Even a craft business, especially one with an international scope, can no longer get by today without information technology. The better and more flexibly the program functions are coordinated to the business processes, the more efficient their application.
What do the Celtic museum on the Glauberg in Hesse, a light test model for the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi and the Philharmonie Concert Hall in Paris have in common? That's right: Ackermann GmbH. The company's founder, Georg Ackermann, maintained the wooden gear wheels of the region's mills as a mobile mechanic on a motorcycle until 1934, when he founded his own joinery. These days, Ackermann GmbH of Wiesenbronn, a family-run business in its third generation, has a much wider service portfolio, focusing on shop, exhibition and interior fittings, component units and product development as well as architecture and art objects. Wood and wood materials, metal, mineral-based materials, gypsum and gypsum fibre materials, textiles, leather and foam materials are processed using versatile machinery — CNC and laser machining, cutting plotters and through-feed presses.
Manfred Weid, authorised representative and manager of technical operations, describes the tasks: "Basically, we are the suppliers for the shop fitters, exhibition builders or architects — in other words, for commercial customers who in turn have an end customer." But their clientèle also includes end customers, such as Olafur Eliasson, the painter Gerhard Richter or the metal worker who manufactures the sculptures for Jeff Koons. They have their premises set up or applications produced for their artworks. In addition to the items already mentioned, the many spectacular works produced by the Wiesenbronn company also include the Porsche Pavilion at the Autostadt in Wolfsburg and the entrance to the Audi Pavilion. The company currently has 115 employees with a turnover of almost EUR 10 million.
Until the end of 2010 the company used an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system which was programmed specifically for the craft industry. But for Ackermann this system was too static. Weid explains the problem: "We are completely individual manufacturers. We need a dynamic system in which we can continually make user-specific changes for our often very complex and different orders. These range from milling a tabletop to the light test model for the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi, which had to be made entirely from aluminium." Flexibility is also required in the delivery notes. Since a lot of production work is for commercial customers, the fact that Ackermann is highly visible is of no great concern. In the case of global orders, however, it makes sense for the finished parts to be delivered directly to the site. Then the delivery notes should also be printed with the logo of the Ackermann customer, that is, with any logo or lettering that may be required.
The new ERP system needed to capture these diverse processes as well as the online store connections or cutting list links to Excel. So they first looked at a number of industry-specific solutions, which again all appeared to be too inflexible. "They were fully programmed for a specific case, but not so adaptable that we would be able to manage our original orders. Now we are trying a lot of individual free forms," says Weid, describing the dilemma. The ERP standard Microsoft Dynamics NAV was finally introduced in 2011, as it demonstrated a clear advantage over the industry solutions in that the program could be adapted individually to the Ackermann processes. "Adjustments are always an evolutionary process. It may start out as a crutch, but it will eventually be more like an artificial limb," says the manager. This fully functioning "prosthesis" should also include a PDA (production data acquisition) solution.
An initial attempt was therefore made to program something suitable with the current Microsoft partner Infosim. However, no one liked it because it was too complicated. Everything had to be defined in great detail, which would have resulted in far too much work for constantly changing, innovative projects and customer requests. So several employees went in search of a suitable PDA provider, googling, researching and presenting recommendations, and creating a number of contacts. One of these contacts was the Cosmo Consult Group, European industry specialists for the manufacturing sector, project-oriented service providers and the supply industry, focusing on the implementation and system management of industry and specialised solutions based on Microsoft Dynamics. "We then had a meeting with Cosmo Consult and we quickly noticed that their proprietary PDA solution, cc|business and time data acquisition, clearly addressed the points that we had been working on for so long. Furthermore, our open queries were processed relatively quickly in a focused and, above all, expert way," recalls Weid.
Another important factor for the selection of cc|business and time data acquisition was that this Microsoft-certified solution can be completely integrated into Dynamics NAV. "For a mid-sized company, it is a big plus if additional modules can be adapted without a considerable investment in terms of time and cost," Weid points out. But the fact that Cosmo Consult had extremely positive references from several similarly structured machine and shop fitters inspired confidence in him and his colleagues and management: "That is a good sign for investment security and future viability."
Nevertheless, cc|business and time data acquisition also requires some adaptation. The module already has a basic personnel time management function, which allows it to log employees' hours. However, these times should also be posted on a project-by-project basis. Previously, each employee had to fill out a daily work report which was then manually typed into the ERP system — corrected as necessary by the operations manager. Now, each employee identifies themselves at the terminal using their personnel number and a control number, and enters the project code and their hours. If they take a break and then log in again, it is predefined that they are continuing to work on the same project. Therefore they do not have to close a project every time they log in and out in order to log back into the same project after a break, but can instead continue working with the values previously selected.
The machine times are recorded by the minute. For example, if an employee turns on a machine to laser ornaments for an hour, but then works on another project for three quarters of an hour while the machine is operating, both times must be recorded. "Every order here is 100 percent post-calculated, so all the times and materials associated with a project should also be logged accordingly," explains Weid. This data is available and up to date at all times during a project. However, it previously took as many as two to three days before all the sheets could be filled in, checked and entered into the ERP system. The production department therefore now has an easy way of learning the status of a project so that it can respond in good time to additional staffing needs, for example.
A project has already been created for the preparation of quotations and included in the PDA, as the quotation times have been saved in the project by the commercial work schedulers. "Ideally the project will be created immediately after a customer request and the first quarter of an hour posted onto it — just in time. This generates the PDA resource, which all colleagues can then use to log their data," explains Weid, emphasising once more how important post-calculation is for optimising future processes. One function currently under consideration is a kind of status message from the PDA for the online shops that tell customers whether their orders are still being processed or whether they are already completed and packaged.
There is also a plan to expand the personnel time management function, as the one included in the PDA only offers limited options but should cover the different shift models and regular working hours in more detail. And Weid states: "One of the reasons we chose the PDA provided by Cosmo Consult is because it is so open and flexible, allowing us to make future adjustments to it whenever we need to. This was very difficult, or even impossible, to achieve with other industry solutions. In addition, the flexibility offered to us by the standard Microsoft NAV and the COSMO CONSULT solution provides excellent support for our innovative individual production." Furthermore the PDA now enables direct control of current orders and more reliable, up-to-the minute information about their status. The time saved by eliminating duplicate entries and lists as well as the quick, punctual invoicing of projects are further significant benefits of cc|business and time data acquisition.