When most Metals and Mining Technology companies are presented with the need for a new software solution - whether it is to replace a legacy application or to fulfill a new need—they seem to go through the selection process with only two alternatives in mind. “Do we choose a shrink wrapped solution?” or “Do we design and develop the software ourselves?” My previous employer was a high volume, low margin automotive industry supplier. Design engineering was something rarely done. Our customers knew what they wanted and how they wanted it made. They usually supplied us the material, the casting, or at least knew which metal and grade they wanted us to use. Software selection at this company was not very complicated; our processes were not complex nor were our developments of products.
"The hybrid solution has allowed us to meet the complex requirements of our manufacturing process while still keeping our software investment under control"
When I changed jobs eight years ago, however, I joined a metals manufacturing company that could not be more different. Unlike my earlier experience with the automotive supplier, MetalTek International is a low volume manufacturer of highly engineered parts. Our ability to take a customer’s design and find the most effective manufacturing method to meet the customer’s complex requirements is what sets us apart from our competitors. We often are asked to supply parts that need to perform in very high temperature or harsh corrosive environments for many diverse markets and applications. Very often we produce a single part for a customer every three to five years. This is quite different from the high volume manufacturing from which I came and with which I was so familiar.
I quickly learned that not only were the products and manufacturing processes different between the two companies, the software needs were vastly different as well. I was always leery of using in-house developed software, because it defied the standard which guided me when choosing solutions. The solution had to be supportable, scalable and repeatable. At smaller to medium size IT departments, software development seemed to be very agile; each developer created applications within their own style and comfort zone. When IT departments would experience employee attrition causing a change on their software development team, inefficiencies arose. The new software developer would have to spend time familiarizing him or herself with the way the application was written and the code that was developed. Therefore, I tended to favor shrink wrapped solutions, where I could depend on the software developing company for support and maintenance. However, this was not a perfect solution. We could never find a solution that fit well with our requirements. We would have to be satisfied with a 70 percent fit and then battle with the desire to modify the source code. This would make support and upgrades a huge challenge. In fact, some companies would either not provide their source code or would void support if we made changes.
It was not until joining MetalTek International that I realized there was a third choice available to Metals and Mining Technology companies when selecting software—a hybrid of the two. At MetalTek, we have found more than one software developing company that has provided us with a “shrink wrapped” solution and then worked with us to modify the software to fit our specific needs and requirements. Software from these companies has been designed to allow for modifications and additions of code to be autonomous from their base source code. It does not adversely affect upgrades, patches, and the availability of support for the application. These software companies have been very willing to work with us through the requirements gathering and developing a solution that protects the integrity of their source code, while adding our customization.
This customization has also allowed us to limit “Information Silos” and duplicate data entry. We have become quite adept at pulling data out of other applications to feed those new applications that need that same information. For example, we make every effort to use our Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system as the central repository for our data, from which all data is pulled. However, there are times when it does not make sense for certain data to be entered into our ERP system. At these times, we have the users enter in the more appropriate application and then “push” the data into our ERP system. This is simplified since all of our applications are either SQL based and run on our Wintel platform or support DB2 and run on our AS/400. We are also very fortunate to have a small group of very talented software developers. They are comfortable working within these technologies, they understand our business, and also know how to develop software that works with existing “shrink wrapped” software.
Two examples of these hybrid applications are our Lab Information System (LIMS) and our Melt Optimization Program (MOP). Our LIMS is used to test samples of the metal we are using and certifying the chemistry of the material we are about to pour. This is an essential capability for MetalTek as well as our customers who participate in some of industry’s highest performing markets. Our MOP provides us with the least charge makeup of a certain grade or chemistry, which helps us to optimize material cost for the job. These applications were developed by two autonomous companies, both of whom were willing to work with us to customize their application to fit our requirements, but still keep the design and source code of their software intact. Plus, both of these applications pull data from our ERP system and push data into our ERP system. This negates the need for duplicate entry and improves our data integrity and consistency.
We have a good mixture of shrink wrapped software, developed in house, and software that has followed this hybrid solution. We firmly believe that it is the hybrid software that has yielded the most success. It has allowed us to meet the complex requirements of our manufacturing process while still keeping our software investment under control. The number of Full Time Employee (FTE) in our IT Department is well below the average for our size company in this industry.
In conclusion, if you are struggling to find a solution to a software need at your company and are trying to weigh using one of the two more common software solutions, I encourage you to look into this third solution. Engage software development companies that are open to this type of hybrid project.