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Streamlining with software

January 1st, 2016 / By: / Business, Feature, Technical

dreamstime_39466641Today’s software and apps help fabricators keep pace and stay competitive, efficient and productive.

Few words captivate the software and app sector more than the word change. Software and applications are drastically changing the way we do business, and many specialty fabric end product manufacturers (EPMs) and suppliers have integrated software and apps into their procedures to increase productivity, streamline efficiency and stay ahead of the game.

Modified processes

It’s 1995 and you arrive at a client’s home to discuss a new awning structure. Pencil, sketch pad and measuring tool in hand, you begin the process of estimating the size of the awning. You sit down with the client and sketch out your vision for the awning. Sure, you have a few brochures to show, but they are outdated because printing new ones as frequently as you’d like is cost prohibitive.
You tell the client you will bring back samples of materials, but first you’ll need to spend time manually determining the yardage required. Two weeks later, after several conversations, you have your signed estimate in hand and the work can begin.

Fast-forward to 2016. You quickly arrive at your client’s home thanks to your smartphone’s navigator, and with iPad® and digital laser measurer in hand, you meet with the client. Using the apps installed on your iPad, you show your customer 3-D awning designs and insert fabric choices with a swipe of a finger. With the help of your digital laser measuring tool, you determine the amount of fabric needed, as well as the costs.

With other apps, you check the production schedule, order the material and other awning elements, and schedule your team to begin the work. You can even have the client make a payment with a credit card, your iPad and his digital signature. One hour later you’re back in your office and the awning work begins.

Change is the constant

Software (and technology in general) has dramatically changed how a specialty fabrics industry business can function, facilitating dramatic advancements in its internal processes. Coupled with the ever-changing nature of the technology arena, this has resulted in a continuous revolving door of software updates and equipment improvements throughout the industry—and keeping up is part of the challenge. “Technology is moving at such a fast pace, it’s easy to miss a new tool and application that can help,” says Mark Stiver, ecommerce manager at Glen Raven Inc., Glen Raven, N.C. “New tools and applications have entered the market that help with measurement, design, engineering, estimation and production, but not all are created equal and integration among them is limited.”

Glen Raven’s distribution company Trivantage offers Awning Composer®, a program that helps customers see what their new awning would look like. “Often the barriers include the price of these tools and, more importantly, the time needed to learn how to effectively use them,” Stiver says.

Embracing the new

Stiver says it’s important for fabricators to consider integrating new software into their processes because people are always pushing the limits and raising the bar. “Things that were considered value added five years ago are now a necessity when working with customers,” Stiver says.

Trivantage’s Awning Composer’s 3-D visualization software is about to become a more powerful tool for fabricators. Without the need for CAD experience, an EPM can start with a photo of the customer’s building, add 3-D models of different shade structures with fabric and show the customer an image of the finished product.

“Visualization helps get through the sales process more smoothly, ensures everyone involved is on the same page about the product to be delivered and presents a professional image that enhances the customer relationship,” Stiver says.

In early 2016, Awning Composer will offer new functionality that will allow users to estimate the amount of materials and time needed to build an awning. The detailed estimation model helps understand the true costs involved in awning construction, allowing retail pricing to be determined in a way that is consistently competitive and profitable. The frame drawing and cut-list features reduce the need for manual calculations and facilitate communication of the details to production staff.

Mike Holland, president of Chattanooga Tent in Chattanooga, Tenn., says the benefits of using software and apps are evident in a company’s bottom line daily. His company uses them for rental, accounting, social media marketing, weather updates and GPS tracking for fleet control.

“They have allowed us to do more business more efficiently. Record keeping, job costing, inventory control and many other processes have been greatly impacted by the use of ever-changing software and apps,” Holland says. “Many of these new technologies can help your day-to-day business [function] so much more efficiently.”

And while more industry players recognize that information technology in almost all areas has made it possible to be more accessible, efficient, accurate and generally more informed, there are drawbacks to these innovations—mostly time, learning curves and R & D testing new software, says Jay Hanks, owner of Allerton Harbor Canvas in Hull, Mass.

“Some folks may have their methods that seem to work for them and if they are happy that may trump all the new technology,” Hanks says. “For me, I can’t say that I jump every time I see a new app or technology, but I am curious and try to weigh the benefits versus time and expense.”

William Bennett, owner of Boat Bright Custom Canvas in Hardeeville, S.C., also embraces moving forward with technology. “I believe—in the marine fabrication side specifically—that we have a lack of qualified fabricators, so anything to help free up time or speed up projects is extremely beneficial,” Bennett says.

