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Changing Metalcasting with SaaS, Portals, and Communities

Jan. 21, 2011
Software-as-a-Service and other breakthroughs in information sharing
A portal can enhance a foundry’s customer service with data like order status, inventory, or invoices.

Most senior managers know very little about the computer processing part of their business. They call their IT department and explain what they want, then wait for the result to be delivered. This is incompatible with a global economy where decisions must be made quickly. Software as a Service (SaaS) allows them to acquire world-class application software for a monthly, quarterly, or yearly fee, very much like leasing a car, with fees normally based on the number of software users. More important, SaaS, along with Web portals and online communities, is among the emerging models for information technology that are changing the way metalcasting business is conducted.

The SaaS model empowers small metalcasters with the same tools as large operations. It allows bigger shops to reduce the overhead of information technology. With the right SaaS application software and security, senior managers can create their own inquiries in a timely and cost effective way.

Changing the cost structure — For years, metalcasters have been working to take production cost out of the price of a casting. Most efforts to do this have been directed at the manufacturing process, through labor reduction, playing the metal market, and methods like Lean, but still using mostly the same tools in the office and on the floor. SaaS introduces world-class technology for the office and shop floor, to change the cycle. The vendor provides the server(s), server maintenance, backups, and most importantly the application software. The metalcaster accesses and uses the software and customized data via the Internet. The up-front cost of technology is reduced.

In most metalcasting companies there are “islands of information,” little systems that have been put in place to solve problems. Frequently, these islands are independent, and require data-entry. Soon the problem solvers become a new problem because of the amount of work (data entry) required to conduct the process. SaaS programs for metalcasting eliminate those islands of information.

What would happen on a foundry shop floor if there was instant access to information? Operators would be able to see videos of how a process is performed (consider a job shop that makes a casting design once every 10 years) and to see current corrective actions, scrap history, and anything else authorized that’s hidden away in the computer system. How about the SaaS system eliminating handwritten production reports or barcode reporting, or tracking time and attendance. The system should be able to establish paperless manufacturing, reducing document control cost and efforts.

In the office, SaaS eliminates servers, server maintenance, and backups. IT personnel will spend less time maintaining software, and can be redirected to more profitable projects. Acquiring new software is an opportunity to examine how your operation performs, from simple things like emailing invoices to the cost of data entry.

How do you decide if the SaaS model is right for your firm? Most important, the application software should be the best fit for your metalcasting business. You need to know your software supplier and how they do business. How are you supported? What is their training program? How is your current data moved to the SaaS environment? Can you get a price guarantee for a period of time? How are features added to the software? Check other metalcasters’ references. If you are not comfortable with any of the answers or with having your data in the SaaS environment, will the vendor offer alternate solutions to you?

Information gateways — After you have access to world-class metalcasting application software, the next step is to establish portals. A portal is a method used to access the information in your computer system. And the reason to adopt a portal for your business is very simple: either to disseminate or receive information via an intranet or the Web. Portals usually will give a limited view or access to information, and they should be accessed via a user ID and password. An increasing number of casting buyers demand data access via computer during non-business hours.

The most popular application for a portal is customer service. You could allow customers to see things like order status, inventory, or invoices. Your sales representatives could have access to quotes, inventory balances, order status, account receivable, etc., without tying up your office staff. Vendors could be given access to check stock levels, payment, or update shipping status. If used correctly, portals can shift workload from your office staff to customers and vendors while better servicing both.

The community as a business tool — The SaaS model and portals are realities now, as are online forums, lists, and other user-groups that unite individuals and groups with common interests. An online community is linked by a software structure that allows users to ask questions, post answers to others’ questions, post and comment on ideas, and for a product like software, to evaluate ideas.

Importantly, the concept of an online community has moved into the business world. It is an effective way to collect ideas and to exchange information with your customer base.

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