Lean methods drive IT innovation at railroad equipment maker

Miller Ingenuity uses smartphone catalog, warehouse automation and shop-floor integration to set itself apart as a tech leader in old-line industry.

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"Welcome to the rail industry. Set your clock back 100 years." That's the line Eric Armstrong often uses to capture the state of technology in the industry for which his company, Miller Ingenuity, makes parts that literally keep the trains running on time.

The Winona, Minn.-based manufacturer has set out to modernize its industry by employing Lean methods to wring waste out of business processes and spark fresh thinking. It's a worker-driven philosophy that is both supported by and strongly influences IT development. Plant-level employees are actively engaged in using Lean methodologies to drive improvement themselves. "It's not the process engineers," said Vice President of Operations Randy Skarlupka. "They really come up with different ideas and actually implement them on the line."

The latest example of Lean methods carried out through technology is a smartphone app that lets customers and sales representatives in the field swipe searchable product screens instead of flipping through heavy binders. It's a timesaver and marketing tool that Armstrong, the company's senior vice president of global marketing and sales, holds out as an example of the innovativeness needed to drag the rail business into the 21st century. "In the future, I think we have the opportunity to lead the industry in this direction," he said, as others copy the idea or use a version of the app.

The company is transparent about the rebranding initiative it has built around a history of product innovation that starts with the wick lubricator invented by founder Rudolph "Rudy" Miller 60-plus years ago and continues through patented parts for today's locomotives, rail cars and other equipment -- some of which helped modernize Russian-built fleets in Poland and Kazakhstan. It recently added "Ingenuity" to its name, handed out its first awards for employee innovation and will soon offer training to other midmarket manufacturers.

Epicor ERP hub of design, manufacturing, sales workflow

Principles of Lean manufacturing

While all Lean methodologies derive in some way from the Toyota Production System developed in the mid-20th century by the Japanese automaker, variations have sprung up over the years. Lean methods nonetheless share a common goal of maximizing customer value while minimizing waste.

Among the Lean principles followed by manufacturers such as Miller Ingenuity are these:

  • Continuous improvement (eliminate non-value-adding steps; reduce variability, stop and fix, etc.)
  • Respect for people (encourage teamwork and initiative, minimize wasteful work, provide mentoring, etc.)
  • "Go see" how the work is being done instead of sitting behind a desk
  • Standardize tasks
  • Use visual controls to analyze and solve problems

-- David Essex

IT plays a prominent role in the Miller Ingenuity rebranding as both an enabler of innovation and a result of it, with a six-year-old Epicor ERP system at the hub. A PickStar pick-to-light system from PCdata uses indicator lights to tell warehouse workers where to find needed parts for urgently needed truck "kits," speeding up response times to customers, according to the company. PickStar pulls bills of materials, or BOMs, describing each kit's components from Epicor, thanks to a custom integration written in Microsoft Visual Basic.NET by Itechra, a nearby consultancy. The engineering department's Dassault Systemes SolidWorks 3-D modeling connects to Adept product data management (PDM) software from Synergis Software, which then keeps product data current in the ERP system.

The Epicor system's SQL Server database has proved essential in another process improvement inspired by Lean methods. Three years ago, Itechra worked with Miller to build a standard operating condition (SOC) interface to the Epicor ERP system through SQL Server. (In engineering parlance, an SOC describes the standard conditions, such as voltage and temperature, under which machinery should be operated.)

"People knew the information was in the system someplace and asked, 'Why can't we use the system that's already there?'" Skarlupka said. Minimizing rework is a principle of Lean methodologies, and fully automating the flow of SOCs would eliminate having to write down the information, key it into a computer and file away the paper.

The interface is entirely Web-based, according to Ben Adank, an IT consultant at Itechra who developed it in the Visual Basic.NET and C++ programming languages. Workstations and monitors were added to the shop floor so workers could easily access the information, which also includes the latest engineering revisions and other product documentation coming from the Adept PDM system.

"We've basically transformed what would have been an all-paper system and made it a paperless system," Miller’s Skarlupka said. "They know exactly what the machine should be set at and make a note of that." Quality audits are easier because auditors can check the information online, he said.

Mobile app relies on back-office foundation

The request for a mobile product app came from Kristi Dzurick, Miller Ingenuity's marketing manager, who saw a need for product information to be more conveniently available to customers, salespeople and customer service. "You really needed something that could be updated automatically," she said.

So, last summer Itechra's Adank went to work, using Adobe Phone software to develop the smartphone app in the HTML 5 Web language so that the same code base could be published on both the Google Android and Apple IoS platforms.

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Skarlupka said that because sales can be converted into orders from the mobile device, the app is already providing some return on investment by virtually eliminating phone calls to convert orders. It is also proving to be a better sales tool than the binders. "It really does open up opportunities and allow you to sell products that they might not even know you have," he said.

The development team's wish list includes somehow taking advantage of a smartphone's location awareness and camera, as well as a customer portal that will let them see the status of their orders online instead of calling in their inquiries. Similarly, a supplier portal could make it easier for suppliers to monitor the products they send to Miller's vendor managed inventory , or VMI, program.

Though he's happy with the result, Skarlupka wishes he had known how much time would be needed for the early development stages, especially the meetings where Adank sat down with workers to ask them what they wanted in an app.

The earlier decision to choose a SQL Server database for the Epicor install proved crucial to the innovations that followed, according to Skarlupka. "I would highly recommend anyone to do that," he said. It simplified the integrations that were needed with the Epicor ERP and will make it easier to carry customizations forward in future migrations.

It also helps that Adank adheres to a rule that all customizations be transferable. "That's one thing that Ben has been very good at keeping us on track [with]," Skarlupka said.

This was first published in May 2014

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