Bennett runs all of his QuickBooks® processes and payroll online. This allows him to do estimates and invoices while he is standing on the docks. “This prevents the need to go back to the office to redo the estimate in QuickBooks and email it out,” he says. “I can complete it, have it approved and [have the] deposit in hand prior to even leaving the boat.”

Identifying your needs

Investing in software and industry-specific apps can be costly, so it’s essential to come up with a strategy for evaluating new technology.

“It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the number of tools out there, so it’s rare for any company to just dive into several new pieces of technology all at once,” Stiver says. “I would recommend starting with your biggest opportunity for improvement and integrating a tool to help there first. Once you get comfortable with using that tool, look at where the next biggest opportunity is.”

It’s good to remember that free apps are available too. A number of companies are using graphics software, including some free applications such as Paint.NET and Inkscape.

When evaluating its software and app needs, Chattanooga Tent looks at the expense and what savings and efficiencies it will get in return. “We are looking for an edge and software and apps can help you get there,” Holland says.

“Smartphones have put so much information in the palm of our installers’ hands. They can use GPS routes from their phones and check the weather. With the correct software they can clock in and out from their phones, allowing real-time tracking for job costing.

“We also purchased a GPS tracking system for our vehicles, called Fleet Complete®, and [it] can do so much more than what I purchased it for,” Holland says. “The primary reason for purchasing was to track our vehicles and it does a great job.”

Holland also gets alerts for vehicle maintenance and traffic issues, which is a huge help when filing quarterly fuel reports with miles driven per state.

For Hanks, his key software and apps include QuickBooks, EZ Frame 2, Facebook, PayPal™, Google Maps™, YouTube™, WindAlert, NOAA Radar US, The Weather Channel, KAYAK and several browsers for information. He also sees software programs such as CAD, measuring systems and plotter cutters.

“There are some new stylist/photo apps that look interesting,” Hanks says. “There always seems to be a better way to build a canvas ‘mousetrap.’ The types of software and apps that we’ve chosen save time and make us more productive and accurate,” Hanks says. “They also help in other areas including payroll, tax information, collections, tracking business, marketing, ordering supplies and products, design and keeping up-to-date on new materials and tools.”

When deciding which software and apps to purchase, Hanks says understanding their business model and where these tools would fit is essential. “Then we decide if it is financially practical from the manufacturing side and the market in which we serve,” he says. “We also look at the future goals of the company.”

Jeff Viehmeyer, owner of Alameda Canvas and Coverings in Alameda Calif., says his company’s approach is to keep on top of everything—attend shows and demos of software and automated systems, but only purchase and implement what it can actually make a business case for in its specific market.

“What we buy must pay for itself in a reasonable time,” Viehmeyer says. “It’s very easy to spend too much time on things that don’t really help the business. We all love gadgets! Sometimes we do buy something to get familiar with it if we think it may have value, but we’re not sure.”

It’s important to adopt technology for the right reasons. “Too many shops don’t know how or don’t care to get continually educated while still waiting until the right time to adopt something new,” Viehmeyer says. “They wait until something critical happens and then rush a decision, which may not work well. The software industry is full of stories of businesses that paid a lot for software they never use, or use a very small part of.”

What the future holds

Sometimes Holland wonders how his company got by without today’s technology. “All of the different types of software impact our business daily,” he says. He thinks there may come a day when people are able to program robotic equipment controlled by an app on the supervisor’s smartphone to do many of the manual tasks on a jobsite. “We already see those processes in the manufacturing end,” he says.

Likewise, Stiver expects that software improvements and better integration among different applications will make collaboration easier and more efficient for everyone involved, including customers, sales, design and production staff.

Hanks agrees. “If you’re looking to the future, I think technology is and will play a major part in the success of your company,” he says.

Bennett believes software and mobile app technology has a place in any industry if applied correctly and run by qualified people. “As technology continues to develop and hurdles are overcome, we will continue to bring that new technology and equipment into our business,” he says.

Maura Keller is a freelance writer and editor based in Plymouth, Minn.

Software sampler

Some of the newest apps and software programs that have made inroads into the specialty fabrics industry include:

  • Paint.NET
  • Inkscape
  • EZ Frame 2
  • Awning Composer®
  • Pattern Design Software
  • AccuScan
  • AccuMark®
  • CutWorks®
  • Awning Manager™
  • MPanel Shade Designer

Considering new software?

Mark Stiver, ecommerce manager at Glen Raven Inc., suggests you ask yourself these questions:

  • How much am I willing to invest?
  • What’s the return on investment?
  • What’s the long-term outlook for this technology?
  • Do I have the skill sets in-house to properly evaluate this technology?
  • How much time do I need from start to finish to become trained and effectively use this tool?

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