Connecting fabricators and customers
Ordering glass has arguably become one of the most tedious and time-consuming activities for fabricators and their customers. Manually prepared purchase orders, either phoned or faxed to fabricators, have to be separately entered into the fabricators’ order-entry software, an error-prone process that takes considerable time. “Numbers can be transposed and if there’s a mistake, there’s a question about who made it,” says Les Law, president of Denver-based Glass Group, a company dedicated to developing technologies that will reduce glass industry supply chain costs.
Many fabricators have electronic data interfaces with major customers that make possible direct computer-to-computer order exchange. However, this entails working with the proprietary systems of each company. In addition, while these customers might place quite sizable orders of 100 or even 500 of the same size and type of glass in the same order, “typically, 80 percent of the quantity of orders are from small-volume buyers purchasing one-, two- or 10-piece orders all with different types and sizes of glass, and these buyers don’t have the capability to export purchase orders electronically,” Law says.
Glass Group has developed a software package, GlassLink, that side-steps the need for manual order entry. GlassLink automates order processing for fabricators and their customers, and it works whether or not the two have the ability to transmit purchase orders electronically. Employees at the Glass Group spent about five years and invested upwards of $800,000 to develop the application, Law says. So far, GlassLink is the only software of its kind that is compatible with multiple order processing and control systems, he claims.
File structure first
Implementation starts when both fabricator and glass purchaser share their order-entry file structure with GlassLink representatives, who review the files, correlate them and translate the customer’s descriptions into one that meets the fabricator’s requirements. For example, the glass purchaser might want a 1-inch Solarban insulating glass unit 36 by- 48 inches in diameter, but the fabricator also needs to know the thickness of the glass, the surface to be coated and the amount of air space inside the unit. In many instances, GlassLink personnel can complete this matching-translation process solely with information available in the file structures; in others, they have discussions with both companies to clarify product descriptions and required fields and make them consistent.
For fabricators and glass purchasers with EDI, GlassLink functions behind existing order-entry systems and remains invisible to the glass purchaser. After the GL Translate module has been installed in the purchaser’s information system, and the purchaser hits the “order” button in his or her order-entry software, GL Translate accepts the electronic file, converts it to a tagged data XML format and transmits it via the Internet to the fabricator’s system. The GL Convert module, installed in the fabricator’s system, then converts the XML file into a format recognized by the fabricator’s order-entry software. GlassLink is fully compatible with Alfak2000, a widely used order processing and control system produced by Germany’s Albat + Wirsam North America, and can be custom-tailored to be compatible with other products. Fabricators that use software packages not as robust as Albat + Wirsam might find it tedious to make their systems compatible with GlassLink, says Dean Mead, sales manager for Mid-Ohio Tempering in Columbus.
The GlassLink Purchase Order Management System is available for fabricators and glass purchasers that don’t have EDI. In this instance, POMS will be installed on the purchaser’s computer network. The Windows-based application works with Windows 98 or higher. When placing an order, the purchaser opens POMS and selects from custom drop-down menus with dimensions and product descriptions for each item desired. POMS summarizes individual items into an overall purchase order. The purchaser reviews this screen and hits the “send” button to transmit it to the fabricator via the Internet. The file then enters the fabricator’s system where the GL Convert module converts it into a format recognized by the order-entry system.
The process is quick and easy, says Nathan Miller, project manager for United Plate Glass in Butler, Pa. “We used to have someone hand write the order, then someone else would check it,” he says. “To do just one customer took two hours, and it held up production while we were waiting for it. Now, it takes about two minutes. GlassLink has been a terrific time-saver.” United’s order error rate also has improved since it installed GlassLink about 18-months ago, to 99 percent efficiency from 92 percent. “When you import files directly, it eliminates the human error factor and you have very few mistakes,” Miller says. United uses GlassLink with its six largest customers and plans to introduce it to several others.
The latest version of GlassLink, 4.0, features a module, GL Maintain, that automatically compares glass purchaser files with the fabricator’s master-data file and makes updates. As long as the fabricator keeps its master-data file updated, prices, glass descriptions and the like will be in sync.
The basic GlassLink system has a $1,500 annual license fee per program module plus a $1 per order transaction fee. This represents a savings of 80-to-90 percent off typical order-entry and error costs, Law says. Various industry surveys have placed those at $5.50 to $7.50 per order, he says. GlassLink personnel either will conduct train-the-trainer sessions with fabricator sales representatives, who subsequently instruct customers on how to use the system, or go with the sales representatives when they meet with customers. Train-the-trainer sessions are part of the base fee; there is an additional charge for accompanying sales representatives in the field.
GlassLink addresses a weak link in the glass business, says Mead. “A problem with our industry is that the software has been very fractured. GlassLink [employees have] taken it upon themselves to help bridge that gap because the software companies are pretty territorial. It’s a step in the right direction.”