Optiva Optimizes R&D

Until recently, each of the 50,000 formulas that had been created at the Wood Finishes Division of RPM was written by hand into a small journal. And that was only the beginning of the paper trail. Copies were then made and distributed to six different locations before finally coming back to rest in the lab's customer files. The problem, of course, was in trying to leverage that information for future use. Clearly, if there was ever a need to shine the bright light of automation on a business process, it was on this particular niche of the product development world.

In this case, the bright light came in the form of Formation Systems' Optiva software. Under pressure to improve profits and shareholder value, RPM's Wood Finishes Division implemented Optiva to increase efficiency and accelerate product development in its formula labs. Today, the Hickory, North Carolina-based company has reduced product development times in its color lab from two weeks to one, and according to Ronnie Holman, vice president of research and development, that number can be brought down even further to two days.

In the paint and coatings industry, technical people with expertise and
experience are hard to find, says Holman, so being able to get the most from
employees is a big part of that improvement. At its most basic, Optiva provides a central repository for all of the knowledge that used to reside solely in a lab technician's head. That information can then be easily accessed by others, not just by workers in the lab but in manufacturing and management across the country and around the globe.

Founded in 1995 and located in Southborough, Mass., Formation Systems created its flagship Optiva software in response to the need in many research and development labs. As if meeting customer demand for new products isn't enough of a challenge, Formation Systems found that formulators often do not have access to relevant information. Paint and coatings manufacturers like RPM in particular also face stringent environmental regulations governing volatile
organic compounds (VOC) emissions, lead content and other hazards--regulations that are not only complex but ever-changing. In addition, as markets go global, developing f ormulas that meet the regulatory and compliance requirements of foreign markets without adding to supply chain complexity and manufacturing costs also represents a considerable challenge to manufacturers.

RPM's Wood Finishes Division, which sells its specialty coatings both commercially and to consumers in more than 130 countries worldwide under brand names such as Varathane, Renuwal and Watco, faced many of these challenges. The company had been using a formula management system called Batchmaster. "With our old system, the 'search' function was very limited. Without a database platform to store all of our information, we had to reinvent the wheel every time a project came through the lab," says Holman.

In the past, for example, if the company wanted to isolate the products purchased by Broyhill Furniture to find out which are compliant for hazardous air pollution content, it would have to go to each individual formula to look up that data--a very time-consuming process to say the least. "Now Optiva allows us to pull up all of that calculated data on the fly," said Holman.

Redundant Projects

Of the 120 or so requests for new formulas that come into the lab every week, roughly 70 percent are color related, and it is the color lab that has realized the most significant improvements thus far. Holman explains, "We have over 2000 touch-up markers in production, so when a request for a color match comes in, there is a good chance that we already have the match the customer is looking for. But the problem in the past was, how to find it."

With the help of Optiva, the Wood Finishes Division is now in the process of establishing a color library. The company is keeping both a physical sample as well as logging data into the Optiva system as a customer parameter that provides color coordinate readings from a color computer. In the future, the lab technician will then be able to take the sample, take a reading of it and search through the database for a color that has similar characteristics.

"In doing so, we expect to be able to completely eliminate many projects that come to the lab," continues Holman. "In the long run, we think we can increase efficiency in the color laboratory by 50 percent. We're not there yet, but that's the goal we're shooting for."

The Wood Finishes Division began the Optiva deployment in September of 1999 and "technically, it was up and running by January of 2000," says Holman. But the implementation has been limited by delays in the deployment of another system--RPM's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) management software--which integrates with it. The MSDS software manages the hazard warnings for all the chemicals contained in the RPM Wood Finishes Division's products.

Through an interface to the Optiva software, the MSDS management system takes a look at the ingredients contained in RPM's formulas, breaking them down into their most basic components and analyzing them for their hazardous material content. "With that information, we can then determine if our products are safe for sale in certain areas; for example, California's South Coast Air Quality Management District," says Holman.

Formation Systems worked in conjunction with Hazox, the manufacturer of the MSDS system, to create the interface so that RPM's lab techs are able to export data from Optiva to a folder where the MSDS system can then import it. The Optiva system also integrates with the RPM Wood Finishes Division's FoxPro-based homegrown manufacturing system. Since the company found it would need to bring in new information from the FoxPro system on an on-going basis, Formation Systems also created an interface to enable that functionality. The system is running in a three-tier configuration: the database server is an IBM NF 5500, the application server is an IBM NF 5000 and the client workstations are running Windows 95.

Formation Systems led two-day training sessions on site to bring the 18 to 20 RPM lab technicians who currently use the system up to speed. Four more users will potentially be added when the Optiva software is brought to lab locations in California and Massachusetts. Holman reports that initially Optiva was very well received in the lab. Then a period followed when lab technicians resisted what they perceived as extra work. But satisfaction levels are back on the upswing, he adds, as users
realize that more work up front is translating into real-time savings down the road.

In the future Holman reports that the company will likely add other Optiva modules, such as workflow and potentially the EDM (Experiment and Design Management) module, which provides an interface to DOE (Design of Experiment) systems. Other long-term goals
include raw material and finished goods consolidations and project tracking. But for now, Holman is pleased with the progress. "We are completing 50 more products a week than we were at this time last year."

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