by Al Sacco

Why ATS Chose SAP to Make Customer Factories ‘Run Better’

Aug 29, 20139 mins
Computers and PeripheralsData CenterEnterprise Applications

During the last year, Advanced Technology Services (ATS) rolled out SAP's eFactory Mobility platform and the associated Work Manager app. CIO Chris LeBeau explains how the technology helps ATS technicians improve efficiency, provide better service and connect with the corporate office.

When you picture a modern factory environment, you probably envision workers in hardhats, brightly colored vests and worn-down boots rushing back and forth between shiny machines. Lots of “Caution” signs, beeps and blinking lights. Piles of pallets being moved on fork loaders. Staffers checking boxes on documents attached to clipboards.

ATS Technician with SAP Work Manager app and iPad
ATS Technicians with SAP Work Manager apps and iPads

This is scene isn’t too far from the reality at many of Advanced Technology Services (ATS) customers’ factory floors. Except for all the rushing around. You’ll also see at least a few ruggedized iPad tablets.

ATS is an outsourced factory- and machine-maintenance company. It sends technicians to its customers’ factories to oversee and organize machine maintenance, enact preventive measures to help reduce the need for future maintenance, and streamline repair processes. In many cases, ATS assigns onsite technicians to work every day in customer factories.

Running from data-entry station to station and logging various repair and maintenance information throughout the day, then tediously entering all that data into a tracking system at the end of the day, used to be a significant part of an ATS technician’s job. And that data usually wasn’t actionable until the next day. But thanks to eFactory Pro Mobility, powered by SAP, and the Work Manager app, technicians can now enter, modify and track repair and maintenance information on the fly, using iPads. And the decision-making process has vastly improved based on access to real-time data, according to ATS CIO Chris LeBeau.

“You basically have a set number of terminals that are in the maintenance area. But the work itself is being done all over the plant,” LeBeau says. “Some of these facilities are several hundred-thousand square feet. They’re big, big spaces. So if you get halfway across the plant and realize you need a part, or you need reference information, or you’re right next to another machine that needs maintenance but you’re not aware of it, you end up spending a tremendous amount of time walking back and forth just to get the information you need or to provide the information you have about the work that’s going on that day.”

LeBeau, who took on the CIO role at ATS this year and previously worked in the company’s IT services division for about three years, says the app can save individual technicians an hour of data-tracking and entry time each day.

“Start multiplying that out over 1,000 technicians, every day, every week, every month, every year. It adds up to quite a bit of what ultimately is just inefficiency,” LeBeau says. “It became pretty clear that some type of mobile solution was going to be a good way to address this.”

LeBeau says the SAP Work manager app not only empowers its technicians, saves them time and makes them more efficient, but it also makes plant managers’ jobs easier.

“They’re seeing the activity of the day, during the day, as opposed to tomorrow, which is the way it used to be. You could only see how today went the next day,” LeBeau says. “Now you can see that information in the middle of the day and maybe make different decisions about what you prioritize, from a maintenance standpoint.”

Why ATS Chose SAP

The choice to go with SAP to create a custom mobile app that integrates with ATS’s factory-maintenance system was a simple one, according to LeBeau.

ATS was already relying heavily on other SAP throughout the IT organization. Not only does it use SAP’s Afaria mobile device management product within ATS, the company also runs Afaria as an outsourced service provider so it can host and run the service for other companies.

“Looking at how SAP is used inside ATS, it’s our financial operation, it’s our purchasing, it’s our supply chain, all of which integrates to our service delivery and managing parts and other things we do for our customers, combined with the workforce solution.”

But that doesn’t mean LeBeau and his team did not consider other options.

“Specific to the mobile piece, we could have probably gone a variety of different ways,” LeBeau says. ATS considered internal development of a Web application for the iPad or a native app, but Work Manager offered its own application development kit. It also came with plant maintenance functionality, buttons, features and navigation already done.

