Accuride had an IBM iSeries-based electronic data interchange (EDI) solution that required frequent attention from IT personnel and was expensive to operate. The company used the Microsoft application platform to build a new solution that not only improves integration, but also streamlines production planning and provides customers visibility into certain manufacturing processes. Developed in four months with assistance from SPR Consulting, the solution has improved factory operations and delivers new customer value. Accuride is realizing technical benefits as well, including high developer productivity, minimal deployment costs, reduced ongoing costs, and a decreased IT workload. Furthermore, the solution’s scalability, reliability, flexibility, and ease of management will help Accuride take advantage of the solution in the future.
Accuride Corporation designs, manufactures, and distributes components for trucks, trailers, military vehicles, and construction vehicles. The company’s products include wheels, wheel-end components and assemblies, truck body and chassis parts, seating assemblies, and other commercial vehicle components, which Accuride markets under the brands Accuride Wheels, Gunite, Imperial, Bostrom, Fabco, and Brillion.
Accuride exchanges information with its trading partners using electronic data interchange (EDI). Prior to 2007, Accuride used a software package from Inovis which ran on an IBM iSeries, to provide those EDI capabilities. All maintenance of EDI capabilities was done on the iSeries, which validated and processed EDI messages received from trading partners before passing them to the company’s Infor Business Planning and Control System (BPCS) enterprise resource planning application, which also ran on the iSeries. Although the solution enabled Accuride to integrate electronically with key trading partners, it also presented several drawbacks:
In looking to ease its integration pains, Accuride decided to start with the production sequencing process, in which customers send EDI 866 documents that specify how items ordered are to be assembled, stacked, and shipped. “We rely on the content in EDI 866 messages for information that the factory floor needs for just-in-time fulfillment of orders,” said David Stefanich, Corporate Director of IT at Accuride. “Problems with those messages could result in production downtime.”
However, Accuride had to do more than just solve its integration challenges. The company had acquired an Assemblies-on-Time (AOT) facility at which Accuride wheels are joined with tires, valve stems, and other components to create finished wheel assemblies. It needed a new production scheduling application to support the migration of the AOT facility to BPCS, which didn’t include the needed production scheduling functionality. In addition, Accuride had to provide customers that rely on those facilities with visibility into the status of orders, inventory levels, and shipments.
“What we really needed was a comprehensive application platform, with rich integration capabilities being only one key requirement,” said Stefanich. “We also had to deliver a new scheduling system and expose the data in multiple systems for access over the Web. We knew that our existing iSeries wasn’t a viable platform on which to meet such needs.”
Accuride selected a comprehensive application platform based on Microsoft® software, which enabled the company to build a solution meeting its needs. Developed in only four months, the solution consists of four main components:
All four components were developed using the Microsoft Visual Studio® 2005 Professional development system, run on the Windows Server® 2003 operating system, and use Microsoft SQL Server® 2005 data management software for data storage and reporting.
Choosing an Application Platform
In selecting an application platform, Accuride desired a single programming environment with which it could build solution components. Ideally, the environment would not only meet technical requirements, but would do so in a way that enabled the company to take advantage of its existing IT infrastructure and skill set. “We wanted to build and maintain the solution in-house,” said Stefanich. “It’s for that reason that we dismissed hosting part of the solution with an outside company. By doing so, we eliminated a significant base fee, plus eliminated the
going-forward additional fees for each new trading partner we added to the solution.”
Accuride also examined whether it could meet its needs using an Invois product but determined that the iSeries application could not even support its core integration requirements. “We knew that the best design was to convert incoming EDI messages—and other formats that customers might choose to send—into a common, XML-based canonical format for processing, which also aligns with Automotive Industry Action Group standards,” said Stefanich. “However, the software we originally looked at could only output comma-delimited files.”
Because integration capabilities would be key to the new solution, Accuride spent a good deal of time evaluating BizTalk Server 2006 R2, the component of the Microsoft application platform that supports integration and business process orchestration. Capabilities of BizTalk Server 2006 R2 that the company found attractive included:
In the end, Accuride chose Microsoft software because it met technical requirements and would enable rapid solution delivery through the ability to take advantage of existing IT infrastructure and developer skills. Furthermore, it was the most cost-effective of all options considered. “The Microsoft application platform met our technical requirements and provided the best fit with our existing technology base, application portfolio, and IT skills,” said Stefanich. “We did an architecture review and cost analysis, and Microsoft came out the clear winner.”
