How to Be an Integration Survivor

[From iSource Business, May 2001] To understand the complexities of fabric manufacturer Dan River's supply chain and manufacturing operations, you have to understand this: Dan River is a manufacturer of yarn-dyed apparel fabrics, says Bob Beecy, senior director of planning and customer requirements.

The distinction is an important one. The color is woven in, not dyed on. This makes our manufacturing processes more complicated because most of our jobs are made to order, he explains. In the past, once a client placed an order, loom space was reserved to ensure it was filled on time. Coordinating loom time and other production activities was an all-encompassing task, and one Dan River handled well. Or at least it seemed that way until the manufacturer acquired a competitor with a better system in place.

The newly acquired company had created a sophisticated system using FoxPro, an old database application development tool, which optimized production in a limited floor space area. The facility didn't have room for bobbins of material lying around waiting to go on the loom, so the company had to be able to manage production on a just-in-time basis.

Unfortunately, the acquired company lost most of the very people who were best-suited to handle the system, the Information Technology staff, once word of the acquisition leaked. So, Dan River was faced with a choice: limp along with a system that worked well when adequately and expensively staffed or buy something new.

The company opted for the latter and decided to integrate Camstar Systems' InSite e-manufacturing system and i2 Technologies' Factory Planner into its Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) backbone, a European package designed for the textile industry called Datatex.

All in all, their application integration project has been successful. Lead times have been reduced by 33 percent, and on-time delivery accuracy has increased from around 70 percent to more than 90 percent. Costs have been reduced, inventories have been lowered even further and clients have been made happier, as can be seen from a description of how the new system handles a simplified transaction:

1. The demand-planning group, which is based in New York, takes orders from clients and then checks the availability of loom space at the facilities, which is kept updated by InSite.

2. The demand-planning group lets the customer know of the availability. It then puts a temporary reserve on the loom. All the while, i2 and InSite juggle and shift order schedules in order to maximize the scarce space on the facility floor.

3. Upon receipt of the purchase order (PO) from the customer, the demand-planning group places a firm order into the ERP system. The ERP in turn drops the order information into InSite and i2. The resource reservations are changed from temporary to firm.

It may sound complicated, but, in reality, it's quite simple, Beecy says. In fact, all Dan River's supply chain operations are relatively straightforward, at least compared with other industries.

But, it wasn't a hassle-free integration by any means, he says. Oh yes, we had some problems. 

The Nightmare Emerges 

For instance, Beecy says, We realized in the middle of the project that some of the functionality we needed hadn't been developed yet. We had to add time into the schedule for the expansion of this tool set.

They also realized it was a system that needed a degree of babying, not something that could be completely left to function on its own. Through trial and error we learned we had to be painfully watchful of the care and feeding of our files as we dropped them into the system, Beecy explains. Some of the suppliers would give you the impression that these things can think for themselves. It's not that easy.

It was a long and sometimes arduous process, Beecy concludes. And that is probably one of the nicest summations you will ever get from a survivor, excuse me, supply chain professional, of an application integration project.

Nasty, Risky and Just Plain Hard

Hardly any supply chain professional over the age of 21 is unacquainted with the joys and sorrows of system integration. Such projects were common enough in the corporate landscape over the last 10 years, peaking at the end of the 1990s when companies scrambled to install new ERPs that would head off the threats of Y2K. Lessons were learned, often the hard way, about the necessity of properly managing IT projects. (Some would say there is no way to properly manage such large-scale endeavors.)

Now, a new generation of supply chain applications exists. They are smaller than the ERPs of yesteryear, but, in some cases, far more sophisticated and targeted. Beyond that, it appears little else has changed.