Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Big M Show Recap

The week of June 2nd was the The Big M conference and exposition at Cobo Hall in Detroit, Michigan. The show was held by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME).

As a first time participant, I’d assumed that a manufacturing show set in Detroit would be a big event. But compared to our experiences at IMTS in Chicago last fall (which was HUGE), and to the regional East Tech show in New England, The Big M Show was relatively small by comparison. 

Now, I will say that Cobo Hall is a great venue for a manufacturing conference, especially after their recent updates to the facility. You can tell from the street construction, the facility renovations, and the spirit of regrowth in Detroit, that more improvements are coming for the city and the conference center.

I am always fascinated by the new ideas for manufacturing technologies at these shows. While this conference did not seem to have the big machines others do, a lot of new technology was on display, and we were pleased to be among them with our newest Realtrac software.

As a provider of a comprehensive software program in the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)/Materials Resource Planning (MRP) division, we took every opportunity to share Realtrac’s newest capabilities. Showing off our newest features - like the quick search tools, our media bar, the research and development credit reporting, and the integrated quality support tools - brings us a real sense of pride as a cutting edge program for manufacturing shop management and control.

- Tom Buck

Elite Manufacturing Profits With Realtrac 10 Planning Software

Growth in the U.S. manufacturing sector continues to rise, according to a May report from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM). That rise is also reflected in the country’s 50,000 small to medium-sized machining and metal working manufacturers. But, for many of these companies, this growth also means accepting a rapidly changing manufacturing world.

Although 3D and Additive manufacturing have become industry buzzwords, they may not be the most important technology smaller manufacturers need to embrace to stay competitive. Although it may not seem as  “sexy” or “cutting edge” as 3D printers, a more important technology for these companies to implement may be software-driven shop control systems known as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP).

But less than half of America’s 50,000 smaller manufacturers are using ERP software, according to estimates from Realtrac, a Michigan-based shop control software company focused on small to medium-sized manufacturers with 5-100 employees.

One company who recently made the switch to ERP software is Elite Manufacturing, a CNC machine shop co-founded by three seasoned machinists in March 2013. The company is based out of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and manufactures a variety of high-quality inspection fixtures, machine parts and machine modifications.

While all three founders have been in machining for decades, they were fearful of diving into a bloated resource-planning system. It was safer to do what they knew, which involved a bare-bones job tracker, Excel spreadsheets, QuickBooks, and lots of manual entry.

“Most ERPs out there are going to run you twenty or thirty thousand dollars just to get started,” said Elite Manufacturing’s co-founder Paul Fiege. “That was NOT going to work for us, but we knew we needed to find something better than what we had.”

With that in mind, Paul began researching the ERP and MRP solutions that might work for his machine shop. He attended IMTS in September, and happened to see a live product demo from the Realtrac 10 Performance ERP. The Realtrac team was running simulated live jobs through the system to show attendees what their job control software could do.

“As soon as I saw the interface I could see the Realtrac resource planning system was different. They were getting real-time feedback!” Fiege said, enthused. “It took less than fifteen minutes for me to see that it did everything we needed - better than any other planning software I’d seen.”

Because Realtrac was designed to help growing job shops get to the next level, metal working shops and smaller manufacturers can get started with Realtrac’s lease-to-own program for as low as $150 a month.

Another usual barrier to embracing ERP software is typically the fear of implementation and the overwhelming learning curve of the software itself. Usually these systems are cumbersome to learn and use. They are built for large manufacturers, so smaller shops will have to make major changes in business practices.  

Jeremy Klosowski, Director of Sales, said: “At Realtrac, our sole purpose is to make shop control software implementation easier, so smaller machine shops don’t get left behind.”

For Elite, that promised ease of implementation couldn’t have been more true. Just two weeks after seeing the Realtrac 10 Performance ERP at the IMTS show, and after a short initial training, the company had the software up and running. It gave them complete control of their jobs, from initial quote to completed and shipped parts - with no complications.

“With Realtrac we can literally go from quoting a job to having it running on the shop floor within an hour. It takes one click from estimate to job,” Elite’s co-founder Paul Fiege said. “Before we implemented the software it would take at least a day just to get a quote out for a bid. Now I can put half a dozen or more drawings into the system, input the part specs and other details, and have a quote out in as little as 15 minutes… It has helped us become an established company and a legitimate player in a very competitive industry.”

