Document management technology is more relevant than you’d think – and even the smallest manufacturers can benefit, says Malcolm Wheatley.
Above right: Phil Burgess, Regional Vice-president of Business Consulting, Infor
At Sutton Coldfield-based engine manufacturer Cubewano, the management of documents is a big issue, says the company’s general manager Nathan Bailey. Design documents, inspection results, material certification documents, delivery notes – these and other pieces of paper are vital pieces in the jigsaw that makes up this fastgrowing award-winning business.
For Cubewano is a world leader in one of the hottest areas of engine design and manufacture: air-cooled engines primarily intended for the ‘Unmanned Air Vehicle’ market – the so-called drones used by the military in hazardous areas of the world.
“Customers might come back years after buying an engine asking for the same engine,” says Bailey. “We clearly need to be able to record all the components, and also any potential upgrades to such components. And any component that is upgraded for one engine has potential knock on effects for each further use of that component so the upgrade might not be suitable for every other use of the part, which then necessitates the creation of a brand new part number.” The solution to the problem? It’s an answer that will surprise many: document management technology. And in Cubewano’s case, it’s document management technology that is delivered as standard as part of the company’s Exel Computer Systems’ ERP system – a system in large part chosen by Bailey precisely because of its easyto- use approach to document management.
“I’ve always been a fan of holding documents electronically,” he says. “It makes document version control very easy, as the master document that is available on the system is always the most current and up to date. All you have to do is make sure that everyone has access to the system.”
Retention and retrieval
Think ‘document management’, and it’s generally consumer-facing industries such as financial services that come to mind. Call up a financial services institution about a complaint, for instance, and the representative on the phone will be able to call up every relevant document at the touch of a button – letters, statements, contract notes and so on.
Yet talk to those in the know, and growing numbers of manufacturers – as at Cubewano – are taking an interest, too.
But what, exactly, is it that is interesting them? Which precise document management capabilities offer a manufacturer the best ROI? And where do the benefits from better document management arise? One thing is immediately clear. ‘Document management’ is a very broad church and embraces a bewildering variety of pain points and solutions.
Compliance, for instance, is one such pain point.
“For every manufacturer, there’s a legal obligation to keep invoices and purchase orders for seven years,” says Phil Burgess, regional vice-president of business consulting at ERP vendor Infor. “And in some industries – such as defence and healthcare – the range of documents that must be retained is more extensive, and the retention period longer – 25 years, or even more.” And storage in paper form, rather than in (say) PDF format, can be far from ideal, adds Colin Gallick, chief executive of content management and document management specialist Invu.
“Storing paper documents takes up space, which is expensive, and prevents that space being used for other purposes,” he says. “And it’s also risky: you can’t back up paper. So if the documents are lost in a fire, they’re gone for good.” One document management solution, then, is the off-site – and safe – storage of those paper documents. Iron Mountain, one such provider, has 85 secure storage facilities across the UK, serving some 9000 customers, including almost 200 of the UK’s manufacturers employing over 2,500 people.
Simple storage and retrieval, though, isn’t necessarily what the company is about, says Iron Mountain commercial director John Apthorpe.
Increasingly, he says, companies want to be able to access their documents from multiple locations and in multiple formats – as well as doing so speedily and effectively.
As a result, he explains, one service that the company provides is the scanning and electronic digitising of incoming documents, making them available over the Internet on-demand.
Arguably, though – and especially for smaller manufacturers – there’s a lot of sense to digitising at source, combining the attractions of lowcost and secure electronic storage with fast and responsive instant access.
Indeed, this aspect of document management is fast turning into something of a boom for both manufacturers and IT vendors – especially ERP vendors – as they see new opportunities to both cut costs and gain competitive edge through improved performance and responsiveness.
Cutting costs, for instance, is very much the focus of solutions aimed at automating the processing of transaction-related documents. By automating very labour intensive processes such as the matching of invoices and purchase orders in order to approve payment, significant savings are possible. Once, that meant physically scanning the documents in question.
