Choosing Woodworking Business and Process Management Software

Here's a brief discussion of the power and limitations of MRP (Materials Resource Planning) software packages for a cabinet shop. July 5, 2011

I would appreciate opinions about J-MOS, TradeSoft, Tractivity or other similar packages. We are an architectural casework firm (~8 mil annual sales) needing to improve labor tracking, job-costing, scheduling, and material procurement. We are currently using Excel spreadsheets, and are looking to make life easier, not harder.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor A:
Most MRP software works best when all of production is handled through it, which is why so many companies have dropped it or done partial implementations. I think there is also JOB Boss and Global shop. Crowsnest is middleware that does the functions you are looking for, but it isn't MRP.

From contributor P:
Job Boss comes out of the machine shop industry and is really not well suited to the assemblies a cabinet shop has to deal with.

I think you are after integration. I'm not sure it helps more than hurts. You might consider job tracking as a separate entity. Scheduling as a separate entity. Purchasing as a separate entity. You have to get rid of the spreadsheets, but I'm not sure there is something that goes from soup to nuts. MV has a product they are pushing, but Trakware also has something, but...

I was at a NASFM estimating seminar a while back and this guy came out to have a smoke and commented that he did not understand - the last one of these he attended everyone was hot to go into Erp/Mrp software, but at this seminar everyone was back to spreadsheets.

From contributor G:

I think what the above two posts highlights is the need for two things. First, a software system that can handle all aspects of running a woodworking business, including estimating, material ordering, project management, real time labor and job costing, shipping, and billing.

Second, the training and commitment to making the software work for you, and not against you. Any software implementation is likely to require changes in your current processes. It's up to the end user to decide what changes in procedure would benefit the company, and follow through. In short, you really get what you give. It's best to find a company that you can partner with for the long term, because that's really what it is, a partnership.

The only software that I have experience with and that meets the criteria above is from TradeSoft. We use ProjectPAK for our estimating and Contact Database, and ShopPAK for the remaining ERP requirements. The reason this works well for us is that in addition to a great standalone solution, Tradesoft has taken the necessary steps to provide seamless integration to our other necessary software like Microvellum and Quickbooks. This allows a complete software system, creating synergy and saving time.

From contributor T:
I think the general consensus about MRP software on this forum is that it is great in theory but weak in practice. It is either too specific or not specific enough. If there was a Holy Grail to be found here, we would all know about it and there would only be one or two of us left standing.

The default position for most shops is MS Excel because it is the only next best step. People flock to it because it is easy to understand, but those who want to take the concept further get frustrated by its inherent limitations.

I have said this before but I will repeat it. If you can learn MS Excel, you can learn how to run a database. If you are actually motivated to do this, you can become somewhat proficient in a Sunday afternoon.

The fundamental difference between a spreadsheet and a database is in the reporting capability. More important is the ability to conditionally report events. Most databases have something called Conditional Event Handlers. What this means is that upon some keystroke (entering a cell, exiting a cell, modifying a cell, etc.), a report will be generated.

For example: If the variance on a labor report exceeds 10% of expectation, it will turn the fonts red. If the variance is 20%, you will be taken to a different screen altogether, where you can now see the specifics in either spreadsheet format or pie charts.

Data without retrieval is just landfill. It just adds waste but does not add value. Databases give you the ability to extract what you need, when you need it, at the level you need it. Building your own database is a pretty simple process. The biggest benefit, however, is how it makes you think about your company. The very act of describing conditions that you are interested in makes you think about what the real drivers are for your firm.

We use Filemaker Pro. This an inexpensive package that is available for both MAC and PC platforms. With a little creativity you could probably also link it to any export from any CAD software. There are no limits to database. If you can think it, you can code it.

From contributor G:
I can appreciate your post - most people realize the limits of a spreadsheet over time and growth. I took a look at the Filemaker Pro and it does seem like a neat program. The correct solution for one shop may not be the correct solution for another. It depends a lot on your skills, capabilities, time and requirements.

I consider myself an above average computer software user. But I wouldn't even want to start from scratch with a program such as this for our requirements (12 person shop running custom/commercial millwork in an automated environment). It could easily become a full time job.

From contributor T:
I am not advocating that anybody needs to become a computer programmer. My argument is simply: If you are capable of opening an MS Excel workbook and creating a spreadsheet from scratch, you are two hours away from being able to do this in a database.

The software is available for a 30 day free trial. Big dividends await those who are willing to just take a look at the tutorials on the web. The biggest weak spot in our industry is management. You can't buy it. Stiles doesn't sell it. But you can get it for free.

From contributor D:
I have been using Projectpak for six or seven years and purchased Shoppak and scheduler when they became available. I have to say I am completely satisfied with the results. Our front office is seamless. If you told me two or three years ago we would achieve this, I wouldn't have believed you. Mostly because it wasn't possible before TradeSoft made it happen.