About Realtrac
Realtrac is a software company specializing in shop control systems for machine shops, job shops and make-to-order metal working manufacturers. The company was founded in the heart of a machine shop and has served the manufacturing industry for over three decades. The Realtrac 10 Performance ERP is used by thousands of shops across North America. For more information about Realtrac, contact Jeremy Klosowski at 734-793-3811 or

About Elite Manufacturing

Elite Manufacturing is a Minnesota-based CNC job shop, co-founded in 2013 by three expert machinists and toolmakers. With forty years of experience, Elite handles all types of jobs, from inspection fixtures needing a single piece to full-run production jobs. The shop uses Hurco conversational vertical milling centers, and can take parts from prints and CAD to complete products with quick quotes and turnaround times. For more information about Elite Manufacturing visit or call Paul Fiege at 651.340.0088.

Realtrac: A Comprehensive Approach to Improving Our Performance

At Realtrac headquarters, we’ve recently decided to improve the invoicing process in our software. Much like our users, we talk with our customers on a daily basis to stay current on the state of their businesses. We also get feedback on their needs to determine how we can best help them succeed. We've honed a few practices that have helped us deliver the highest quality manufacturing ERP system around - and we wanted to share some of those ideas with you.

Once upon a time, most users of the Realtrac Performance ERP system had relatively small and simple shops. Many were made-to-order shops, so when an order for a certain volume of a specific part came in, our users would fire up a new job, build the parts, then ship them directly to the customer. Nice, clean, easy.

Thankfully, many shops using Realtrac have grown and prospered, and many have much more complex invoicing needs. Our shops not only make-to-order, they also make parts for inventory. They may have multiple locations working on the same part, or they may buy parts and services from other sources to combine into a final product. And, while the Realtrac system is flexible enough to support all of these options, we know we can do better.

The key point of this little blog post is that we here at Realtrac are constantly asking the question: "How can we make our product better? How can we make things easier? As we know (and I'm sure most of our customers do as well), merely saying "we constantly challenge ourselves and welcome critiques of our processes and product" is a lot easier than actually embracing that philosophy.

Quite simply, for a lot of workers (Realtrac development nerds included!), it's not always easy to balance the pride in a product with remaining humble and open to suggestions. Through trial and error, we've found some approaches to help improve the quality of our product, and we thought these kinds of ideas might help our existing and hopefully future Realtrac Performance ERP users.

* Start with the end goal. Don't solely focus on the specific flaw or detail.

When we notice a flaw in something, be it the Realtrac software or a widget being produced on the shop floor, the most common reaction is to immediately begin the attacking the issue. While we absolutely want to address the issue, it's important to first identify our goals. What exactly are we trying to achieve by fixing the issue?

So, specific to Realtrac, we knew we could improve the process of invoicing and shipping separate parts – namely, pulling finished items from inventory, reselling other goods from our inventory, and pulling parts from active jobs for shipping. But instead of focusing only on that specific issue, we took a step back to examine a larger question: Can we improve the overall process of invoicing and shipping, regardless of how simple or complex the invoice is? If we can actually improve other, more common scenarios - let's go for it!

Instead of simply pointing a finger at a single employee, process, or workstation, this approach gives everyone a chance to review the whole system to look for other added benefits. Since implementing this approach, we’ve received much more buy-in across our company, plus we get all sorts of unintended benefits we may not have gotten if we’d focused only on the individual problem itself.

* Make it safe to question existing processes and systems.

Like many Realtrac users, we're a relatively small company. Everyone in our organization pitches in and helps each other out across traditional "departments.” Members of our technical staff contribute as pre-alpha and alpha testers of new software. Developers go to trade shows to meet customers, learn about their needs, and answer the occasional super nerdy question from a hardcore ERP user. Our sales team writes requirement documents, outlining improvement requests from their customer base.

This environment makes it easy for anyone to ask questions or make suggestions. Still, this idea is easier to say than to implement. And, within an established organization, it can be difficult to figure out where to start, or how to effectively establish such a policy.

