For manufacturing in North America, there is not enough free information

In the world of small business in North America, I’m constantly amazed at how little real information is available on the internet. If I was a small manufacturing company trying to sort out my scheduling process I don’t know where I would turn to. During my marketing research phase of MaxScheduler I spent hours in Google looking for scheduling resources. I constantly came up with nothing of value. Even when I searched for general resources for manufacturing, I would again come up with nothing.

My background is in software development. As a software developer there are infinite resources to help me with development. The resources are growing, getting better and are free. I contrast this with the world of software for manufacturing. If I’m wrong, please contact me at peter (at) max scheduler.com.

My guess is that manufacturing in North America is a traditional industry where in some cases people hold their cards close to themselves. There isn’t a lot of willingness to openly share findings.

The consequence of this is that if you want help, your probably going to need to hire a consultant for it.

One goal of this blog, to educate the market myself with the hope of battling the above problem.

Following this post will be the first installment of posts that will outline what tools small business’ use to solve operation scheduling issues. There will be a short description and the plus/minus list for each tool. The idea is the power of the tools will grow as the list progress’. Some of the scheduling options will be broad business applications that sometimes have schedulers within them. There will be a notes section description interesting aspects of each scheduling tool.

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Video: Scheduling software for manufacturing and warehousing

We recently posted our introductory video to MaxScheduler.

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Pitfalls of using spreadsheets to schedule business operations

Many businesses today use wallboards, spreadsheets or piles of paper to schedule operations. It makes a lot of since to start off using such tools, because they are affordable and easy to start using. Most business computers already have a spreadsheet program installed such as excel. There are even completely free spreadsheet programs included in free application suites like Open Office.

I’m going to be writing a set of articles outlining the positive and negatives of using manual tools to schedule business operation. I will be upfront in saying that I do have an agenda when writing these articles because I make and sell scheduling software for business operations, MaxScheduler.com. I hope my articles can help people avoid some of the potential pitfalls.

Today I will be writing about using spreadsheet programs to schedule. Remember that spreadsheet programs were the sole reason that some people bought personal computers early in the 80′s, Wikipedia Spreadsheet article. My highschool physics teacher worked on the Avro Arrow. He spent a summer in a large room with many other highly trained engineers doing calculations by hand that could be done by one person today in a few moments.

Getting back on topic, below potential pitfalls to using spreadsheets for business operations scheduling.

i) Managing imported data from another program

Many businesses perhaps get job data from their enterprise software that they use to create a schedule from. There is a challenge though when merging imported data with a current schedule. What happens if there is overlap? You need to make sure that when you import data that you don’t leave out some jobs that need to be scheduled or have duplicate jobs scheduled. One way to avoid this is using a unique identifier in the import file such as a Job number to avoid this situation.

ii) When sorting data always include all columns

I have a sad personal story related to spreadsheets. My dad ran his own business and decided to send out a mailing to potential customers who might be interested in his services. He had compiled a list of names and addresses. The information needed to be cleaned up because it was incomplete. He hired a friend of mine to do the clean-up. This is where the story takes a bad turn. My friend spent a few nights in front of his TV, using excel to remove duplicate entries, complete address, etc. Unfortunately sometimes he used the sort feature in Excel and forgot to incorporate all the columns of data. The consequence was that the right name got aligned with the wrong address. When the mailing went out, most them were returned. Potential customers received letters that were addressed to people they knew, but who worked for completely different companies. Not surprising my dad never hired my friend again.

iii) Relying on one spreadsheet expert!

I have seen some pretty elaborate spreadsheets in my career. Quite often these spreadsheets are more complicated then many of the computer programs you can buy for your computer. Some businesses are blessed with having an spreadsheet expert who is pretty good at putting something together that management needs to achieve a task. There is a downside to this though. Sometimes there is one and only one person who knows how the thing works. This is not a good situation to be in, in the case that expert is away for some time or even worse, leaves the company. Perhaps make sure you have a couple of people who are familiar with hold an important spreadsheet is built.

iv) Spreadsheet vulnerability

One the of the powerful features of spreadsheets are the cell formulas. You can create a dizzying amount of calculated data from just for few data points. If you make a reference mistake though, you can break the entire spreadsheet. If this happens to you, immediately don’t save your changes and close the program. You can then open it up again and start off from the last working version.

v) Sharing spreadsheet schedules

Quite often people don’t think twice about the filenames they use when saving a computer file. If your business needs to share a spreadsheet schedule it would be a disaster to use file names like machineScheduleLatest.xls. I would recommend using current date and time in the filename so others can see how current the schedule information is.

vi) Spreadsheet data as walls of text and numbers

Let me iterate again that spreadsheets can be useful for business scheduling. There is a challenge though when viewing a long schedule that shows lots of rows of text and numbers. Its difficult to get a ‘feel’ for schedule impacts on the business. A minor job and a major job have the same visual significance until you look at the job specific details. My point is that spreadsheets aren’t great for relaying capacity information. It would nice if you could easily create a graphical version of the data so you can see impact.

