Mobile Apps As Easy As RPG III
October 17, 2016 Dan Burger
You probably don’t know Chris Rushak. But the odds that you know someone like him are pretty high. In fact, you might be the person who has a lot in common with him. Rushak is an RPG developer with a boatload of experience coding green-screen applications from scratch. He’s done it for decades and is comfortable with his fixed-format RPG III skills. Those green-screen applications do the job just fine. But then came the request for a mobile application.
The business problem was an inability to accurately track inventory from the receiving area to the warehouse and then to production in a small (170 employees) manufacturing company.
“We have had instances of reordering material because we simply could not find it,” Rushak said. “We have about 8,000 individual stock items and about 1,500 bin locations.”
A Power 520, model 8203-E4A, running IBM i 7.1 powers a Jobscope ERP system that manages inventory, or at least it attempts to manage it. It is not the application’s fault that fork-lift operators feed bad data into the system. And it is not entirely the fault of the fork-lift operators, either. Clearly there were inventory problems that led to misinformation and inefficiencies regardless of who was assigned the blame. About two years ago, Rushak–the only full time, onsite IT person in the organization–set out to find a solution that would not require custom software development or outside support to deploy.
Early in his search, he found the IBM i Modernization Redbook, which includes a list of vendor solutions pertinent to Web and mobile application development. His goal was to find something easy to use, without a long learning curve, and keep it relatively inexpensive.
“My budget is not extensive. I knew if I came back with software that cost $50,000, it would probably get shot down. I needed to keep it under $20,000 to make it a worthwhile investment. We knew time was being wasted [with the existing inventory inefficiencies]. We didn’t quantify it though. This is a small company and everyone is busy. To take time to quantify time wasted is not an easy task,” Rushak said.
Ease of use, for Rushak, meant using his existing RPG III skills to write code for a mobile device. Ultimately, that’s what led him to SmartPad4i from System Objects.
SmartPad4i (or SP4i) is a mobile application development tool that utilizes RPG or COBOL logic on the IBM i server and HTML for the Web client. It generates programs that can access and update the DB2 for i database, or call batch programs (with parameters, if needed). The generator component automatically creates all the code required, including the RPG (or COBOL) application that corresponds with that particular Web page, as well as HTML. This program provides the basic structures for applications and users can customize their apps by adding their specific business logic.
“This is like writing to a green screen, but having it go to a Web page or a mobile device. It’s all laid out where to insert code, write and input specs . . . I just filled in the blanks with RPG III code,” Rushak said. “We wanted a very simple point and click design. The operators only need to enter four pieces of information: What’s the part? Where did you get it? Where are you putting it? And how many are you moving? There is a learning curve that entails seeing how SmartPad4i generates its RPG code and where you put your code. Learning that on the first application makes subsequent applications easier to complete. I make copies of HTML code and modifying it by adding fields, for instance, and moving on.”
Rushak asked for a demo evaluation copy of the software, which he downloaded along with a test version of an Apache Web server that he install on his PC along with a development tutorial manual that guided him through the creation of an IBM i-based Web interface application.
Building the application, he says, was probably the smallest part of the project. Changes to the core ERP business processes are more time consuming and new programs need to be written for the new functionality. Rushak says the application tweaking has to do with how the application flows and he handles that himself.
Several tablets are being considered for use by the fork-lift operators. The leading candidate is the Xplore D-10, which features a 10-inch screen and runs on the Android operating system. The tablets will be permanently mounted on ten fork lifts and will be used in conjunction with barcode scanning devices produced by Intermec and capable of scanning barcodes attached to 30-foot tall warehouse racks.
Rushak is the IT manager at National Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Products Canada Corp, a manufacturer of commercial refrigeration products marketed under the KeepRite Refrigeration brand name. It’s located in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.