tracking product on paper, then they would take that to a keypunch area for input. It was dual work, manual counting and then batching the data into the system,” says Stevens Industries IS Manager Cottie Dial. “If they had to verify data — say if there was a problem with quantity on a skid — the associate often couldn’t remember anything about it.”
Not only did Stevens want the up-to-date, accurate data a new system would provide, but it also wanted reporting features it didn’t have.
Then there was the problem of where data was needed. Stevens had two different systems handling these tasks: an AS/400 running MOXEX ERP software from Intentia to track the parts, and a homegrown SQL-based program that followed the cabinets from staging through shipping. Workers needed those programs out on the floor, so they could record transactions on the spot, updating the databases in real time.
A three-person project team charged with solving this puzzle was comprised of Dial, the CFO and the plant manager, with Dial taking the lead. In July 2002, she was given a scant two weeks to come up with a solution.
Dial read many articles and surfed the Web. She had a site survey done, came up with a budget, and then presented her findings to her teammates. The conclusion was that “we needed a true backbone, not a cheap investment,” says Dial. In fact, they wanted to examine the possibility of combining voice and data on one system; Stevens had installed a wired IP wireless phone system eight months earlier and was investigating taking that solution to the Avaya wireless phones. Dial thought perhaps a data communications system and the wireless IP phones could share one system.
She located some vendors and brought two in for evaluation. Unfortunately, she says, “No one offered a full solution, or they didn’t know AS/400, too. They couldn’t meet the programming needs we had. It needed to be ready to use, with no custom programming, since we had no programmer on staff to allocate to this.” Also, if any tweaking needed to be done, it would be handled by Dial, meaning it had to be easy to do and fit within her skill range.
“We are out in the cornfields,” says Dial. “We have to be self-supporting.”
Dial continued to dig. Then she located Integrated Barcoding Systems in Adrian, Michigan, and its QuikTrac 5.0 screen integration and data management tool. She invited the company in for an evaluation and was encouraged by what she heard. “They were familiar with AS/400 programming and terminology,” says Dial. “That was big. We didn’t want to reprogram our AS/400 screens. We wanted to run ‘vanilla code.’ ” She also liked the fact that IBS used Intermec hand-helds, since Stevens Industries wanted to update its existing hand-held devices and Intermec was “a trusted name.” It turned out the QuikTrac and Avaya wireless technologies were, in fact, compatible. Two radio cards were installed at the access point, one for the phones and one for the hand-helds, to handle the communications.
QuikTrac 5.0 was a fairly new product, so in effect, Stevens would be a beta site for it, but the evaluation team felt IBS personnel “really knew what we were talking about,” says Dial. As a result, the company decided to go ahead with the implementation and purchased the system in December 2002.
Two people from IBS came out for a four-day training session. Prior to the event, Dial had documented all Stevens’ system needs. That allowed IBS personnel to “flow the programming right into my documents,” says Dial. She and her Stevens co-workers then fine-tuned the screens themselves with IBS support just a phone call or e-mail away.
One month after the training, the AS/400 side of the application was up and running. The SQL side followed in March. Since its implementation, says Dial, “the system has not faltered.”
The most pressing need and the most exciting achievement of this system is the merging of the AS/400-based parts tracking system and the SQL-based work-in-process tracking system onto a few simple screens. Ten Intermec model 2435 wireless hand-helds with integrated bar code scanners display only the options each worker needs to see in order to perform the intended transaction.
To avoid confusion, particularly for new workers, Stevens wanted its associates to use a single entry screen to collect all information. Once workers signed on, all data entry fields needed to complete the transaction, from scanning to quantity, were on one screen, making it appear to be one seamless program. The screen integration capabilities of QuikTrac 5.0 allowed them to do just that, with no custom coding.
Training workers to use the new hand-helds was a snap, says Dial. “They already knew the programs, they just had to learn the procedure, when to scan and so on. We showed them two or three times and they got it.”
The procedure is a simple one. For the parts tracking, once signed on, workers collect their receipts, note what load is in front of them, scan the Code 39 bar-coded part number contained on the document traveling with the parts, then record the number of completes and the number needing reworking. The database is immediately updated and a report is run to generate the reworks. The report is then sent to the production coordinator, who creates the rework orders and allocates the materials to them when available.
When the parts orders are complete, a master list is run to determine how many cabinets can be produced. For each cabinet that can be assembled, a label is generated and sent to the finished cabinet area. As the cabinet is made, the SQL database is updated continuously along the way. When the cabinet order is finished, the cabinet labels are affixed to each completed unit.
BENEFITS READILY APPARENT
While Stevens workers had maximized their efficiency with their old system, they were amazed at the immediate results the new system provided.
On the first day of use, one worker did a job that would normally take eight hours with the old system in only one hour. When one worker left the company, Stevens Industries found that, because of the increased efficiency, it didn’t need to replace her.
Order status reports that were run and then double-checked are no longer produced because of the up-to-the-minute accuracy of the data in the system. Similarly, ongoing status meetings Stevens had conducted to keep everyone apprised of the last known position of product were cancelled altogether. They simply were no longer necessary. “No more calling to ask ‘Is this done? ‘,” says Dial. “Anyone can just generate a report.”
Everyone is obviously pleased with the system. Perhaps a little too pleased. “The workers are asking for additional programs already,” says Dial. “And they’re wanting additional lookups almost daily.” She is tweaking the system to accommodate requests as time allows. They’ve already added a calculator and good/scrap option. Future plans are manifold: extending the tracking functions to more areas of the company including countertops and storage racks, the addition of a bar-coded picking system utilizing remote printing, and requesting vendors bar code incoming materials so Stevens can automate receiving. The company also intends to use the system for year-end validation of inventory. And it will continue to replace old portable units with the Intermec hand-helds, with a goal of more than 30 units in place by the end of 2003. This will coordinate with new cabinet software due to be put in place that will also be able to take advantage of the new system.
Being a beta test site for the QuikTrac system was not the easiest challenge to take on, but it was very rewarding, says Dial. “The reception by the associates in the plant was good. They want to do their jobs in the easiest way possible.”
With this system, they are well on their way to doing just that. The pieces continue to fall into place for Stevens Industries.