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by Leo Cote

Manufacturers are severely challenged by a double-edged sword: They must make products at the highest quality while being extremely adaptable to customer demand. These two requirements do not easily co-exist. Manufacturing to quality typically means lower yield and higher cost, while being adaptable can create chaos in operations management, resulting in reduced efficiency and quality. Can manufacturers address both requirements and still maintain market momentum?

A significant contribution to manufacturing has been the development of software solutions that address all aspects of the product lifecycle--from product inception to aftermarket service. Forward-looking businesses are beginning to realize the benefits of manufacturing software and are extending advanced technology and solutions to their processes, resources and partners. In doing so, these businesses are capable of maintaining both operational flexibility and highest quality, helping them meet business goals of growth, efficiency, cost containment and customer satisfaction, even through rocky economic times.

This article focuses on one such company, Network Engines, which stayed ahead of the dotcom crash and was able to reinvent its business with the help of its intelligent manufacturing system built on multiple software solutions.

The company

Network Engines was founded in 1997 and went public in mid-2000, raising $117 million just before the Internet bubble burst. Previously focused on providing make-to-stock servers designed to quickly implement Web-based businesses, the company reconstructed its business to reflect what its customers needed in the changing economy: enterprise appliance solutions for the storage and security software industries. An enterprise appliance is a network-enabled device designed to provide a single dedicated service or a suite of services. Installation and maintenance is greatly simplified because of its stand-alone nature. An appliance allows IT staffs to rapidly deploy new applications.

Network Engines partners with software companies, licenses their software, installs it on hardware and sells the resulting appliance. This provides customers with ready-installed software on a plug-in appliance, reducing the complexities typical in the support and maintenance of multivendor software-hardware bundles.

Network Engines’ business is focused on quality “out the door” through its appliances and integration services to software companies. Network Engines takes a best-of-breed business approach in delivering the highest quality of products and services to its appliance partners. Using specific business processes to ensure the quality of the manufacturing process, and to better monitor and control the delivery of orders, Network Engines employed the use of an intelligent manufacturing system that has ensured the efficient fulfillment and delivery of product to partners’ sales channels or end-users throughout the company’s change in focus and product direction. The system’s flexibility enables Network Engines to successfully drive a highly mixed line of products and still maintain consistently high levels of quality and yield.

The software

Network Engines relies on a manufacturing system built on a solid, integrated information infrastructure that provides the flexibility to address market shifts. In the interconnected system, engineers use Agile Software to create products, the manufacturing department uses Datasweep solutions to build and test products, and business administrators use Microsoft Great Plains software to input sales orders and procure supplies. Web tools on the front end convert the data into actionable business information for analytics and reporting. The system provides an open database scheme and the ability to activate manufacturing plant lines as needed.

Here’s a closer look at the three applications:

Agile Software. Agile Software provides the tools to create product designs and release them to manufacturing. It maintains critical product data such as manufacturing instructions, product requirements, bills of material and engineering change orders.

Microsoft Great Plains. Among other things, this application provides sales order and procurement information that allows the user to view material requirements by day, week or month, or in a bucketless format. Great Plains collaborates with finance on order approvals and then controls the submission of the work order to manufacturing. It also processes orders to suppliers, as well as finished goods inventory.

Datasweep. Datasweep’s solutions provide the manufacturing system and process control in order to build customized units correctly and on-time while retaining visibility into production status and key performance indicators throughout the process and across the supply chain.

One of the main reasons for Network Engines’ success is a flexible information technology infrastructure that has integrated these different applications. The Datasweep solutions are integrated with Microsoft Great Plains to seamlessly share and update business information on sales orders, suppliers, work orders and just-in-time inventory management. Datasweep is also a solution partner of Agile Software Corp., which achieved certification to the Datasweep Advantage suite for its Agile Interface product. With this end-to-end solution, Network Engines is able to design, build and track customized products across the entire product lifecycle.

Product design

A product order is created from manufacturing instructions, product requirements documents, bills of material and engineering change orders. Network Engines uses Agile Software solutions to record this important information, maintaining document history and revision control. When an engineering change order is created, all the necessary information including date, the reason for the order, the affected items and the “class” of the order is logged. The engineering change order is then classified (e.g., critical, rework, documents only or procedural). Based on the class of the order, Agile Software applications will alert, notify or request approvals from the appropriate decision makers. The engineering change order process also alerts the manufacturing floor, putting a hold on units in process and preventing new units from being manufactured--when necessary. Once all appropriate parties have been notified and approvals have been received, the engineering change order is executed.