Realtrac is lucky. In many ways we run like a very small startup, so we are inherently open to the idea of open suggestions.

From our experience, one approach to kick starting this environment is to start from the top-down. We've met with owners who call a quarterly or semi-annual company-wide meeting, during which they give a general overview on the past work period ("We met our quality goals, great work!"; "We missed too many shipments, we need to figure out ways to meet out deadlines", etc...) and present an overview of the upcoming period.

A Realtrac team member recently attended one of these meetings. During the meeting, the shop owner mentioned they were looking for ways to improve the quality of their productions: the scrap rate was too high, and something had to change. The owner asked everyone to brainstorm ideas, write down a two or three sentence solution, and the best idea would get a day off or a small thank you gift.

The employees on the floor are quite often not only experts at their jobs, but many have a wealth of information about what else is going on inside the company. They are the "eyeballs on the streets" for the owner. Most employees genuinely want the company and the individuals within to succeed. So, the first step to opening up communication starts with the ownership and management staff asking for help, then implementing the quality ideas that arise.

* It's more important to compliment good work than to note poor work.

Everyone expects that when they produce poor quality work, they are going to get called out for it. Quite simply, the manufacturing world (and the ERP manufacturing software world) is too competitive for companies to simply provide substandard product to their customers.
So it's expected that when there are flaws, those flaws will be identified, addressed, corrected, measured, and, once proven fixed, documented.

But what's more important, both in manufacturing and in software development, is to note the good work more frequently than the bad.

There's as much, if not more, to learn from examining a process that produces high quality work than a faulty process producing flawed work. If something is working, why did it work? Ask the employee what they did to “over-deliver” on the product. Ask he or she what your coworkers can do to achieve the same great results. The answers will be surprising and immediately beneficial.

As a simple example, when we began rewriting the Realtrac Performance ERP system in anticipation of what would become the tenth release, we started with the most basic of tasks: Figure out a way to display active, open jobs in a list. It turned out to be deceptively simple.
We knew we wanted an easy, intuitive way for users to search, organize and browse their jobs. We wanted search results to be immediate, as the speed of finding data is of top importance to our users.

After much experimenting, we discovered a way of searching that lets a user search based on any and all of the job criteria, with the results automatically updating in the grid. Reactions to this new technology, both from our existing user base as well as brand new users, were so strong, we knew the system would be quite successful.

We wound up adopting the same technologies for Estimates, Purchase Orders and Invoice searches. When an idea works, we take that idea, and, where possible, adapt it to other processes.

Hopefully you can use some of these ideas in your business!

Remember to keep an eye on our blog, website and social media feeds for the announcement of our upcoming invoicing functionality. 

Realtrac has already helped many companies become extremely successful (including one shop who won a 2014 IMTS Top Shop award), so we're excited about what our existing and future users will achieve with our new and improved Realtrac functionalities!

Make Production Decisions In Five Seconds or Less With the Realtrac Jobs Dashboard

Realtrac features an extremely powerful Jobs dashboard that provides real-time information on production and customer orders. The Realtrac dashboard allows the user to quickly identify problem jobs and easily drill-down (filter) information by up to 27 fields, including customer, drawing number, part number, job number, due date, PO number, current operation (location), and more. Color-coded data (red, green) highlight any problematic issues, including operations behind schedule.

The dashboard includes a yellow row for data entry, located at the top of the form, which is used to filter information. For example, if you enter a customer name (or part of a customer name), our dynamic search function will immediately narrow the dashboard results to only that customer. You can also filter multiple fields, like jobs by customer PO number, which are due that week; jobs currently in shipping (to prompt an invoice to your customer); jobs at outside subcontracting, and more. The dashboard also allows users to search on closed jobs. 

Use this historical information to view the profitability and routing of previous jobs and help improve your manufacturing.

The jobs dashboard is a comprehensive scrollable list of information. One great time-saving feature is the preview function: when you hover the mouse pointer over the job number in the dashboard, a yellow preview window will appear, providing full information about that job!

The Jobs Dashboard screen, which is unique to Realtrac, is an invaluable tool that provides real time information about the status of your jobs – without requiring you to walk and inspect your shop!