It took some work to get it fully implemented. It is intuitive, and compared to our Microvellum implementation, it was easy. Working out of one database is a wonderful thing. I wouldn't trade the TradeSoft products for all my old spreadsheets. I would suggest you visit several shops that have fully implemented the products and decide. You're welcome to visit mine.

From the original questioner:
Thanks to all for the thoughtful advice. It sounds like a few of you have purchased MRP software but ended up reverting back to your own spreadsheets and databases? Or a combination of both?

Our immediate needs are:

- Purchasing/inventory control/receiving to replace our DOS based MRP (Inmass MRP).

- Job costing - need real-time, rather than weeks after fabrication. This requires labor tracking on the floor, which we currently do not do.

- Scheduling - typically 50+ phased projects in a given week, with contractors' schedules changing by the hour. ~60 production workers.

- Estimating is currently via Excel, but I think we could adapt to the interface within Tradesoft's ProjectPAK. With this software, you really must run everything through it in order to truly reap the benefits, but I have concerns about the practicality of this, due to the extremely diverse work we do.

- Accounting will remain Quickbooks Pro.

We haven't even begun to consider linking engineering into this. The easiest thing to do would be to do nothing, but it's never going to get any easier, is it?

From contributor A:
If you don't link engineering, how will you track changes, updated drawings to the floor and production on these items? This is the glue you need for the CRM part so when someone calls, you can rely on the information.

Tracking production in a one off shop in close to real time accurately is so dependent on so many events that aren't always best suited to run through an ERP system. You have new vendors, new colors, new hardware pieces, new materials that can be time consuming to add to an integrated system.

We did a data map for a customer to link Keytrix to global shop. It took a few months but they kept butting their heads against the need to further define the process on the other side. It wasn't an issue for either software company to map data to each other - it was the decision making process for the customer and actual data map of each item and how to handle all the "exception processing" of non standard requests for each project.

From contributor H:
We spent well over a year-and-a-half looking for an ERP system that might help us to achieve our goals as a full custom AWI shop. We thoroughly evaluated several non-industry products such as Epicor, Globalshop, SAP, E2 Shoptech as well as all of the industry specific names, some of which have been mentioned is these posts.

Our goal for this project was to get all of the stand-alone applications, spreadsheets, and databases into one, centralized application. All redundant entries needed to stop. All data needed to be accurate, complete, current, and accessible by anyone, at anytime, and from anywhere. We had been using Filemaker Pro, numerous Excel spreadsheets, QuickBooks (which we still use for our upper level accounting).

We were not looking for a system that would include engineering or upper level accounting. That would have been too much of a stretch for a full custom shop. What we needed was to control estimating, project management, purchasing, product scheduling, inventory, shipping/receiving, billing and job costing.

We finally came to the conclusion that a fully integrated ERP solution is great for a larger company ($50M+) manufacturing standard definable products, but for an aggressively growing 25 man custom shop with annual sales of $5M, we would have to add significantly onto our payroll and that cost would far outweigh the benefit. In addition, any of the benefit of ERP would not be realized until all of the modules were integrated 2-3 years down the road and we could not afford to wait with the limited resources we had as a company.

Here are my pearls: Forget ERP and embrace process improvement. Find the application that will allow you to make improvements to all of the above tasks/departments/processes over time, while enjoying the benefits of those improvements immediately. The application we chose, Tradesoft’s ProjectPak/ShopPak/Scheduler, may not be the one for you, but in less than a year since we began implementation, we have enjoyed the following benefits, to name a few.

- Extremely accurate estimates (our bid-to-get ratio has improved by 12% and our sales are already 37% ahead of ’09 with 15 days left. Do I hear an amen!)

- Purchasing and receiving has been reduced from 10 hours to two hours a day.

- Time keeping/recording has been reduced from 2 hours to 15 minutes daily.

- We are in 100% control of our inventory. Previously we didn’t have a clue and I’m certain some of it went out the back door. Now because of our controls we have 0 loss. If something is missing or misplaced we know daily and can investigate before the facts get lost or forgotten.

- We have real-time data on labor and material costs (this is a beautiful thing).

- Reduction of shrinkage, loss of finished product at job site.

- Timeliness of billings and receivables has improved substantially.

- Overall project organization has improved.

- Reduced stress (my personal favorite).

Actually, these benefits could go on and on as we continue to recognize more every day.
There has been a cost to all of this change, however, with the right staff, level of commitment, refined processes, and procedural habits, the benefit will be great. It is interesting; almost every day someone here is shaking their head and wondering why we waited so long to “get it.” Had we made these advances 5 years ago, it’s safe to say we would be in a far better shape.

Make sure you talk to several other users of the software you are considering and ask their opinions. Call the developers of the software - talk to the owners, find out what their vision is, bug customer service and gauge the response, converse with the trainers – see if they understand your needs, get the background on the programmers. All this will add clarity to your decision.

In the end, once you believe the software can meet your needs, the single most important element will be the commitment of the company to solve your problems, improve the product, and get you some short term benefit.