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Distribution business needs a Receiving door scheduler

Customer Profile: The client business involved making consumer storage systems. They have a 600,000 sq. foot factory located in the US. The facility supports the manufacturing, distribution and redistribution aspects of the business. Half the plant is for manufacturing and the other half is warehousing of raw material and finished goods.

Challenge: Al Saltemachea was recently brought in as warehouse manager. He soon recognized that the receiving operation needed improvements. There were 12 receiving doors to schedule. The scheduling was done manually with pen and paper. This meant that receiving operations was having some challenges such as:

* it was taking up more time than needed
* the every changing schedule was on a piece of paper so it required a trip to the shipping office to view it
* it was difficult to communicate changes to the schedule

Solution: Mr. Saltemachea was aware of computerized scheduling solutions from past experience. He decided to look for stand alone software that would computerize the receiving operations. He searched on the Internet and found MaxScheduler software that could be used for Receiving operations. After a couple of hours the software was configured as needed. For example specifying the number and order of receiving doors.

Al Saltemachea concluding remarks:

“MaxScheduler was the right size, elegant solution, to help solve our immediate problem”

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Delivery Planner for Sod Farms

In May of 2008 we received a call from FairGreen sod, located north of Toronto. They were in their spring rush and overwhelmed with the task of planning their daily delivery trips. The owner of the business was spending 2-3 hours manually sorting invoices into delivery routes. This was after an already long day of taking care of the rest of his business. They contacted us looking for something that would help reduce the work of daily delivery planning.

Details
Orders were all entered into their accounting system and invoices printed out. At the end of the day the invoices were manually sorted into piles that would make up a truck load. There were two considerations when planning. First the traveling distances of the trucks should be minimized. Second delivery sizes should be combined to make use of the full trailer capacity.

Solution
MaxScheduler created a tool for FairGreen sod to ease the process of daily delivery planning. Each day the invoice data is exported from the accounting system. MaxScheduler then creates an optimized truck load plan. The plan minimizes the travel distances while making sure the trailers are used to their capacity. The route plan is displayed on the Board section of MaxScheduler. The delivery slips are then printed in the order of truck routes. This is done so that manual adjustment of the routes can be done without requiring extensive knowledge of route planning software. A delivery map and truck routes is also created.

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IBM Centennial video, Sabre and the business of enterprise software

Recently I was watching the IBM Centennial Film celebrating the their 100 birthday. It is a great video, I recommend checking it out. As I was watching the video they were talking about the Sabre reservation system. The speaker said “60 years later we can’t do any better”. This remark made me cringe.

Now before you think I’m going to start IBM bashing, I’m not going there. IBM has a long successful history of bringing technology to the masses. They deserve to be applauded for this accomplishment.

The remark made me cringe because it reminded me of a major fault in most enterprise software that has existed and will continue to exist for a long time. The fact is that enterprise software is often bought by upper management and used by staff that have little feedback in the matter. Enterprise software is often purchased to solve ‘big problems’. If the software can solve the major problems, upper management doesn’t really care about much else. What often gets sacrificed in this relationship is the usability of the enterprise system. The Sabre traveling booking system is a fantastic example of this.

Have you seen the main UI for this system? Here is a screen showing available flights between Cleveland and Orlando.

Sabre Flight listing

Here is a breakdown description of what the lines mean.

SabreExplaination

There are some incredibly basic UI improvements that could be done here. I’m not going to suggest the use web technologies, Iphone inspired UI or anything like that. This UI would be significantly improved through use of a TABLE and color coding. How hard would that be?

Look at the code the agent needs to type in to get the listing: 112NOVCLEMCO7A. The Sabre system relies on the travel agent memorizing and operating with numerous short command phrases to search and book flights. They don’t use the nice web interfaces that consumers have book through travel sites like, expedia.com.

Perhaps you might be thinking that my complaining is needless and amounts to just another obvious usability rant. These types of UIs lead to errors and eventually cost the company money.

Recently I actually felt a little of the pain they go through. Recently while booking a flight to LA. I found a deal online and
decided to go down to the local travel agent to buy the ticket. The travel agent couldn’t find the flight within Sabre that I had found online. Eventually a more senior agent needed to be called in to salvage the situation.

Another reason that I wrote this post is that this is definitely not the first time I’ve seen such horrific UIs present in
enterprise systems. As recent as 2008, I was part of a new warehouse project, for one of Canada’s largest retailers. They installed a ‘new’ version of the Warehouse Management System (WMS). It was a 30 year old C/C++ app, with the UI similar to Sabre.

There is one positive take away for entrepreneurial software developers. In the enterprise space there are treasure troves of simple problems that companies are willing to pay good money to solve. A friend of mine offers Analytics Canvas, a desktop BI tool that works with Google Analytics data. He had a good sales lead from a large company that spends alot on Google Adwords and was having problems processing the data. One the main benefits of his tool was that it could convert currency. Yes, you read that right, they are willing to spend a good chunk of change so they can convert currency.

I hope in the near future that this situation changes and that UI advancements found on the consumer side make their way to enterprise software.

Thanks for your time.

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