Swedish Manufacturer Plans A New Path Forward
December 2, 2020 Alex Woodie
The Swedish manufacturing company Dahrentrad knew its S/36-era production planning solution was getting a bit long in the tooth. The question was, what should the company do about it? Migration and modernization were weighed as the two primary options, but which was the better path?
A subsidiary of LWW Group, Dahrentrad specializes in producing copper and aluminum wiring used in electrical motors, pumps, transformers, and other industrial and automotive components. The 75-year-old company runs factories in Sweden, Germany, and Poland.
The company relied on an old but reliable business application that utilized 5250 greenscreen interfaces, according to Mats Lidström, a senior solutions architect with the Swedish consulting firm Apper Systems AB.
“It’s a very stable system that had been used for many years, but they felt they needed to do something,” Lidström said during a presentation at the virtual COMMON Europe Congress (vCEC) event two weeks ago. “They came to the point where they had to decide, should we do a big replacement and bring in a new standard system? Or should they modernize the application that they have.”
Apper Systems had assisted the company with maintaining its existing ERP system, which used a mix of S/36-era RPGII and RPGIII code, but (thankfully) ran on more modern hardware from IBM. So the consultants were familiar with the system.
But for this new endeavor, Lidström embarked upon a very thorough study of the company, its requirements, its existing business processes, and how those processes map to software functionality (or whether they’re done manually). Based on the results of that current state analysis, Lidström and representatives from Dahrentrad would put together a plan and submit it to the company’s board for approval.
An important part of this analysis was to pinpoint not only the current processes, but to identify what processes are not currently supported, and may be needed in the future, Lidström said. That was a key element of the decision to either ditch the old system for something new or modernize the system to meet business requirements.
This exercise resulted in the identification of the production planning system as a possible weak link. This was just part of the overall application, but the team found glaring inefficiencies that could cause real problems to the company down the line.
“When we looked into the current processes, they described that they had three guys who were handling the production planning,” said Lidström, who was named an IBM Champion for IBM i earlier this year. “They did that based on a number of screens. They did it based on their knowledge. They did it based on things they had in Excel sheets and papers and so forth, which made them quite vulnerable.”
However, the analysis also found that implementing a new ERP implementation was likely too risky an endeavor for Dahrentrad. In that part of the world, SAP is the go-to ERP provider for manufacturers of this size, and S/4 Hana is the preferred solution rolling off the software production lines in Walldorf, Germany. But a multi-million-dollar ERP implementation that takes 12 to 18 months, apparently, did not entice the folks at Dahrentrad.
While there were holes in the current system, there are also sizable benefits to continue using it, Lidström said. “For many of these considerations . . . they saw they had a very good application,” he said. “They saw that, instead of making a very big project to replace everything, it was better to focus on that production planning part of the application and see how that could be made more automated and efficient.”
So Lidström and three colleagues at Apper Systems, along with folks from Dahrentrad, set out to define what a better production planning system would look like for the wire manufacturer. They held a brainstorm session where they discussed what the new application would do and how it would fit into the existing system.
Data modeling, i.e. describing what the new data would look like and how it would be referenced, was also part of the planning. “It was not complete of course. We added things afterwards,” Lidström said. But basic modeling was important for determining how many database tables, programs, and screens needed to be created.
Development and Implementation
After scoping out the size of the project, they submitted it to the board, and it was approved. Lidström and his team then began planning for the development work itself, which would be a three-week project.
Instead of the old waterfall development method, Apper is a big believer in using more iterative processes, whereby changes in the work are to be expected. That allowed more flexibility in the development process, he said.
“We use an iterative way of working with the customer, which means we don’t need to have all the details ready before we can start,” Lidström said. “Of course you have to balance that. You have to be sure that you don’t have so many new requirements coming in, because then the project will grow and it will be very hard to live up to the estimates that you gave in the beginning.”
In addition to scoping out the project and developing the software, the Apper team would help implement it. To that end, it provided unit testing to ensure all the components worked. It also assisted Dahrentrad with quality assurance testing, which was a challenge because of the 24/7 nature of the company.
IBM i Deployment
The fact that the new production planning system could be deployed on IBM i was a real benefit to the company.
“We informed the customer about what the IBM i operating system and the Power platform is today,” Lidström said. “They had an old application on a modern platform. So instead of replacing everything and building it on another platform than IBM i and Power, we did it utilizing all the new functionalities that exist in the language and possibilities that exist of the database.”
The Apper team brought a range of other technologies to bear on the project. It used JSON as the data interchange format for the REST APIs that it was exposing to the outside world. Internally, it used the Apache Web Server, the Webservice utility, and CGI, “which is a very fast way of producing Web services and a very fast, less overhead [way] compared with other ways,” Lidström said.
It used other open source packages, too. It used the Web services utilities from Rainer Ross, and other tools from Scott Klement, as well as the aforementioned HTTP Server (the one from Apache). At the end of the day, Apper could have been built the entire application using nothing but open source, but it just wouldn’t have been the same.
“All of this of course you could do with other open source-based options that exist on the platform,” Lidström said. “But we decided to base it on ILE and RPG because we had that knowledge. We knew that that could simplify the way to integrate from the existing applications, and it would also simplify with the web services, to integrate from other technologies into this solution that we built.”
When it was all said and done, Apper delivered a new production planning system that met Dahrentrad’s requirements. Employees could interact with the system using GUIs on Web browsers, as well as from mobile devices, in several different languages. They can quickly change their view into production planning, just as easily as they could with a pre-built ERP system from a name-brand vendor.
There are also benefits for the machine operators, who now use tablets instead of paper-based forms. That gives them more insight into the flow of work on the factory floor. “We can adjust the timing of how the production runs and how the orders are aligned and the forecast,” Lidström said.
Dahrentrad went live with the new system in January, and it has been in production ever since. “It has been a very successful project,” Lidström said. “It helped them enormously.”
Lidström’s complete vCEC2020 presentation is available from the COMMON Europe website.