Development Process and Timeline
Development of the solution started in June 2007. To assist with the implementation of BizTalk Server 2006 R2, Accuride enlisted the aid of SPR Consulting, a leading provider of business process management solutions based on Microsoft software and a Premier Microsoft Solutions Partner. “We chose SPR Consulting for both their deep expertise with BizTalk Server and functional EDI knowledge,” said Stefanich. “With their assistance, we were able to complete the integration component of our solution in only eight weeks.”
Chris Kabat, Director of Connected Business Systems at SPR Consulting, a member of the Microsoft BizTalk Server Virtual Technical Specialist Team added, “It was perfect alignment from both a people and product standpoint. Similar architectural views were shared by both companies. Specifically, taking a service oriented approach using BizTalk not only helped us rapidly build a robust solution, but really helped us build an advanced platform to implement Accuride’s future vision for IT.”
Development of all solution components was completed by August 2007. The solution went live on September 3, and currently supports the company’s AOT facility. “Our new solution is streamlining the current production of our wheel assemblies,” said Katie Magoteaux, General Manager of the Accuride AOT facility. “When the market picks back up and our production levels dramatically increase, we look forward to added advantages and increased efficiencies that will be realized as a result of this solution.”
Figure 1 shows how Accuride is using BizTalk Server 2006 R2 to support the production-sequencing process—the first of
many such EDI transactions it plans to support. Each transaction passes three stages of processing (receipt, validation, and delivery), which are loosely coupled to facilitate ease of maintenance, changes, and future enhancements.
Receipt. On the perimeter, BizTalk Server 2006 R2 is used to receive EDI documents from partners and transform them to a canonical form. In the production-sequencing scenario, this entails retrieving two EDI X12 866 documents (summary and detail) from a file share, combining them into a single, canonical, XML-formatted message, and transmitting an EDI 997 acknowledgment message. “The transformation of EDI messages to a canonical XML format is where BizTalk Server really shines,” said Matt Dewig. “We originally planned to use a different application for this function, but found that BizTalk Server was better fit for our business situation.”
Validation. Transformed messages are validated through a set of global and trading partner–specific rules, which are implemented using a combination of the BizTalk Server Business Rules Engine and Web services. If the solution detects errors, it uses the SharePoint adapter for BizTalk Server to route the canonical documents to a Windows SharePoint Services document library. Windows SharePoint Services alerts business users when such a message is detected, at which time the business users can use Office InfoPath forms to view and modify the data in the message. BizTalk Server watches the document library for such modified messages and, when one is detected, picks it up and revalidates it.
“Because it was difficult to track down errors in the past, we added a validation step that validates incoming EDI documents and, if necessary, enables nontechnical users to repair and resubmit them,” said Dewig. “As we were designing the validation flows, we realized that other types of EDI transactions had similar problems, so the process was made generic enough to extend to other EDI transaction sets.”
Delivery. Validated messages are then delivered to the appropriate back-end systems. In the case of productionsequencing documents, BizTalk Server places the documents in the SQL Server 2005– based database that supports the scheduling application.
In developing the scheduling application, Accuride took advantage of SQL Server 2005 Reporting Services to deliver several printer friendly reports for production planners. Reports containing data from both the application’s own SQL Server–based database and the DB2 database for the ERP system are available, as are reports that utilize data from both systems to show, for example, inventory shortages against production requirements. (The reporting capability achieves integration with the ERP system through SQL Server stored procedures, which in turn call the DB2 database on the iSeries.) Another report shows any data validation or processing errors detected by BizTalk Server.
“SQL Server Reporting Services made report development a lot simpler,” said Accuride Systems Analyst Andrew Buchanan, who implemented the scheduling application. “The report design work itself was insignificant—a whole lot faster than having to code reports by hand. And with the built-in capabilities of Reporting Services, we were able to give business users the ability to export reports to Office Excel® or Adobe Portable Document Format without any additional development. In the past, people had to print pages and pages of large-format mainframe reports. Today, they can print the reports we give them—designed specifically to meet their needs—and carry those few pages around in their back pockets.”