Building the product record

Microsoft Great Plains is Network Engines’ ERP/MRP package. This package is used to manage inventory, sales orders and supplier relationships. Great Plains provides a database of current in-stock inventory that’s cross-indexed with a parts list for each appliance product manufactured. This allows Network Engines to make accurate projections on requirements while effectively managing supplier orders and incoming quality management. Customer expectations on timing--across both manufacturing and delivery--are better managed through visibility into parts availability and ordering. One important benefit to partners is the powerful set of Great Plains forecasting tools, which allow the company to rapidly address and respond to unexpected orders from partners.

Manufacturing management

The Datasweep system guides the manufacturing process beginning with pulling parts from inventory through final test and packaging. It’s important to note that the Datasweep system is tightly integrated with a comprehensive bar-coding system, providing an automated quality check system. Bar codes can be associated with detailed information about the component such as vendor, version number and revision number. Bar-coding eliminates many manual processes, avoiding opportunities for human error and ensuring the highest levels of quality and manufacturing control. The Datasweep system is initiated when it receives a work order from Great Plains. This work order includes a “pick list” of components required to manufacture the appliance. By this time all incoming components have been inspected and individually bar-coded. Any unacceptable components have been segregated in a locked cage to prevent contaminating the inventory.

At the technician’s workstation on the manufacturing line, detailed work instructions are brought up for each process that will be performed at that station. These work instructions may be unique to each appliance. These work instructions are under engineering-change order control in the Agile system to update them to any last-minute instructions or changes.

As the technician assembles the appliance, the bar code of each component is scanned as it’s installed in the appliance. The component is checked against the bill of materials to ensure that the correct parts are being used in the appliance. If an incorrect component is used, the Datasweep system will alert the technician. Finally, the Datasweep system ensures that all components are consumed before the unit can proceed to the next workstation.

After assembly, each appliance is run through a series of hardware tests. Throughout this automated test process, data is collected and appended to the unit’s manufacturing history. Any out-of-tolerance readings trigger the system to e-mail technicians and managers with details regarding the problem. This approach enables a small number of employees to manage a high volume of units under test.

Once the unit has passed all hardware tests and a final visual inspection, it moves to the disk-imaging area, where the partner’s application is loaded. Agile Software controls the disk image and ensures that the appliance receives the most recent code revision. Depending on the requirements of an appliance partner, the system may specify a “smoke test” to confirm a good load of the disk image, or it may require that license keys are entered.

The unit is then automatically directed to the pack-out station, where it’s boxed with the appropriate manuals, warning labels, instruction cards and backup CDs. All inserts are scanned and checked against the protocol. Finally, Datasweep informs Great Plains that the completed unit is ready, and Great Plains supplies the ship-to information and schedules invoicing.

The system is linked with all returns into the manufacturing process for rework, repair or replacement. Any information captured along this trail through the servicing of a product is centralized in the Datasweep system and available for root-cause analysis. Having repair and rework information linked to unit-level parts and supplier detail helps Network Appliances quickly and accurately provide customer responses and determine the appropriate disposition and financial effect of returned products.

All of the product and process information is stored in a centralized collection of Oracle and SQL databases, with Web tools providing online access and control over this information. This enables Network Engines to see the status of a pending order online. By accessing centralized information, the company can obtain a real-time snapshot of how many units are in assembly, how many units are in test, and how many units are completed.

Aftermarket service

Business processes also provide a substantial benefit to customer service. Once an appliance serial number is entered, users immediately receive a detailed list of the components used to manufacture that particular appliance. This tool is a tremendous customer service advantage, providing an immediate, detailed and complete summary of the hardware and code level of each system. In a troubleshooting situation, customer service technicians will know the manufacture date of the appliance, as well as the exact configuration of the unit down to the revision level of processors, memory, chipset and lot number of each component.

Business benefits

Visibility and control along each step of the process--with checks and enforcements--help improve product quality and reliability. Using a system that automates quality processes and best-in-class traceability helps the company reduce costs inherent in error-prone manual systems. Integration across product design, manufacturing and ERP helps improve order accuracy and build detailed product genealogy for faster tracking. The Web-based system provides speed of production and real-time visibility into manufacturing activities, supporting just-in-time inventory management. Product accountability is ensured through detailed reporting, access and thorough tracking of information from design to aftermarket service. The flexibility of the system gives Network Engines the ability to quickly adapt to changing customer demands--without sacrificing quality.

About the author

Leo Cote is director of quality and manufacturing operations at Network Engines. He has spent his career in quality and manufacturing. Letters to the editor regarding this article can be sent to letters@qualitydigest.com.