The company’s 120 patents are more than proof that innovation is writ large at hülsta and this is a philosophy that really pays dividends. Thanks to the company’s innovation when it comes to technology, functionality and design, the german furniture manufacturer has made a name for itself worldwide with its high-quality, timeless modular furniture series. The hülsta plants Hüls GmbH & Co. KG, based in Stadtlohn, set stringent standards for their products for everything from development, material selection and processing right through to assembly.
“Our high quality requirements demand an efficient and precisely controlled production process. If required, we have to be able to access accurate information on every single process relating to a product,” explains Manfred Brillert, the company’s IT manager, talking about scenarios such as customer queries, supplier problems and quality control issues. As hülsta only produces custom-made furniture, no two pieces supplied are the same. A single delivery can include up to 60 packages if, for instance, the customer plans to fit out a whole room. Having accurate, up-to-the-minute data in the SAP Logistics Execution System (SAP LES) decentralized warehouse management system is therefore absolutely essential to ensure that customers receive their goods in full and on time. SAP LES is connected to the SAP R/3 4.6C business software which the furniture manufacturer is looking to upgrade to mySAP ERP 2005 this year.
Stationary scanning is not flexible enough
The various components for an order are not all ready at the same time during the production process. The individual packages therefore “wait” in the central warehouse until everything has been produced and they are then shipped to a furniture retailer or the end customer. As hülsta produces custom-made pieces, every single package in the warehouse is assigned to a particular customer. Every package and single component features a barcode that contains the HU (handling unit) number. The code allows the packages and components to be uniquely identified, and their production status and storage location to be defined.
Up to now, hülsta utilized stationary PCs with an application still based on the old MS DOS operating system to scan the barcodes. Order picking was also handled by this proprietary legacy system. It was only when handing over the packages to the company’s logistics service provider that they were transferred as dummy articles to SAP LES and therefore also to SAP R/3 via an interface. Changes to the order or package therefore always had to be performed in two applications. It was a process that had massive potential for error, and irregularities only became apparent during the transfer to the SAP solution. What’s more, although the data from the order picking system was available locally in real time, users could only access this data in the global SAP solution once a customer’s order had been fully picked. Worse still, production status could only be tracked through the special application. Even the scanning process itself was inconvenient: “The solution was extremely inflexible. Employees could only capture data at a certain location. Furthermore, several people had to share one scanner and, when a computer failed, it affected the productivity of the whole team,” says Lutz Michaelsen, SAP Product Manager at hülsta.
When the legacy system supplier pulled the plug on maintenance and there were no longer any replacement parts available, the furniture manufacturer began looking for a new solution. The company opted for the Psion Teklogix 7535 handheld computer which was a perfect match for hülsta’s requirements in terms of ergonomics, robustness, battery operation and wireless connectability.
In March 2005, hülsta launched the MONTASA project, which was successfully completed in May 2006 and involved replacing the local proprietary order picking systems in its three plants and at its sister company Loddenkemper. The company also introduced comprehensive availability checking for manufacture and assembly and mapped status tracking in SAP R/3 and SAP LES.
Data in real time
The changeover has paid off: “Compared to the PCs used previously, the Psion Teklogix handheld computers are a real quantum leap when it comes to flexibility and reliability,” stresses Michaelsen. “Data is now available in the SAP solution in real time. The handhelds are also extremely reliable and if one ever fails it is quickly swapped out. This keeps downtime to a minimum and ensures that equipment failures do not affect a whole group of employees.” The hülsta production sites utilize a total of 56 handhelds from Psion Teklogix running on the Windows CE.Net operating system, along with a good 150 devices at its sister companies Parador, Rolf Benz, Loddenkemper, SLC and ArteM.
Employees use the handheld scanners to capture an item’s barcode and therefore the production status of every single product for every stage of the process – from goods receipt in the raw material store and production right through to transfer to the logistics service provider. Data is fed into the SAP application in real time via the integrated standardized WLAN interface (Wireless Local Area Network). This ensures that the progress of all departments can be monitored at all times. The wireless terminals in production and warehousing are connected online to the SAP solution via SAPConsole. CETerm Smart Client for handheld computers which feeds data to SAPConsole is a joint development between Psion Teklogix and US company Naurtech Corp. Its application interface offers solutions for data capture via terminal emulation or browser technology. This ensures both tried-and-tested text-based connection via SAPConsole and Telnet, and connection via the new WebSAPConsole that supports touchscreens and colors. The fact that this solution offers future security was a key criterion influencing hülsta’s decision.
“Before pallets enter the production warehouse, an employee scans them and the SAP application displays the correct storage location for the furniture components on his handheld,” says Michaelsen, explaining the workflow. If all parts of an order are in the warehouse, the packages are collated and picked ready for shipping. When the order leaves the warehouse, an employee scans the label. This means that all processes, from accepting the custom-produced components and supplied products right through to dispatching the finished furniture, are captured by the SAP application, thereby enabling end-to-end transparency and traceability.
Compatibility with industry standards
The new handheld computers have really proved their worth at hülsta. “The displays can be easily read even in poorly lit areas and the sound can be heard even in loud production environments. What’s more, the batteries can easily last for a shift without requiring charging,” says Michaelsen, highlighting the benefits of the system. “An ergonomic interface, excellent modularity, good configuration capabilities and full compatibility with industry standards such as WLAN IEEE 802.11b are further factors in favor of Psion-Teklogix systems,” adds IT manager Manfred Brillert.
The handhelds work in the hülsta WLAN on the basis of Cisco components. The wireless network is also used to connect mobile printers and laptops without the devices interfering with each other or their performance being impeded. “Because the mobile handheld computers are more reliable than the older stand-alone PCs and the interface to SAP now functions perfectly, we have been able to improve processes and reduce service failures,” explains Michaelsen. This means that every step of the order process, from receiving a customer order right through to delivery and invoicing, is handled in SAP R/3. The result is data that is consistent at all times and available to every area of the company in real time. What’s more, interface problems are a thing of the past and, thanks to the new solution, the company’s management team can also access up-to-the-minute information to ensure end-to-end production control and monitoring.