For South Wales-based office furniture manufacturer Orangebox, Dynamics AX implementation experts Columbus are helping to build an ERP system with a difference.If all goes well, this September should see innovative office furniture manufacturer Orangebox go live with a new ERP system – Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012.
In itself, the decision wasn’t a surprising one, concedes Orangebox commercial director Ewan Tozer. As the latest version of a popular and feature-rich ERP system from a world-class developer, Dynamics AX 2012 and its predecessors have been the system of choice for a wide range of manufacturers.
But take a closer look, and several unusual aspects of the implementation quickly emerge.
Known in the marketplace for its tag-line ‘Smarter Working’, and for the award-winning collaborative working spaces that epitomise Orangebox office furniture, it seems that Orangebox has taken the ‘Smarter Working’ message to heart in more ways than one. The result is an ERP selection and implementation process that turns out to be as distinctive as the Hengoed, South Wales-based business’s own innovative product line.
“The move wasn’t about ROI, and we didn’t spend long surveying the ERP marketplace,” says Tozer. “The decision to move to Dynamics AX was a strategic one, not an operational one, and had an operational impetus based around improved productivity, not cost savings. Dynamics AX 2012 was the right system for the business, and the time to switch was now.”
In fact, he relates, the business had made the decision to move from its existing legacy system – the venerable Fourth Shift package, originally dating from the 1980s – two or three years ago. But back then, in the depths of the worst recession in sixty years, the time simply wasn’t right, says Tozer.
“We’ve used Fourth Shift for 14 years, and it does everything that we want,” he explains. “But it’s a legacy system with a shrinking customer base, and an unclear development path and future. As we’ve grown, and become more global, Fourth Shift is less appropriate for the business that we’ve become.”
In contrast, he relates, Dynamics AX 2012 did have a very clear development path and future. What’s more, it appeared to be one with very clear budget against it, and a fast-growing user base that endorsed those ambitions.
“We went to look at the system in action as more of a proofpoint, really,” sums up Tozer. “On paper it looked the right choice. And when we saw it, we realised that it was the right choice. At which point, we didn’t look any further: the more we looked at AX, the more we saw a good fit, coupled to an acquisition cost that seemed to be very reasonable value-for-money.”
That said, finding an implementation partner was less straightforward. And the eventual choice – manufacturing specialist Columbus – owed not a little to Orangebox’s insistence on continuing to use a third-party product configurator package, Eden, in which it had invested significant intellectual property.
“Our product range is very complex – far more complex than most people realise,” says Tozer. “We have 3,000 standard fabrics, so any combination of two fabrics is 9 million options, and any combination of three fabrics is 27 billion options.” And not only did Eden deal with that complexity, he relates, but the business had built-up twelve years of knowledge-based rules within the package.
What’s more, Orangebox wanted to replace its existing barcoding system, with its bespoke scripts, and move the functionality to Dynamics AX. The goal? Smoother, faster transactions, freeing people to add value, not just process data.
“We want people to be able make better decisions, and be better informed,” says Tozer. “We see Dynamics AX as a decision-making tool as well as a transaction engine. By making better decisions, and working more productively, is where the financial return will come from. It’s not about cutting jobs, it’s about growing the business faster, and with less pain.”
And Columbus, he recalls, fully bought into that vision – despite the inherent challenges.
“We started by talking to half a dozen potential implementation partners – but only a couple of them really got their heads around our brief, and what we wanted to do,” he says. “Implementation has been slower than it might have been, but the result is that we’re going to get everything that we wanted, with little or no compromise.”
Employees accustomed to working in Eden, for instance, will continue to work in Eden, thanks to seamless XML-based two-way integration with Dynamics AX.
“If people are working in Eden, they’ll only ever see Eden, and Eden will be the only IT experience that they have,” explains Tozer. Behind the scenes, though, Eden-derived product design and configuration decisions will be translated into XML, and then output to Dynamics AX.
Bills of material, inventory levels, purchase requirements, goods inwards transactions and production schedules – all of these and more will operate seamlessly in Dynamics AX, driven by top-level sales orders generated in Eden.
“Outside the sales function, people will interact with Dynamics AX, just as they did with Fourth Shift,” says Tozer. “In finance, and purchasing, and in the stores, and on the factory floor: what people will see, and what people will work with, is Dynamics AX.”
And just as Orangebox remained with Fourth Shift for many years, he notes, the plan from the outset has been to build an equally enduring relationship with the new system.
“It’s been a strategic move: by design, we’ve gone for a solution that’s likely to be around for a long time. We didn’t want a solution from another small company that might be acquired and sidelined, we wanted a solution that had the impetus to survive.”
And this September, he concludes, the business will go live with a system that looks set to do just that.