Digital Process Automation Streamlines Product Development
Developing the chemical compounds that are the basis for brighter and longer-lasting colors in an array of commercial, military and household wares is the business of Shepherd Chemical Company in Norwood, Ohio. The company, part of the Shepherd Group, creates chemical formulations used in making products like appliance glass, roof tiles, coatings, siding and fencing. Until recently, Shepherd chemists put together work orders to test concepts for new chemical compounds by sending them via paper or email to Shepherd’s pilot plant, a scaled-down manufacturing facility and a proving ground for proposed products. Paper and email, of course, had the benefits of simplicity.
But Rick Boonstra, Business System and User Experience Leader for Shepherd, says the “process could not scale well,” especially as Shepherd saw its business grow. Scaling its operation is an important consideration, since the pigments market is estimated to expand in the U.S. and abroad. According to an Allied Market Research report released last November, the global pigments market is expected to top $26 billion by 2022, growing at a CAGR of 4.1 percent between 2014 and 2022. A key strategy for keeping up with that growth, say analysts, is launching new products.
As Business Grows, Processes Lag
“One of our chemists might say to the pilot plant manager, ‘I have a new product for testing,’” adds Boonstra. “He would tell him, ‘It works on a lab-bench scale, but it’s only a few grams in weight. Can you make me a hundred pounds of this compound to see if it could work commercially?’”
With paper and email, Boonstra says it was easy to lose track of a work order for the pilot plant. Communication between chemists and project managers across different departments was also challenging because people were asking for various types of work, in different buildings. Tracking Shepherd’s pilot plant work orders fell to a manager who had to remind people to move their paperwork through the system, which was a distraction from the manager’s higher-value duties. Often the manager would get bogged down with having to ask the requester of a pilot plant work order to submit extra information about, for example, weights or temperatures. Sometimes the manager would have to strike the whole request and send it back to the requester to start the process over because there wasn’t adequate information to begin an experiment. Ultimately, a lot of time on both sides of the request was wasted. Automating the process would speed up product development and better track the testing and creation of new products, which in turn could lead to sales.
Introducing DPA Leads to Challenge
With input from its information technology team, Shepherd implemented digital process automation (DPA) software to customize a solution that would replace not only the paper-and-email project management for the pilot plant and its chemists but also other business processes. By definition, DPA is analyzing a business as a group of procedures and practices for delivering a product or service. DPA software gives employers a way to model, monitor and streamline the way their processes work. For Shepherd, its newly purchased DPA software created one place for managers to see all the work orders related to the pilot plant’s testing.
In spite of centralizing the work orders and making them visible to staff, Shepherd’s chemists saw performance issues with the new DPA system. For example, chemists found it challenging to call up the system’s screens, so they could input or check on orders. Workers sometimes had to wait minutes for pages to load or would lose data altogether. The challenges frustrated Shepherd’s chemists. And the problems weren’t confined to the DPA application for automating the pilot plant’s work orders. There were similar delays with Shepherd’s other newly launched DPA applications.
A Streamlined Solution Brings Speed
To address the issues with the DPA software, Shepherd brought help in the form of a team from Austin, Texas-based BP3 Global to speed up the system and improve the workflow. After some investigation, the team realized the infrastructure behind the DPA system was slowing things down.
“The way users felt about what they were working with, especially the interface, was a big issue,” says Nolan Grace, a DPA consultant for BP3 Global. “With screen load times in some cases up to two minutes long, people just wanted to avoid using the pilot plant order application; there was some genuine resentment and skepticism when we showed up to help.”
The outside team embedded itself for several weeks with the pilot plant staff donning hard hats, safety glasses and carrying notebooks to not only learn how chemists were doing their job but also recording all the problems workers were encountering while interacting with the DPA. Any time a worker ran into a bug, the chemists or managers would tell the consulting team; and the consultants would take on the task and fix it. The small team of DPA consultants adjusted information inside some of Shepherd’s databases for data calls and re-architected how the data flowed through the system. With less unused data moving around, the team made users’ screens more efficient, loading in 5 to 7 seconds. This made a system that was unwieldy something that users were suddenly interested in working with.
Along with managing the pilot plant work-order requests, the consulting team tuned the DPA process to track whether or not an experiment was a success or failure. For the chemists and their managers, that fix was critical for measuring the effectiveness of Shepherd’s R&D efforts.
After Grace and his colleagues made initial adjustments to the pilot plant’s DPA solution as well as other DPA applications at Shepherd, the consultants introduced Shepherd to a user interface toolkit. The toolkit customized the DPA experience with an interface for each user’s browser or mobile device, while taking advantage of any common, built-in elements like radio buttons, calendars and touch.
The consulting team used the toolkit to edit and enhance the process for the pilot plant’s work orders. For example, when chemists send an experiment to the pilot plant, sometimes it must be returned to the chemist for clarifications about the conditions under which the test should be run or the weight of the materials to test. The DPA consultants developed functionality for tracking when a work order was returned, which can indicate that an experiment wasn’t well conceived. They also created features to measure how many experiments were in process as well as overdue. With the toolkit, the DPA consultants built a dashboard with metrics, including how long it took to complete a report on a finished experiment. If a report was not completed in a timely fashion, managers could prompt a worker to take action. This helped speed up the product development process and create more accurate reports.
“The toolkit has helped us ‘reskin’ all our users’ screens to be interactive and easy to use within a DPA application,” adds Boonstra. “The toolkit also saves us time and effort in writing customizations and customer CSS code in order to clean up the look and feel of the system. Look and feel are important because some of the folks at Shepherd are not accustomed to workflow software, and the toolkit helps us get people over that hump.
“The toolkit eliminates the possibility that future DPA projects will fail,” says Boonstra.
According to Boonstra, a typical DPA solution is like a tub of unsorted children’s building blocks. With the right user interface toolkit, you can serve up pre-built components, or blocks, for a specific job (e.g., creating a dashboard), which a customer can employ again and again without writing new code.
“A user interface toolkit is about easy re-use,” remarks Boonstra. “In practical terms, it means we have premade data elements we can drop into our DPA software, so we can quickly populate a page with data.”
Most importantly for Shepherd, the entire pilot-plant process is now measurable. There is data available to managers to track the number of conclusive versus inconclusive experiments. Managers also have a window into how many times the submitter of an experiment had his or her request sent back for clarification or adjustments. This, in turn, gives managers a way to evaluate how well their chemists are thinking through their potential experiments before submitting them. The DPA software and retooled process also captures how many pilot plant projects are currently open, or undergoing experimentation, as well as the number that are overdue. These statistics help management see how efficiently the plant is running experiments and how long it takes experimenters to write a report on the findings.
Before Shepherd put in place its DPA software, it could sometimes take months to write up a report. This delay affected how well the experimenter recalled the findings of a test as well as the time to move to the next stage of product development. With the DPA software, a manager has a dashboard that displays the progress of reports and experiments, and he or she can redirect an employee to the task that’s most critical to complete at any given time, which will help Shepherd capture its share of that growing pigments market.