ERP upgrade sought job efficiency, not job loss

Protecting jobs, not replacing people with automation, was an ERP system upgrade requirement by the Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired. It wanted efficiency without job loss.

This is not your typical ERP upgrade story. The Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired needed a modern ERP system, but with a unique requirement. It wanted efficiency, but not in a way that would take away jobs.

IBVI is a Wisconsin-based manufacturing firm that makes a variety of products. One of its best known is its Skilcraft ballpoint pen, manufactured for the U.S. government since the 1960s. The company makes the pens, which contain parts that can withstand extreme temperatures, by the millions.

As the name suggests, part of the firm's mission is to hire people who are visually impaired. It measures success on its ability to hire more people. Its technologies help workers do their jobs, whether in the office or on the shop floor.

But IBVI found itself hamstrung by its ERP system, a collection of different systems that didn't communicate easily with one another. Processes were time-consuming and inefficient. Changing an employee's address, for instance, took logging on to four different systems. An ERP upgrade was needed, and IBVI decided to start talking to systems integrators about how to do so.

The ERP upgrade objective was clear

Systems integrators interested in IBVI's ERP project were given tours of the factory. Emmanuel Vouvakis, IBVI's chief innovation officer, led the tours. He was forceful about the project's goal.

"You see this floor?" Vouvakis would say to the integrators who were with him. "I don't want you to touch any of these positions in here. The objective of this system is to make their jobs easier, not to find efficiencies."

Emmanuel Vouvakis, chief innovation officer, Industries for the Blind and Visually ImpairedEmmanuel Vouvakis

He would continue by saying the not-for-profit's "job is to employ more people. It is not to streamline the company. It's to create more jobs for people who are blind, visually impaired -- not automate them."

IBVI modernized its system with an Oracle ERP cloud, which gave the firm flexibility to introduce new shop floor technology.

IBVI's systems were initially on premises but are now in the cloud. The firm wanted to end the maintenance and hardware upgrade cycle. "The idea behind this was to no longer have servers," Vouvakis said.

They also changed their business processes. "We are upgrading all of our internal processes," Vouvakis said. The system is live but the firm is still configuring its business processes to the system's ERP best practices.

Shop floor, Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired
Shop floor of Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired

New tech expands jobs

One of the noteworthy benefits of the ERP upgrade was the introduction of voice-activated scan guns that can speak to the operators. The technology used by the scan guns can integrate with the ERP system's data.

The objective of this system is to make their jobs easier, not to find efficiencies.
Emmanuel VouvakisChief innovation officer, Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Before the introduction of the scan guns, "visually impaired were limited in terms of what their role was within the organization and what they can do on the manufacturing floor," Vouvakis said. The technology expands what a visually impaired worker can do, to include picking, packaging and shipping of the product, he said.

The improvement to screen reading technology was another benefit. Screen reading technology plays a big role at the firm, but some of the legacy systems were green screen and difficult for screen reading technology to deal with. In some cases, the screen reader would treat what was on the screen as one long run-on sentence.

The Oracle system, aside from being able to support screen reading technology, has its own accessibility features.

The firm employs about 250, and Vouvakis said the new ERP will help scale the organization to employ more. They want to expand to areas in the country that have large populations of visually impaired.

"We're actually growing faster than we can hire right now," Vouvakis said. "That's our problem, actually, finding more people."

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