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Playing Hardball With Software: What Every Rebuilder Should Know About Shop Management Software
By Jenna Bates
Even the most resistant rebuilder will find computers and shop management software hard to avoid. Gone are the days of the leather-bound ledger and stray notebook pages. If shop owners want to increase efficiency, maintain a well-organized business and stay competitive, they’ve got to become computer literate, welcoming 21st century technology instead of shunning it.
The new millennium is here, and the automotive aftermarket knows it. According to an engine rebuilding survey conducted by Babcox, approximately 42% of rebuilders now say they use a computer to help manage their shops. However, Darryl Padgett, a labor and management specialist at the Pluss Corp., in Columbia Falls, MT, and a former machine shop owner, says that number could vary depending on how shop owners define the word "manage."
A shop owner may have a computer program that can create an invoice and feel that’s automating his shop. But, Padgett estimates that only 5% of shop owners actually use automation for core and job tracking, inventory control and general ledger functions; in short, a total management system.
Shops using computers now have the capability not only to create invoices or print out estimates but also to account for what jobs the labor hours go to, how much labor is spent on each job, how much each job costs, which employees are productive and which are not, and how much profit each job generates.
"The most important reason to use machine shop management software is to acquire the ability to identify what jobs make you money and which ones don’t," says Matt Andrejco, president of Polaris Systems, Inc. "Plus, you have to track your cores, and you have to be able to perform labor analysis."
The use of computers can make or break a shop, and most owners know it. But, where does an engine rebuilder begin, and what should he look for? That’s the question we asked several companies that currently produce software specifically designed for the automotive machine shop/engine rebuilder.
"The first question should not be about price," says Pluss’ Padgett. Although cost is generally first on a shop owner’s mind, it should be far down on a list of priorities a potential software buyer should have.
In fact, the shop owner probably needs to ask himself a few questions before even talking to a potential software provider. You should begin by thinking about your company and what questions about it you want the software to answer for you.
What functions do you, as an owner and manager, need the software to perform? Are you interested in tracking cores? Maybe you’re more interested in tracking labor costs. Maybe you’d like to keep a customer history. Perhaps you’d like to know which operations you’re good at and which ones you should discontinue. Hopefully, you’re interested in all of these. Once an owner knows what he wants the software to do for him, he should begin seeking out a software provider.
Among the more important aspects of the buying process are the credentials of the software company. Shop owners and managers need to know the company with which they are dealing because purchasing software is not just a 30- or 90-day commitment. Shop owners need to know if the company will be in it for the long haul. They need to ask how much tech support is provided and at what cost. They need to know how long the company has been in business and if they’ll continue to stick around long after the initial sale. They need to ask for the names of customers who are already using the system and then call or visit those customers to receive recommendations.
And, if you’re just beginning to automate your shop, Padgett recommends looking at the software even before purchasing your hardware. That way, you know your hardware is equipped to handle the software application.
"You just can’t do it all, and you can’t do it on your own," Padgett says. "Even if you’re only a two-man shop, you can’t imagine you can do it all."
Bill Lawson, owner of Ateco Automotive in Waukegan, IL, agrees. His shop has been automated for about 15 years, and he’s used three different software providers. Lawson’s first foray into the realm of software was with a local programmer who adapted a body shop program to Lawson’s full-service machine shop. Although he stuck with the program for about a decade, it didn’t do everything he needed it to do. Since that time, Lawson has tried two other software providers, one of which changed hands about a year-and-a-half ago and no longer offers the same service.
Since automating his business, Lawson’s shop has improved its productivity and the bottom line. His words of advice? Make sure the software company you choose offers technical support and training. Bookkeeping is a major factor in the machine shop business and one that shouldn’t be ignored. Be certain the software can track how much time an employee spends on a job; make sure you know where you’re losing money. This includes inventory, expenses and work orders.
Brandon Beard, owner of Radcliffe Auto Parts in Radcliffe, KY, is a true believer, too. He’s been using the Pluss Corp.’s total management software program since August 1999 and has cut down on his overhead "tremendously."
Since using the software, Beard has found exactly how long it takes to do certain jobs and discovered that the smaller jobs that had to be done weren’t generating much revenue. It’s what Polaris System’s Andrejco calls the "10-80-10 rule." That means that on average, 10% of a shop’s business makes a lot of money; 80% brings in average revenue; and the other 10% brings in very little money or may even lose it.
