Facilitating Remote Work, Social Distancing with ERP Systems
As long as shops take steps to prepare, they can use their ERP systems to enable many employees to work from home and increase social distance for those who need to be in the shop during the coronavirus pandemic.
If job shops take steps to prepare, many of their employees can work remotely via their ERP systems.
As more companies are implementing remote work and social distancing policies amid the coronavirus pandemic, manufacturers are considering what steps they can take to protect their employees. According to ProShop USA Inc. founder Paul Van Metre, ERP systems can be used to facilitate remote work for many job shop employees, and social distancing for those employees for whom remote work isn’t an option. However, before implementing work from home policies, there are some steps shops should take to prepare.
Preparing for Remote Work
The first thing shops need to consider is whether their ERP system is cloud-based or a client-server system. “If it is web-based, then they're already set up to be able to access it from any device, including if they have to work from home,” Mr. Van Metre says. All they need is a browser. Shops using client-server-based ERP programs will need a secure way to access the program remotely. They should set up a virtual private network (VPN) for any employees who will be working from home and ensure it can handle everyone who needs to use it. “If they can install the software anywhere without incurring more cost, then they could install their ERP system on a home computer or on a laptop but only access it and use it once they're connected into their local network,” he suggests. It’s worth noting that many ERP systems will only let users log in from a single location at one time, so to access it from home, users would have to ensure they’ve closed out their sessions and logged out at work before they can open and use it on a home computer or laptop. “They could do some kind of remote desktop application where they're still actually using their work computer, but they're just driving it from a keyboard and mouse at their house,” he adds. “I think that comes down to just their preference of how they want to do it.” Either way, Mr. Van Metre says it’s important for shops to set these processes up and test them in advance. Employees should also ensure that their internet access is robust enough to handle their needs.
Next, Mr. Van Metre says shops need to set up tools to facilitate communication between employees. ProShop has an integrated internal messaging system that enables users to communicate with one another directly within the system, making it easy to send links to jobs and update information. “It really becomes the backbone of all communication in our customers compared to email,” he says. Shops using ERP systems that don’t have internal messaging systems can use email or other third-party messaging systems like Slack, Google Chat or Microsoft Teams. Instant messaging systems have the advantage of enabling communication in real time, without having to wait for emails to sync and download. “Having those more instant communication tools would be a really good fallback if you are working from home,” he says, and adds that implementing something like this is a good practice regardless of whether people are working from home or not.
Shops should also take measures to keep their information secure while using ERP systems remotely, which Mr. Van Metre notes is partially the responsibility of software companies and partially the responsibility of manufacturers’ IT infrastructure. According to him, “A lot of the minimum requirements for security are being driven by some of the new standards that are cybersecurity standards that are coming into play this year.” An example of one of the new standards is Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC). Some of this covers basic measures like minimum password complexity, two-factor authentication and password keys. “We're just releasing a system now where clients if they want to, have to have a physical key in order to log in from the browser, so that's super secure and no one could possibly log in to the system without a physical key,” he notes. IT departments should also ensure that companies have firewalls and proper network settings. IP whitelists, which won’t let a user log into the system unless the IP address of the computer they’re using is approved, are another option for security. He also adds that “It's also not a great idea to be accessing your computers or your office system on open networks like coffee shops, without using some kind of VPN system at least, or at all.”
Determining a Workflow
“The next major thing to consider that I think would so quickly come to light is the actual workflow of how people know when they have something they have to work on,” Mr. Van Metre says. “And in a system like ProShop, it's always very obvious.” Its system of internal messaging, notifications and dashboards help make workflow seamless. Regardless of whether or not an ERP system includes these features, it is important for shops to think through how their workflows will look when employees are working remotely. Many shops may discover that much of their employees’ work can be done from home.
First, estimators or salespeople can receive RFQs and initiate the quoting process from home. They can communicate with whoever is needed during the quoting process, send out quotes and enter purchase orders into the ERP system remotely. At this point, ProShop triggers automatic notifications to departments like scheduling, accounting, project management and engineering. They can do their due diligence and automatically send order confirmations to the customer at home. “Then as soon as those orders are created, the people like scheduling and CNC programmers can immediately be notified about it,” Mr. Van Metre says. CNC programmers could theoretically program from home, although they’d need a copy of the shop’s CAM system and a suitable computer. Programmers can remotely specify everything they’ll need for the job, including workholding, fixtures and cutting tools, which when entered into ProShop, triggers a notification to purchasing (if it’s not already in inventory). Then the procurement department can work from home to purchase anything that’s needed. ProShop has a purchasing dashboard with icons that show the status of the orders, so everyone can stay informed.
The first point in the workflow that requires an employee in the shop is receiving shipments. When all of the materials are in the shop, an employee preps the job, sets it up and runs it. Then it goes through first article inspection, which the quality manager can monitor remotely via the inspectors’ work queues in ProShop. Once the part passes first article inspection, the shop can start running the part. “Obviously you need people for that, unless you have robots, which is increasingly the case,” Mr. Van Metre says.
When the parts are done, shops must prepare them for shipping. ProShop enables users to generate the paperwork for this remotely. For some jobs, this can be a complex process. “In a lot of aerospace, medical or defense shops, the paperwork document package is just as important as the parts themselves,” Mr. Van Metre notes. “So, preparing that package is something that usually is very intensive and requires someone to be on site to do that work. In ProShop, that can be completely done from any location.” This requires the shop to configure the system up front based on the client’s needs. Once it's set up, users can scan in the required documents or attach them from emails from their vendors, and the system will automatically prepare the document package in the right format with the necessary certifications (raw material certifications, first article reports, certifications of conformance, etc.).
Minimizing Contact on the Shop Floor
In addition to facilitating remote work, shops can use their ERP systems to minimize contact within the shop. ERP systems can help shops go paperless, eliminating physical job travelers. “In a paperless system like ProShop, the only thing that is traveling with the parts is a physical job tag that basically has the customer and the order number on it, and that's about it,” Mr. Van Metre says.
Mr. Van Metre says that some of ProShop’s users have already been using their ERP systems to open up their companies to remote employees, even beyond the coronavirus outbreak. “We do have some customers that have more distributed office workers,” he says. “They're not all necessarily in the same location, which could open up a bigger pool of employees.”
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