With a complex range of products, Cras faced a challenge in finding the right information to support sales. How could Cras provide detailed, accurate information to salespeople, dealers and customers?
With CD Invest, Cras built a new Product Information Management solution alongside core business systems on IBM i, uniting previously dispersed information and bringing it to the web.
Rapiddevelopment of flexible, modern interface alongside core business systems
Acceleratesthe sales process by making detailed product information easily accessible
EmpowersIT team to bring new functionality to business users faster than before
Business challenge story
Rooted in tradition
Over the course of its 140-year history, Belgian timber company Cras has seen huge changes. Having grown both organically and through acquisitions, the company has broadened its output from sawn and planed timber to a wide range of specially finished and treated wood products, including custom-built garden structures sold directly to consumers. The company sees this development within the context of its ongoing evolution from a distribution-led to a value-add model. Rather than simply supplying commodity timber to its trading partners, Cras is increasingly working within its customers’ integrated supply chains to manufacture and deliver wood products to their precise requirements.
Ronny Callant, IT Manager at Cras, comments: “As we embrace the Industry-4.0 model, the margins for error are shrinking and customer satisfaction is becoming more critical. To help us become more customer-centric and achieve greater certainty in our processes, we’re on a strategic path to make better use of the information we hold. This means not only bringing together information that is currently fragmented across multiple systems, but also making it easier for staff and customers to access it.”
Identifying its existing green-screen ERP system as a source of inefficiency, Cras embarked on a modernization journey to bring greater user-friendliness and adaptability to its information systems.
“Naturally, it’s critical to make the right decision about our future ERP platform, which will be central to our ongoing success,” says Callant. “As we started working through the ERP selection process, we saw an opportunity to test out some ideas, and prove that our existing IBM i platform could continue to serve our needs in the future. The opportunity we identified was to create a new Product Information Management (PIM) system that would provide a new interface for surfacing existing data, and a new way to bring it to the web.”
A new approach to information
Cras’ IT partner CD Invest proposed a solution combining traditional RPG coding with the latest open source components, and created a small customer-management tool as a test case within just a few days. “This was the trigger for moving ahead with the new PIM on IBM i,” recalls Callant. “We saw that CD Invest could bring fast, modern development to our existing IBM Power Systems™ landscape, without requiring us to invest in any additional hardware or software.”
Cras analyzed the existing data and systems to determine the data model for the new PIM, and then worked closely with CD Invest to architect the application. The development work itself was largely executed by CD Invest, but with a significant amount of skills transfer: Cras has a policy of self-sufficiency in IT.
The Cras PIM runs on IBM i, with some open source components in a Linux partition on the same IBM Power System S814 server. It unites information that was previously fragmented across multiple internal databases and spreadsheets, providing a consolidated store of current product specifications. The solution provides a modern graphical interface with embedded images and PDF files of detailed technical information, making it far easier for internal staff to understand the differences between products and advise customers accordingly.
Cras also launched a new web store that draws up-to-date product and pricing information directly from the PIM. The web front-end is designed to act more as a shop window than a transactional site, because the customized nature of typical orders requires expert input from Cras salespeople.
“The PIM on IBM i gives our staff, partners and customers easy access to all the information they need, and dynamically generates updated product information flyers for salespeople to use with customers,” says Callant. “The approach used by CD Invest enabled us to hit the ground running and start learning to use new tools with minimal investment.”
He adds, “Our first release of PIM was quite basic, but we quickly iterated it to give each product its own set of parameters – this kind of speed and flexibility was unthinkable for us before. Of course, we’d read articles about modernization on IBM i, and we knew anything is possible on the platform. But all the same, seeing this complex, modern interface on our IBM Power System server was a nice surprise, particularly when you consider that it runs on the same exceptionally robust system that manages our core business processes.”
Fast, efficient, convenient
While Cras will continue to produce paper catalogues for use in dealer showrooms and at trade exhibitions, the new PIM fills a gap in the provision of the latest information to employees, partners and customers. Everyone can now access the most recent version of technical specifications and pricing at the touch of a button, whether directly through the PIM or via the new web store. By eliminating the need for salespeople to return to the office and check information, the PIM accelerates the sales process and saves significant time and effort.
“Although the solution is still very new, we can see that it will improve efficiency and convenience for our field salespeople,” says Callant. “It also enables our salespeople to sell product ranges that they might have less familiarity with. For example, if an opportunity arises to sell a pool house, an employee who normally does not work in that part of the business can easily show all the options to the customer, and close the deal without needing to involve a colleague.”
As the PIM runs alongside core systems on IBM i, with open source elements in a Linux partition on the same machine, Cras has no significant additional complexity or cost to deal with in IT. The solution has also breathed fresh life into development practices at Cras, introducing new technologies that enable a faster pace and easy adaptability to multiple endpoints, from desktops to tablets to smartphones.
“When we launched the PIM, staff were very excited because they thought it was the new ERP!” recalls Callant. “We had to explain that this was more like testing a new approach, but the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. We were able to take in people’s suggestions to enhance the system so much faster than before, so this also represents a new chapter in our capabilities on IBM i.”
Although Cras is still working towards a decision on its future ERP solution, the outcome achieved with the PIM shows that IBM i on Power Systems remains a strong option. Callant concludes: “We have proven that we can create completely modern, highly flexible user interfaces that also benefit from the traditional strengths of IBM i: exceptional stability, security and manageability. The ability to run the latest open source software alongside unmodified code from the 1980s is surely unheard of on any other platform, and this offers huge value to our business in terms of reducing both ongoing risk and costs in IT.”
Cras, founded in 1878 and run by the same family for four generations, is a leading supplier of processed timber and finished wood products in Belgium. The company has expanded both organically and through corporate acquisitions, and is present in 14 locations. Cras imports, saws, planes and treats wood on an industrial scale, using it to manufacture panels, ceilings, doors, insulation, flooring, façades and roofing for the building trade. The company also offers a range of finished garden products such as summer houses, pool houses, sheds and fencing.
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