Beard increased pricing in areas where he was losing money and is now actually generating more business and better margins. He admits that this strategy might not work for everybody but credits his software for locating and helping him to address the problem.
Further, Beard says the software program forces his employees to complete "paperwork" at the time the work is done. Where once the paperwork for a job might sit around the shop for a few days until someone completed it, now the computer does the work immediately.
"This is the way to go," says Brandon when asked what advice he would give to shop owners looking to automate. "It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. Once you’re able to keep track of everything, you are able to generate a lot better bottom line."
There are many companies that offer machine shop management software, but can they service that software once you have made your purchase? Can they deal with your questions or problems in a timely manner? Can they refer satisfied customers with whom you can talk?
There are also software companies, such as the Pluss Corp., that view themselves more as system integrators and solution providers. These types of companies can offer invaluable consulting expertise on everything from software to hardware to diagnostic tools, to virtual private networking (VPN), to B2B (business to business) resources and networking that can bring business into your shop that normally wouldn’t be possible any other way. The bottom line is first do your research and then find a company that can provide solutions to as many of your company’s needs as possible.
The following list is a sampling of some companies that offer machine shop management software. The editors of Automotive Rebuilder do not endorse any specific software company, and rebuilders should, themselves, decide what software would best fit their needs. Software providers for machine shops and engine rebuilders can also be found in Automotive Rebuilder magazine’s January Engine Rebuilder’s Buyers Guide issue. Software providers are in the General Purchases section of the Buyers Guide under the category headings "Computer Software" and "Computer Programming."
One of the newest shop management systems to hit the market is the Engine Rebuilders Association’s AERA 2000. This shop management system is designed to address profitable shop management operations and practices. According to AERA, AERA 2000 offers archiving and historical comparisons so that users may use past data to create estimates and invoices. Profitability may also be tracked. A price-leveling feature allows for the assignment of different price levels by individual customers. AERA 2000 also features core tracking, inventory control, invoicing, parts cross referencing and general ledger posting.
The AERA software sells for $1,499, and AERA says it does many of the shop management functions a typical custom engine rebuilder (CER) needs, e.g., job estimates, tracking of work in progress and employee productivity. As yet, there is no Internet link, but AERA says it’s coming. When AERA 2000 is linked to PROSIS (see separate listing), the program allows the user to print specs to go with work orders. For more information, call AERA at 888-326-2372.
Pluss Corp. Part-Time Manager and Pro-Pluss
The Pluss Corp.’s Part-time Manager software is a fully integrated system that has been in the market place for more than 15 years. It features point-of-sale functions, as well as inventory control, electronic cataloging, parts and labor look-up, class coding and a general ledger. It is a DOS-based system, which Pluss’ Padgett says is much faster than a Windows application.
Pluss Corp. offers training for the software, which can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $6,000 to $20,000 depending on the type of system needed.
Pluss Corp. has also recently introduced the Pro-Pluss program, with more than 250,000 part numbers and interchanges in an electronic look-up by year, make, model and engine catalog format. Pro-Pluss offers estimate and quote printing; invoice and work order printing; accounts receivable; labor guide catalog; full inventory controls; and rebuilders data service import. Pro-Pluss costs $650. For more information on either program, call 800-835-9609.
Polaris Systems, Inc.
Polaris Systems, Inc. has been in existence for about a year-and-a-half, after buying the Silver System. All together, Polaris Systems, Inc. has provided automated software solutions to various automotive niche markets for more than 15 years. Polaris Systems provides software tools from inventory, accounts receivable, shop, and production control to general ledger, accounts payable and payroll management.
The Polaris System also offers core tracking internally and by customer, plus automated ordering, which can be linked to a core bank or purchasing system.
According to Andrejco, Polaris is also working on developing an online portal for machine shops, which will give shops access to a cross-referencing system that can also integrate into the Polaris system. Various Polaris software can range from $4,000 (Pulsar, single user) to $200,000 depending on the needs of the shop. The mid-range program (Nova) typically costs between $7,000 and $15,000. The company offers customer support 24 hours a day, seven days a week and full customer documentation. Polaris will also soon have a customer service link on the Internet. For more information, call 800-221-1991.
