This is the second article in a two-part series detailing how one manufacturer, Boston Gear, found a collaboration technology and how it approached the implementation process. The first article examined the business issues prompting the software need.

Boston Gear, a 125-year-old mechanical parts manufacturer, wanted to replace paper-based project processes, which slowed parts development as well as communications with buyers, suppliers, and customers, with a collaborative technology that could speed up all of those efforts.

While the company is still in the pilot phases of implementing NetVendor’s E.MBRACE Collaborative Workspace product, engineering manager John Wright reports that the technology is already reducing project cycle time and increasing efficiencies—and that the company is also recognizing how collaboration can improve corporate-wide initiatives.

How the solution is working
Moving its longtime paper-based processes to collaborative software was fairly simple in terms of integration and implementation. Today, when Wright wants to manufacture a new component, he drags and drops the engineering documents into an E.MBRACE-created folder that he has labeled as his “quote.” When a document is placed in the quote folder, E.MBRACE automatically generates an e-mail to the appropriate vendors—in fact, by presetting a specific e-mail address book within the program, an e-mail alert will be sent to appropriate parties whenever a change is made to a document or a folder. That means no more phone calls, faxes, or creating group e-mails each time a document or project adjustment is made.

According to Wright, four outside vendors—both domestic and international—are accessing the system. Each vendor can access only their specific folder, and each vendor’s folder contains four subfolders: standard engineering documents, quotes, ECOs, and discrepant material reports (DMRs). The latter is a fancy way of conveying that a component didn’t meet its specifications.

The system also works back toward Boston Gear. When a vendor adds information to the system, the appropriate Boston Gear employees are notified.

By keeping all parts and project information in the NetVendor system, as opposed to keeping it in various folks’ e-mail in-boxes, it’s easier for any one person to understand what’s transpired and currently in progress. And because the information stays in the NetVendor system, there’s only one version of the “truth”—something Wright had termed a “Holy Grail” goal.

Solution brings about unforeseen benefits
While the system has met all of Wright’s initial and expected goals, it’s actually brought a few extra bonuses—such as getting parties involved early in the manufacturing process. For example, Wright’s currently negotiating with a new manufacturing foundry, and was able to give the potential vendor a temporary password so it could view the part in discussion—a casing for a motor—even though Boston Gear is still designing it. The Boston Gear design featured mounting holes for the casing that would have to be drilled after manufacture. After looking at the part via the NetVendor system, the foundry called Wright and said that it could create the holes as part of the casting process. That’s a pretty big deal, as it meant eliminating a manufacturing step—as well as tooling costs—without hurting the functionality of the product, explained Wright. Before the implementation of the collaboration solution, the vendor likely wouldn’t have seen the part or realized the possible process enhancement until well into the production cycle.

The inclusion of conferencing software in the package has improved communication as well. The ability to conduct conferences in real time eliminates back-and-forth e-mails, and the ability to conduct a quick business meeting from a home PC means that Boston Gear employees can be more responsive, even if customers or manufacturers are in other time zones. Because the software renders the engineering drawing, folks get good response time even if they only have a dial-up modem, Wright said. Previously, when manufacturers had suggestions for making a product less expensively, they’d change the blueprint and fax it back. The new conferencing software now allows up to 15 people to log on to the same document simultaneously and conduct a teleconference to discuss it.

“If I mark up the document, everyone sees the change,” explained Wright, as opposed to someone trying to describe where they’re looking on the page. The software renders the image from the engineering drawings, Wright said, adding, “You get excellent response time by sending the smallest possible file across the Internet.”

The system provides also benefits Boston Gear when it is trying to land new customers. The company does a lot of custom work, called “specials,” and Wright is hopeful that by this summer, the system will have sped up the quotation process. Up until recently, an engineer would have to flip through blueprints to find a component similar to what a customer is seeking in order to make the sale. Now, when a customer requests a “special,” one of Boston Gear’s outside salespeople can quickly find that similar component within the database, redline it with the customer’s new specifications, and post it in the quotations folder—all within one day, as opposed to the several days those steps took in the past. “That also saves a lot of time in not reengineering the product all over again,” said Wright.

Calculating the ROI
Given that he still considers the deployment a pilot project, Wright declined to state a quantitative ROI from the product deployment. According to NetVendor, deployment costs range from $50,000 to $250,000, depending on the size of the company. But Wright has already seen financial savings, simply from the consolidation of the four databases into one, and the elimination of blueprint production.

The time-savings aspect is the most significant, he explained. Now that foundries are getting specifications immediately, it’s eliminating the typical three-week lag time of blueprint delivery.

The user training has been negligible. Wright has spent all of 15 minutes on the phone instructing someone, and he or she is ready to use the system.

And if Wright needs to send information to someone who doesn’t have Internet access at all—something he still runs into among small manufacturers—he can simply encapsulate documents on a removable storage device such as a CD or Zip disk and ship it off.

“It’s not perfect, but I’m not fooling around with [hard-copy] blueprints anymore. The encapsulation tool has red-lining capabilities, so [the recipient] can mark it up and send it back.”

A win-win from every aspect
Boston Gear’s collaboration effort has improved communication, increased the speed with which decisions can be made, and helped solve problems much quicker.

“It gives us the means to better communicate with vendors during the quotation process and [to find out] if there are delivery problems or quality issues,” explained Wright, adding that by shaving two days domestically, and 20 days internationally, from the sales and production cycle, Boston Gear is obviously more responsive to customer needs and more competitive in the marketplace.

Wright expects that the E.MBRACE software will eventually be integrated into other business units. The information it collects and provides can also be used by marketing to entice new customers and by accounting once quotes are approved and components are manufactured.

“That’s why we didn’t want an engineering or a CAD database solution,” said Wright. “We wanted something that would benefit the whole company.”