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Until as recently as a year ago, all plant managers at Universal Forest Products Inc. learned of new product orders when someone handed them a stack of paper. That's because the sales order system was powered by a hodgepodge of standalone computer applications and printed orders. Every two weeks, a messenger carried a stack of orders to a plant manager. Consequently, plant managers were the last to know what they needed to produce, and customers had no idea what Universal had in stock at any given time.
Based in Grand Rapids, Mich., Universal manufactures and distributes wood products to commercial and residential developers and to do-it-yourself retail warehouses. Customers include The Home Depot Inc. and Lowe's Companies, Inc. Universal recorded $1.3 billion in sales during the first nine months of the year. But the company knew that small gains in efficiency would substantially improve its revenue.
Universal executives knew that to improve their business processes, information had to flow freely between Universal and its customers. Universal needed to inform plant managers of new sales orders more quickly and share up-to-date inventory information with customers.
The better way
Thanks to Windows and .NET technology, it happened. A custom scheduling application that was developed with Visual Studio .NET, integrated with Content Management Server 2002 and based on .NET technology made this possible. Now a plant manager or salesperson can run various reports from a single browser screen, instead of relying on different applications, e-mail and handwritten notes.
"The Content Management Server is the policeman" directing information when queried, said Jim Wilt, an architect at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based consultancy SageStone Inc., which designed and implemented the .NET-based enterprise environment for Universal. SageStone worked with beta versions of the server for months before its official release in October.
As of early November, the extranet was live for one customer and was on the way to saving that customer 6,000 hours per year, according to Universal.
The scheduling software is live at six plants and is expected to save Universal 1,600 to 2,000 hours per year per plant, according to the company. Thirty of Universal's approximately 90 plants in the United States, Canada and Mexico should be equipped with the scheduling software by year-end, said Marvin Gritters, Universal's software development manager.
Microsoft's .NET technology figures into this story on a few different levels, and it is the glue that holds the whole development effort together.
.NET technology allows servers in Universal plants and sales offices to exchange information stored on five Unix servers. The servers house orders, inventory data, engineering projects and drawings, product-quality audits and product price information. Content Management Server routes information and reports that are requested by plant managers and by customers logged on to the extranet, Wilt said. There are different security levels for employee and customer access.
Now, when Universal plant managers or salespeople update prices or complete an order, they enter data on a PC through an extranet browser. Customers and other plant managers then can view the updated information. "As soon as a price is entered on one PC, Universal corporate and the customer know," Wilt said.
First cut: Visual Studio .NET
Content Management Server, which routes extranet requests, is half the story. An order entry and scheduling application based on Visual Studio .NET is the other half.
A year ago, Universal employees were using a custom application -- developed in 1999 with Visual Basic -- to track order scheduling and fulfillment. The software was a standalone application, so a plant manager would work on designs and complete orders on his computer, but no one else would know about it. Every other week, someone had to deliver order printouts, which were stored in a different computer system, to the shop floor, where workers would fulfill orders.
In September 2001, Universal and SageStone developed and deployed a replacement application with Visual Studio .NET. The software enabled salespeople and plant managers to access data through a browser. When salespeople in far-away offices entered orders, plant managers saw the orders pop up on their PCs' browsers. No more hand-delivery of orders was required.
The extranet based on Content Management Server simply hooked into the sales and scheduling application. The .NET technology enables the two separately developed applications to interface.
"Because Content Management Server is .NET-based, it quickly integrated into the existing .NET infrastructure already in place," Wilt said.
Now Universal employees and customers can look up most everything when it comes to designs, prices, orders and inventory.
"Customers can access their sales information better in our system than they can in theirs," Gritters said. "The whole system was designed to be accessible by humans and other computers."