For customer-focused pro dealers, an order is never complete until those studs, sheets, or shingles actually make it to the jobsite. Given the complex architecture of the building materials supply chain, however, making sure the right load shows up at the right time isn't automatic. Even though LBM is hardly heralded as a trail-blazer in terms of technology—dealers without Internet connections or PCs still aren't unheard of—observers say progress is being made when it comes to smoothing out supply wrinkles. More and more pro dealers—and the manufacturers that supply them—are using technology to get goods to market, with the right specifications, faster and more efficiently.
“Supply chain integration within LBM is still in its infancy. We're just not anywhere near other industries in that regard,” says Cary Anderson, director of development at the LBM division of Livermore, Calif.–based software provider Activant Solutions, whose Falcon ERP software is deployed at nearly 70 percent of pro dealers nationwide, according to the company. “But there's no doubt about it: People [across the industry supply chain] are starting to spend more on technology, [because] they want to automate their processes.”
Boosting Efficiencies Three years ago, A&H Windows, a mid-sized manufacturer of made-to-order windows based in North Wilkesboro, N.C., became one of the early adopters of the strategy to increase investments in technology with an eye toward supply chain management. According to company president Alan Bridges, automation of its ordering and manufacturing processes was a key way for the firm to compete for architect and home builder customers who are demanding ever-more-sophisticated window packages for their houses.
The manufacturer's answer was “WindowVation,” a proprietary order-entry system that connects its pro dealer customers directly to its 144,000-square-foot manufacturing facility nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Developed with Medford, Wis.–based software firm Window Technology Systems, WindowVation can take an order directly from a buyer's desk at a lumberyard and trigger A&H's manufacturing plant to start building a specific window, many times without a single customer service rep touching the order. An options-based menu that users log into through a password-protected Web site ensures they can only choose those options A&H offers, avoiding changed orders down the road.
“It would be futile to try and provide short turnarounds, on a made-to-order basis, without a system like this,” says Bridges. “A lot of manufacturers have a front-end that collects orders, but then they have to turn around and enter that information into their manufacturing software. Our dealers can actually order product that goes straight to a glass cutter within the timeframe of a shift or less.”
One of those dealers is Talbert Building Supply, a two-yard, $40 million operation based in Roxboro, N.C. Jan Whitt, Talbert's millworks specialist, says using WindowVation has not only helped her sell more windows overall, it has helped her win bids because of the same-day quotes she can provide with it. “It has gotten me jobs before, not because of price or anything, but because of the quick turnaround. If the builder needs to order this window, he needs it today. He can't wait three days for a quote.” With WindowVation, Whitt says she can give that builder a quote within 30 minutes or less.
Whitt adds that her custom orders then get turned from A&H's factory within 10 days of submitting the initial quote and then ordering it on the same day, instead of 10 days from an order date that might be pushed back three days as she waits to get a quote back manually. She also can see order and ship dates from her desktop. Additional functionality that helps Whitt sell more is a customized framer's report, sans pricing, that she can give to a builder showing the exact rough openings needed for each window; a Talbert's logo is branded on the spec sheet. “It doesn't even say A&H on there, so there's no need for anybody to get confused about where it's coming from,” Whitt says. “My Talbert's logo is right on top.”