“We just had to make choices about what we wanted activated or not activated,” LeBeau says. “From a development standpoint, it didn’t take long. It was more of a configuration exercise than development.”

Piloting and Deploying the SAP Work Manager App at ATS

Soon after ATS chose SAP for its custom mobile app and configured its own software using the Work Manager development kit, LeBeau and team began a two-phase, 90-day pilot. ATS deployed iPads equipped with the Work Manager app to technicians at three customer sites as phase one. After garnering initial feedback and making the appropriate tweaks and changes, the company initiated phase two and rolled the app out at three more sites.

Overall, the process was smooth. “When you throw one thing out to a variety of different user groups you’re always going to get feedback, good, bad and otherwise,” LeBeau says. “We did the trial in two phases, to be able to take that initial set of feedback&and then apply a lot the fixes or the changes we thought that mattered most in the second phase. Then we got a smaller list of feedback and addressed that prior to the larger rollout.”

ATS officially launched the Work Manager app in mid-2012. Today, 500 ATS techs use Work Manager on their iPads at 10 different sites for four customers, including chocolate-producer World’s Finest Chocolate; Caterpillar, a manufacturer of construction and mining equipment; and Eaton Corp., a power-management company. ATS also plans to deploy the app along with its technicians at every new customer site it adds in the future.

Today, the ATS Work Manager app is only available for iPad. It works well on both the full-size iPad and the iPad mini, LeBeau says, but it’s not meant to be used on the iPhone or iPod. ATS provides iPads for its technicians, and they’re allowed to hold onto and use them outside of work hours. But techs can also use their own iPads if they want to; ATS runs a BYOD program that includes a stipend for use and some hardware costs.

The company does not currently use any other platforms or devices along with Work Manager, but it is considering developing an app for a Windows tablet in the future.

“As we look at some of the other things going on in our environment, such as a migration to Office 365, a Window tablet could be in the future,” LeBeau says. “We’re actually doing some preliminary development. Right now, we’re focused on the iPad, with a likely transition to Windows, eventually.”

ATS Work Manager User Experience, IT Support

LeBeau says the Work Manager app is easy for new users to set up and learn to use. And it requires very little IT support.

ATS offer employees a self-service IT portal. When a technician is issued a new iPad, he can log in to the portal and request everything he needs to get Work Manager up and running. The company has tied Afaria to other IT service management tools in order to provide a self-service portal so that users can, make requests and their managers see an email asking to approve the request, LeBeau says.

From there, the employee takes a blank iPad out of the box, turns it on, goes to the registration page and opens the management agent, which walks him through registration and configured the device for them. “Really, all we have to know is who they are,” LeBeau says.” Then, once we’ve set them up, their characteristics are pushed down to the device by the Afaria platform.”

The Work Manager app itself is also designed to be self-explanatory. For example, when a new user opens the app, specific information prompts appear, according to LeBeau. Once the tech selects a few options, the remaining fields are auto populated. The CIO says Work Manager is actually easier to use than its previous Web interface.

In general, feedback from users has been “resoundingly positive,” LeBeau says. The typical users, he says, “roll around the factory with tools and physically work on things” and use a computer “kind of because they have to.”

Continues LeBeau: “They give us information about their work and they get information they need to do it. But with the iPad, we put that in their hands, and we now have a new way to communicate with them, a new way to educate them, a new way to enable them with information, a way to get feedback from them. We’re now connected to our worker in a way we weren’t before.”

ATS invested in the SAP mobile platform and its Work Manager app to provide better service for its customers, but the project also had a number of unexpected benefits, LeBeau says. One key change has been the company’s ability to better connect with employees.

“There are just a lot of cool things we think we can do from here, having that platform in the hands of those individual workers,” LeBeau says. “We’re leveraging the mobile technology to improve the way we deliver service, but one of the byproducts is that it changes the nature of the day for the individual employees that now have this capability. That’s something that a lot of groups inside ATS are excited about — the chance to interact with those folks differently.”