When Hopkins Canada, a home and car products manufacturer, replaced their legacy enterprise software with Infor VISUAL ERP, things got complicated. Separate software was installed at the company’s Blenheim, Ontario headquarters and at their U.S. factory in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Having two instances of the software doubled the time required to compile daily reports as well as to perform daily maintenance chores.
One big problem was that 12 operational reports had to be manually generated from each site at the close of each business day, sent to their reporting application, and combined in the application to give managers a single view of business metrics on issues such as production planning, accounts receivable and sales forecasts. In addition, several resource-intensive VISUAL system maintenance utilities had to be run every night. Together, these jobs required four hours of hands-on IT work every day.
Hopkins Canada briefly considered eliminating this daily IT time by hiring a programmer to write automation routines but immediately rejected that option. “We were just coming off our VISUAL implementations and we knew how much custom programming would cost and how much time it would take,” said Rick Borst, Information Services Manager at Hopkins Canada. “If we were going to automate, we needed to follow a different path.”
Easy Application Integration with RPA
IT supervisors liberated staff members from that assignment by turning the job over to Automate, an easy-to-use robotic process automation (RPA) solution from HelpSystems. Since then, the company has automated more than 44 different functions—ranging from EDI data dissemination to variance reporting, database monitoring and beyond—without expensive custom programming. Putting Automate in the driver’s seat is saving Hopkins Canada more than 25 hours of paperwork per week, and in at least one instance, averted a server crash by alerting the IT team to data overload.
Borst first learned about RPA in an online VISUAL ERP user group. There he discovered that other companies were solving similar problems with no coding or scripting. A technician simply lists the keystrokes required to perform a given task or selects from a menu of pre-programmed actions such as Move, Add, and Delete. The software then executes the task by following those keystrokes and/or actions in the proper order to simulate user input.
First, Borst configured Automate to run Hopkins Canada’s 24 daily ERP reports at both company sites and automatically populate the company’s reporting application. The reports were generated consecutively without manual intervention, but in the beginning, IT staff members at each location had to manually launch the operation each night because they had to choose which reports to run based on the time of the month. Borst soon automated that process as well by using Automate’s support for Visual BASIC for Applications (VBA)-compatible scripting to trigger different tasks based on the date or the size of a given file.
Not long after that, the company put RPA behind the wheel to assist in exchanging data between its ERP and EDI systems. Eight times a day beginning at 5am, a utility is launched that turns raw EDI data into a flat file for importing into the VISUAL database, changes the default printer to send purchase order reports to the Nebraska plant, and triggers audit reports to pinpoint trouble spots such as missed incoming purchase orders and undelivered outbound invoices.
Plus, Automate can send shipping notifications to customers where their EDI system cannot. Customers get an automatically generated email with tracking information as soon as their orders head out the door. All while running audits of their various software applications to ensure that all shipments have been invoiced. If one is found, a real-time notification is sent to resolve the issue. “It keeps the finance people out of my inbox, and what that’s worth to me is priceless,” says Borst.
Outside of invoicing and shipping, Automate drives a variety of other processes for Hopkins Canada as well. The software triggers weekly sales reports that used to require one hour of manual compilation per week. It launches reports that show low U.S. stock on items sold in Canada and vice versa, providing an early warning system that was previously unavailable because of the two separate ERP installations. It checks the sizes of nine different databases on a weekly basis and sends the information to Borst for troubleshooting.
ROI in One Month and Reliable Automation for 18 Years
Since Hopkins Canada originally started using Automate back in 2001, it has more than proved its value according to Borst. “IT managers are challenged to cost-justify every expenditure. If you can find a product or service that has measurable ROI within a quarter, you’re probably going to get approval to do it,” Borst noted. “We saw a return on investment within a month after deploying Automate, and it’s only gotten better over time.”
Saving 25 hours or more in weekly busywork is a key advantage that has also avoided adding IT staff—Borst still operates as a team of one. For him, RPA is like having a second person on staff that doesn’t take vacation or need constant supervision. And the ability to route EDI data from Ontario to Nebraska has eliminated the need to buy a second EDI translator for their U.S. location. Every report generated with Automate’s aid has helped shape business decisions, identify operational areas of concern, save money, or produce other benefits.
But through the years, one thing has especially stood out—the software’s ease-of-use. “We've been using Automate for many, many years and I don't think I have ever needed to reach out to tech support because something isn't working,” says Borst. “Plain and simple, it just works.”
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