No longer: modern day solutions increasingly eliminate the paperwork altogether.
And nor does this mean EDI or similar simple document exchange technologies. Modern electronic transaction platforms can serve not just as document transmission and repository mechanisms, but also carry out processes such as matching and validation, says Michael O’Brien, marketing manager for one such platform, Celtrino, which numbers Unilever, Imperial Tobacco and Heineken among its customers.
“Carried out by people, such processes are errorprone and costly,” he says. “Automate them, and the result is not just lower costs and fewer errors, but greater efficiency and effectiveness across the supply chain.”
Nor is it solely documents exchanged between trading partners that can benefit from document management. Internally, within the four walls of the enterprise, the application of document management technology can also make a significant difference.
Bedding manufacturer Northern Feather, for instance, credits a document management solution from Invu with generating significant productivity improvements.
“Our turnover has increased from £10m in 2004 to £20m in 2010, but we can manage twice as many transactions with the same number of staff,” says financial controller Brian Wilcox. “Being able to automate the sales order process had a real impact on the business.” “With orders now directly scanned into Invu, we can generate the picking note and attach them using the document number – and when picking notes come back from the warehouse, they too are scanned and attached. Document management has helped us to define and enforce our processes, while also removing human error.” Indeed, the broader thrust of document management within manufacturing is increasingly moving to the model pioneered by companies in the financial services industry: capturing and retaining documents at all stages of the order-tocash cycle, recallable from a central database at the click of a mouse.
“It’s a big growth area, and we’re getting a lot of customer traction,” says Jonathan Orme, sales operations manager at ERP vendor Exel Computer Systems. “Businesses have had ERP systems in place for ten or fifteen years, and recognize that these days they need to seek competitive advantage through other means – and they’re turning to document management and improved workflow to streamline the business and improve efficiency.” As documents are generated, explains Orme, they are automatically digitised into PDF form and are linked to the appropriate database record – such as a sales order or purchase order. What’s more, there’s nothing to prevent incoming external documents can be scanned and linked in the same manner. The goal: a central repository of every document relevant to a given order – readily accessible, and available on-demand.
Indeed, adds Tim Wilderspin, a business development executive at Readsoft, an early document management pioneer, there’s a growing impetus to extend the same approach to many other forms of documents within the business: quality documents, plant maintenance documents and human resource documents.
“What started out as a technology mostly used for invoice processing has turned out to be a tool for improved productivity right across the business,” he notes.
And not just improved productivity. Document management technology can also help improve compliance when applied to some of these other aspects of business data, points out Ian Keers, managing director of document management company Cave Tab.
Under the Data Protection Act, human resource records should be kept for a maximum of ten years, he says – yet many companies lack the will and capability to regularly ‘prune’ old archived data, discarding documents which should no longer be retained.
“As a result, they keep everything, for ever – which is both costly and not in compliance with the law,” he says. “A document management system forces the correct retention policy.” Compliance with customer wishes is also an important plus, adds Ben Richmond, chief executive of document and content management firm The Content Group, which specialises in linking document management solutions to clients’ ERP systems.
Willerby, North Yorkshire-based £100 million holiday home manufacturer Willerby Holiday Homes, for instance, uses The Content Group’s document management solution to enforce internal compliance with individual customer design requests.
“Our business is very much design-orientated, and new bespoke models have to be designed and manufactured at a fast rate,” says Howard Dawson, integrated systems manager at Willerby.
“Turning around designs quickly generates a lot of paper based transactions such as drawings, design process documentation, and specifications – all of which need to be captured for our customer services department, which manages the post installation phase of our homes. The amount of paper involved in these processes is now greatly reduced.” And thanks to document management, not a problem. Manufacturing may not have been the first to see the potential of the technology, but it’s undeniably catching up fast.