Figure 2 shows a screen shot of the AccuSolutions extranet portal, which provides visibility into inventory levels, scheduling, production sequencing, and other aspects of the just-in-time manufacturing process. Like the scheduling application, the portal was developed using C# and is hosted on Windows Server 2003. Similarly, reports exposed through the portal provide data from BizTalk Server, the production-scheduling application, and the ERP system running on the mainframe.In building the portal, the developer used ASP.NET master pages to provide a consistent look and feel across all Web pages. “There’s only one page layout for the entire project,” said Jared Smith, the Systems Analyst at Accuride who implemented the portal. “Another real time-saver was the ability to use Visual Studio 2005 for all aspects of development—from designing the portal’s Web pages and reports to writing and debugging the database calls.”
Altogether, the company’s solution runs on six server computers:
All of the above systems are supported by an HP StorageWorks EVA 4000 storage area network (SAN). The extranet servers use trusted Web services to communicate with the database server through the company’s firewall.
With the production-sequencing process now implemented, Accuride is planning to extend the solution’s use to other EDI transaction sets, such as 856 (Advance Shipping Notice) and 810 (Invoice). “We plan to use BizTalk Server to support the complete complement of EDI documents, eventually discontinuing our use of the iSeries solution altogether,” said Stefanich. “In addition, we plan to extend our new solution to support other production facilities as well.”
Accuride also plans to take advantage of its new solution to begin supporting messages in the Automotive Industry Action Group format, another standard for document interchange in the company’s industry. “With the loosely coupled architecture we now have in place, supporting new integration standards is as simple as adding a new transformation map in the receive process,” said Dewig. “The validation and delivery steps shouldn’t need to change.”
The company will use its new solution to support other aspects of doing business electronically as well. “I can envision expanding our use of BizTalk Server to support all aspects of e-commerce, such as bank submissions and Automated Clearing House transactions,” said Stefanich.
Accuride was able to rapidly and cost-effectively implement a solution that both improves integration and delivers new customer value. Business users can resolve EDI document errors quickly on their own, while IT resources remain focused on new technology initiatives. The solution also delivers significant new value, including a user-friendly scheduling application and a portal that provides external parties with visibility into manufacturing status.
“Not only have we taken IT out of supporting daily business processes, but we’ve also streamlined those processes and given customers visibility into the value we provide within the procurement cycle,” said Stefanich.
More Predictable Factory Operations
Using the new solution, the company’s AOT facility is able to resolve errors in EDI messages much faster, enabling the company to stay focused on the just-in-time schedule and meeting customer needs. “The time to resolve discrepancies in incoming customer requirements is much faster now, which is critical for just-in-time manufacturing,” said Magoteaux. “Before, if there was an error with an EDI message, it could take up to 24 hours to resolve. Today, similar issues are resolved in an hour or two at most.”
New Customer Value
The AccuSolutions portal is delivering new value to its customers as well—and in ways other than just the on-time fulfillment of orders. “We’re a value-added operation—it’s what keeps me in business,” said Magoteaux. “Our customers own the inventory we manage, so the increased visibility the portal provides into production schedules, inventory levels, and shortages is helping them to better control inventory costs. They can essentially see all the same information that we use to manage our operations, with the data now at their fingertips as well, enabling us to work together to create new value for their business. In the past, all they could see was what’s in the warehouse. Today, customers have visibility all the way down the assembly line, from inventory levels for raw parts to the finished assemblies that are headed back to them on a truck.”
By choosing to build its new solution on Microsoft software, Accuride was able to meet all its needs quickly and cost-effectively, working in a single programming framework and tool set that enabled the company to take advantage of existing developer skills. “The Microsoft application platform gave us everything that we needed to build the solution, including powerful integration and business process orchestration tools, comprehensive data management and reporting, and a full-featured Web and portal environment. And all those capabilities were accessible through a unified, highly productive tool set,” said Stefanich.
Some key benefits provided by the company’s decision to use Microsoft software include: