Manufacturers all agree that ease of use, functionality and price — plus a quick return on investment (ROI) — are key considerations when choosing a software program.

“The major concern to any company right now is ‘bottom line,’” said Mary Shaw, marketing manager for Delcam. “With new purchases, the question most companies are asking is what will the ROI be? One way to maximize the return on any investment is to make sure it is easy to learn and, more importantly, quick to use.”

“We find that most customers have different reasons for purchasing software, but it ultimately comes down to one thing: improving efficiency in the operation,” said Paul Losavio, marketing manager for Planit Solutions Inc. “For CNC shops, seamless integration between the design software and their machinery on the shop floor is critical. The ability to easily communicate design intent to the shop floor through an automated process has a huge impact on the bottom line.”

Added Rich Taft, product manager at CNC Software Inc., ”A good CAD/CAM system helps you improve the quality of your work, program jobs quicker, handle more complex jobs, accept a wide variety of new projects and boosts your bottom line.”

For many woodworking companies, faster is indeed better. “Customers are primarily looking for software that provides fast presentation drawings, direct CNC connections and high-quality renderings,” said Clay Swayze, marketing manager at Microvellum. However, he added, “One of the most sought-after features would have to be flexible product configuration and design. Manufacturers are looking for software that allows them to engineer ‘smart’ products — products that have the ability to react to user input in a way that causes their associated components to behave in any manner desired, enhancing productivity through parametric functionality.”

Russ Wheelock, president of TradeSoft Inc., also noted the desire for increased productivity as a driving force behind software purchases. “Manufacturers need to increase productivity and at the same time, they need to improve quality. Automating unnecessary manual tasks helps them achieve this goal.”

With the programs available, every part of production can be scrutinized. “Our customers are interested in knowing exactly what part needs to be made, where it is in the plant, where it needs to go next and how long it will stay at the next operation. That sort of information can mean the difference between a break-even year and a year that shows a healthy profit,” said David Kurakazusampson, software manager for Stiles Machinery.

Evaluate the Programs

In addition to ease of use, the ability to “test drive” the software with an evaluation copy, as well as cost, technical support and customer service also are important, said Ken Frye, vice president of sales for KCD Software.

Manufacturers, he said, should ask the following: Does the software meet your company’s needs and is the cost of the software in your budget? “Multiple options should be available at different price ranges, such as: rental, design, cut listing, pricing and CNC. The ability to add to and upgrade your product is important,” Frye added.

A thorough evaluation of the company’s current and future needs is critical in making a software decision. “All systems are not good at all things, so business requirement is crucial,” added Marilena Varano, communication specialist for 20-20 Technologies. “Software for small shops will be ineffective for large operations. Another key differentiator is market specialization,” she said.

“It is absolutely essential to clearly understand existing business processes, what’s good and bad, and clearly define objectives and requirements before evaluating software,” agreed Chris Madore, founder of Tractivity. He cited connectivity with existing business systems and a high degree of flexibility to accommodate individual operating requirements of the business as key requirements, with modularity and a method for phased implementation next on the list.

When evaluating software for suitability, Bill Coughlin, CEO of Cabinet Makers Office, said companies also should consider whether the software is Web-based or if it needs to be installed, secured and maintained on each workstation. Also, he said, determine the level of customization available and know your expected ROI with regards to improved efficiency.

“Almost every company has felt burned by its software investments of the past, because each has some major piece of software that never left the packaging or is being used to just a 10 percent level,” Coughlin said. “An implementation plan is a must for success with any major software. The owner purchasing a software must engage the employees to utilize the software to its fullest extent and must oversee results.”

“We think customers should weigh the ROI against the initial investment for the software,” added Roman Liedl, sales/marketing manager for Eurosoft Inc. “If a software package pays for itself via reductions in labor, material, etc., in a reasonable amount of time, and continues to increase profit margins, then purchasing it should be seriously considered, regardless of the initial investment.

“Customers should also consider the availability of experienced training and support personnel, as well as access to upgrades and bug-fixes,” Liedl added. “They should ask if anyone is still dedicated to continuing to modify and upgrade the software source code to ensure that it works on newer operating systems or to add new or custom functions.”

“The quality of support and training is very important through the implementation process,” added Brenda O’Riordan, marketing manager for Trakware. “However, as companies get used to the systems, their requirements to refine their needs change. If the software vendor is flexible enough to meet these refined needs, the clients receive a system that is tailored exactly for them.

“Choosing a system that will meet your company’s needs in the long term, support growth and provide short term ROI should be at the top of the list when considering an enterprise software system,” O’Riordan added.

In addition to the points mentioned above, Melissa Lemmon, marketing manager at SigmaTEK Systems LLC, said customers should look at whether the software developer has a strong presence in the marketplace. She also recommended asking: “How does the software support machine changes, including post, technical support, improvements to known benefits and additional tools, such as CAD translators and interfaces? How does the software’s support department respond to calls? Is the post customized for my machine to take advantage of the way I run my machine/processes?

“In addition, consider the return on investment for the software. How much faster is one software’s payback compared to others they are considering,” she added.

“Customers should test a product in a production environment before purchase,” advised Alan Fenstermacher, president of Keytrix. “[They] need to understand the training process with each package and evaluate that into the total cost of ownership. They need to evaluate the process of how they deal with a project from when they first contact their customer to the final documents.”

According to Swayze, the biggest mistake a new software purchaser can make is assuming the program will still achieve everything needed long term. “A manufacturer should be looking for flexibility first and foremost, and something that will grow with the company, not get outgrown and replaced; flexible enough to handle its standard products as well as the one-off custom items that seem to be part of every job.”

Additional Considerations

Flexibility, Kurakazusampson agreed, is very important. “Customers should look for a flexible program that can adapt quickly to the changing processes in their factory. We know that as they continue on the path towards improvement, what they’re doing today will be changed next year. [They need to] find a program that will support them every step of the way, like a modular platform that delivers increased levels of automation as production requires.”

However, cautioned Losavio, “Don’t base your decision on a product demo from a salesperson. Look closely at the company providing the software. How long have they been in business? Are their current customers successful? Get references from them of businesses similar to yours. The perfect software application for one business may be the wrong choice for another. Finally, make sure you invest in a product/company that can grow with you. Your business’ needs change over the years so you should partner with a vendor that grows with you.”

“Just like any purchase made by an individual or corporation, the time spent investigating the company behind a product is always essential,” agreed Swayze. “Knowing that the company you choose stands behind its product, provides accurate and timely product support, and sincerely takes an interest in the success of its customers, not only can give you peace of mind, it will be the key ingredient for your success.”

“Software is only as good as the support you get,” added Frye. “Support and customer service can be done over the phone, fax, email and Internet. The software company under consideration should be able to remotely access their computer. This is like being in their shop, providing hands-on support,” he added

Taft also concurred. “With the complexity of multi-axis machines, the company should be able to offer you a high degree of support expertise: technical support, application engineering support, etc. Find out what support is available, either through the reseller or the software company itself. You should be able to expect good answers and a quick response. Also, find out how much it costs — is it included in the price of the software or is there an annual charge for support?”

Additional questions to consider, Coughlin said, include: “What level of integration is available with other software I currently use? Does the software come with built-in training help, online videos or do we need to budget for someone to come train us? Can we learn on our own time or do we have to fit into the vendor’s training or support schedule? How quickly can we implement the training and be actively using the software? If there is a technical problem with the software does the vendor have its own development staff? What are the different methods of support/help available to purchasers?”

In fact, not only is it an investment in money, but in time as well. New software implementation can have a major impact on work flows and procedures, Wheelock said.

“A major software implementation cuts across functional boundaries and changes work flows and procedures,” Wheelock said. “It can shift responsibilities, eliminate certain functions, and require a complete re-thinking of established practices. In short, new software and work flows bring change....and change can frighten people. During the entire implementation, management must be resolute and constantly monitor how things are going. Dropping a new software package from the sky and expecting people will implement it on their own rarely happens.

“The bottom line: If management doesn’t have time or the temperament to be actively involved, they shouldn’t buy a large, sophisticated software package,” Wheelock added.

Madore agreed. “Be sure that there is a clearly defined implementation plan along with responsibilities. Set realistic and measurable expectations,” he said.

The Specialization Effect

In choosing a software package, companies should keep in mind the need to be flexible, Fenstermacher said. Thus, they require software that can adapt to their changing markets and methods of manufacturing — instead of the “one-stop solution.”

“Specialization requires flexible, open-systems software that can adapt quickly to a user’s needs,” Liedl added. “One software system simply cannot adequately address all of the needs of a particular shop — inevitably each large software system will have its weaker aspects. Smaller, more specialized software systems may not offer a complete solution, but because they are dedicated to a certain aspect of the production process, they will deliver superior results in their area of specialization.”

“Specialization has expanded the market and created more options for tailored solutions,” O’Riordan said.

Varano agreed. “It’s great for companies that look for industry-specific software as it reduces the risk associated with software implementation. Some software developers have worked to serve the very smallest shops and that is specialization we can all endorse. Putting basic technology in the hands of the many one- to two-person shops is a boon to them.

“Another example is the role of solid modeling. This CAD technology is too complex and expensive for smaller or simpler operations, however, for complex projects and highly custom designs — store fixtures, custom residential and furniture prototyping — the cost/benefit is very attractive,” she added.

In choosing a program, select one that allows for customization, advised Shaw. “In today’s economic climate people just can’t afford to go out and purchase that million dollar home, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t remodel what they have to make it look like a million dollars. Software allows designers and contractors to accommodate small and large custom projects, from architectural accents on mantels and cabinetry, to large scaled detailing of architectural features like staircases, built-ins and columns. [Three-dimension] software designed for artists provides all the tools and functionality to manufacture pieces that reflect an individual’s unique style. This type of customization can make one shop more competitive then another and give it the tools necessary to go after a market that it may not have thought about before,” she added.

Specialization can also impact the business side, Madore said. “Specialization can provide businesses with solutions that are often a better ‘fit’ for their operations,” he said. However, he cautioned, “[The] flexibility of standard software products is often a better choice over a highly specialized product simply because businesses are constantly changing and their software solutions must be able to change with them.”

In fact, Lemmon said, “Specialization has allowed [software programs] to link everything from CAD to CAM, to Scheduling (MRP-ERP), quoting, and processing of orders down to the end result of producing G-code without human intervention.”

Future Requirements

“It was not that long ago that companies in the woodworking industry did not know what CAD/CAM software was, and if they knew, they didn’t want to invest in it,” Shaw noted. “Today, most companies understand what the benefits are and what can be achieved by implementing it.

“Down the road, we will see more advanced tools and more experienced CAD/CAM programmers, and less craftsmen,” she predicted. “Software will become more important than ever to woodworkers, since it simply will not be practical to design and develop the skills needed to produce competitive complex parts efficiently by hand.”

Taft noted the degree to which software already has advanced, including automatic programming, solid-modeling processing, intelligent nesting and more efficient time-saving tool motion. “CAM software constantly evolves toward two specific goals — delivering better and more efficient motion through the software and taking more advantage of what the machine tool has to offer.”

Losavio agreed. “The biggest growth has been that integrated software solutions, in most cases, are able to seamlessly communicate digitally with equipment on the shop floor. Over the next 10 years, this communication will only improve. We also see the line between CAD and CAM blurring even more. CAD will be the driving force of communication with CAM sitting much further in the background; CAD driving more automated CAM functionality,” he added.

According to Madore, software will continue to focus upon flexibility and connectivity. “Technologies, such as the Internet, allow businesses to connect multiple locations, as well as remote employees and work sites.”

“The future will be about end-to-end solutions,” Varano added. “Customers are looking to industry leaders to work together to reduce costs and improve data throughput. Web-based solutions will dominate,” she added.

O’Riordan, Fenstermacher and Kurakazusampson also noted that mobile/ remote access will continue to change the way companies operate.

“Today, we are automating information, processes, workflow and equipment through a single system, [providing] a complete technology framework for seamless manufacturing integration. Now it’s possible to put the power of any software program in the palm of your hand,” Kurakazusampson said.

“Automation like this is critical for our customers to remain competitive. In the future, factories will be directed by data and process-management platforms. These factory-wide systems will be aware of production requirements, aware of current factory status, and will be able to deliver information and guidance at the right time, in the right place and in the right amount to maximize each work station’s efficiency,” he added.

“Artificial intelligence may play a bigger role,” Wheelock surmised. “Today we can automate repetitive ‘dumb’ tasks fairly easily. Tomorrow, we may be able to take on more challenging functions that today absolutely require a human to interpret dozens of variables.”

Now and in the future, Frye added, “Software is truly an intricate part of helping one manage business from design, to contract, to construction and installation.”

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