Autologue Computer Systems
Autologue Computer Systems offers menu-driven, interactive, point-of-sale, inventory control, customer accounting and sales analysis programs designed for inventory intense businesses.
Among some of the features are: the display of part numbers with no manufacturer code or dashes required; complete tracking of every item sold or returned, by customer, part number, invoice number and date; electronic parts cataloging; price updating service with preset pricing formulas; stock check and ordering; controlling and tracking special orders; scrolling of inventory part numbers; tracking defective and core returns by part number, by vendor; and viewing all prices and profits in POS. For more information, call 800-722-1113, ext 228.
Key Comp Key Solutions Retail Software
Key Comp Key Solutions Retail Software includes: point-of-sale; inventory control; general ledger; purchasing; accounts receivable; accounts payable; mailing lists; core banking; time card; price labels; electronic cataloging; and multiple store support. For more information, call 800-851-0274.
ICAS Computer Systems, Inc. offers Pacesetter, which features order entry and point-of-sale functions; accounts receivable; purchasing functions; inventory control; and management control. For more information, call 973-366-1900.
The products offered from the above vendors are total management packages. However, also available are electronic catalog systems, databanks, technical bulletins and much more. These systems, usually provided by manufacturers, are a quick and easy way to access accurate parts information needed during preparation of estimates and orders. Though these programs do not provide core and job tracking or general ledger functions, they can be very helpful in the efficiency of a shop. We have listed a couple of the most well-known ones below.
The Engine Rebuilders Association (AERA) offers Professional Rebuilders On-line Shop Information Systems (PROSIS), an engine specification software. New features to its latest upgrade include a new interface, expanded fields for metric storage, faster operation, and custom and AERA engine specifications stored in separate databases with expanded notes.
PROSIS offers engine specifications for light duty, agricultural, industrial and import engines, including more than 3,600 engines; identifications of cylinder blocks, heads, crankshafts, camshafts and connecting rods by casting number; 30,000 casting numbers; and remanufacturing specifications for cylinder blocks, heads, crankshafts, camshafts and connecting rods.
It also features AERA technical bulletins in text format with drawings and the ability to keep track of part numbers. PROSIS costs anywhere from $495 to $695 depending on customer needs. AERA also offers yearly tech support for the program from $249 to $349 in the United States. For more information, call 888-326-2372.
The Production Engine Remanufacturers Association (PERA) offers Core ID, a databank of information on domestic engine cores including blocks, heads, crankshafts, camshafts and rods, which is updated quarterly.
According to Joe Polich, executive vice president of PERA, there are 56 different engine families from 1985 to 2000 contained in the Core ID system, which identifies the basic engine components that make up an application.
Polich says the software is geared toward several groups: anyone working with the cores themselves; anyone involved in the engineering of new applications; those who are scheduling production; and even to sales people to help them direct customers to the proper parts.
Core ID is available to PERA members and non-members, though there is an extra charge for non-members. For more information, call 847-439-0491.
There are also those programs which offer specialized functions, like core-tracking, an important aspect to the proper and efficient management of a shop. One of the most recent programs comes from CAMM, Inc.
The Farmington, CT-based CAMM, Inc. (Computer Aided Manufacturing Management) officially released its CoreTrak software on May 1. CAMM also produces CAMM/plus, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) package of software designed specifically for the remanufacturing industry.
According to Camm’s, Dan Velcofsky, CoreTrak is the latest in stand-alone core tracking software available to the remanufacturing industry.
Velcofsky says that CoreTrak can benefit rebuilders depending on what the machine shops that use it are machining. Generally speaking, however, CoreTrak allows remanufacturers to know where their cores are and tracks a complete history of all core shipments, returns and credits.
"This software keeps track of the cores, for which customers expect to get a credit," says Velcofsky. "It also keeps track of what condition the core is in and when the credit should be paid. Some unscrupulous customers will send junk cores back just to get the credit, and the machine shop will issue those credits. This software allows them to put an end to that."
CoreTrak is specifically marketed to small machine shops and CERs, and costs $895. It is a single application, i.e. not integrated with any other program. The software is based on 100% Microsoft technology, offers an option of purchasing tech support and comes with a money-back guarantee.
CAMM eventually plans to create six to eight different stand alone programs, which will have the ability to integrate or continue to stand alone. The company’s next creation will be Core Inventory Management software. For more information on CoreTrak, call 860-674-2600.