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Using extranets for better materials management

Seeing potential in the Web for more than just distributing "brochureware," some companies in the packaging community have begun to use Web-based "extranets" to streamline the supplier-customer work flow.
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Extranets refer to customer- or vendor-specific web sites that permit access only by individuals at vendors or customers who have a password. It's a way to leverage the public infrastructure of the Internet to conduct private business between companies.

For example Schawk Inc. (Des Plaines IL) has created an extranet to help packagers better manage their computerized artwork and copy for package graphics. Schawk which owns several prepress and art/design companies across the U.S. that specialize in packaging calls it "management of digital brand assets."

The historical problem: how to transfer current package graphics-for printed labels folding cartons flexible packaging or other forms of packaging-to multiple packaging vendors. Often photos logos art copy and fonts are scattered haphazardly among the packager prepress house and converter some computerized some on film.

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Schawk's new Interchange (Des Plaines IL) division hopes to change all that. It has developed an extranet system that's essentially a central web-based repository for all of a packager's graphics both current and historical. The system is called PaRTS(TM) which stands for Packaging and Resource Tracking System.

The Web-based repository allows authorized users at the packager design house prepress company or converter to view or download any package's graphic right over the Web. And because it's a central repository everyone who accesses an image is getting the same up-to-date version.

It's also a job-tracking system that permits all parties to view the status of a job as it moves through design prepress printing and delivery. And with a click of the mouse any authorized user can see a list of vendors and contacts associated with the production of current or historical package print jobs.

Some typical uses: A designer could use it to download a previously used promotional package to use as a basis for a new design. The prepress house could download a new font or graphics image created by the designer. A project manager at the packager could monitor the progress of a job as it moves through various vendors. A brand manager could quickly browse actual package graphics for an entire brand portfolio. And salespeople could download the correct version of a new design for a sales presentation.

High-speed Internet connections are required to download the multi-megabyte high-resolution graphics files. However low-speed modem users can request a CD-ROM to be made with the desired graphic which can be shipped overnight.

Of course technology alone cannot ensure that vendors are updating the system with fresh data. That's why the service includes an "asset manager" a person at Interchange who rides herd on the vendors to make sure they update their portion of the system. However an Interchange spokesperson claims that implementing the extranet mainly involves redesigning the existing work flow rather than adding new steps. For example a designer would transfer files to the Interchange asset manager (who would load them onto the extranet server) instead of to the prepress company.

What's unusual is that packagers don't even have to be Schawk customers to use the system. Interchange is a separate division that charges the packager a monthly subscription fee of $3 to $10 for use of the extranet. Or the packager can purchase the software outright for $70 (plus customization and configuration charges) and install it on an on-site server appointing an employee to serve in the role of asset manager. That also requires of course server hardware and a high-speed Internet connection.

Interchange allowed us a sneak peak into a special practice area to get a feel for how the system works. The premise is that the site is organized the way brand managers and package graphics people think not computer techies. That appears to be true. It's easy to browse multiple brands consisting of multiple product lines even when each line contains several product/package varieties. There's also a keyword search engine to help locate a specific package or individual graphic element.

Unfortunately at press time it was still too early to interview a system user. Interchange was still setting up its first two customers. Nevertheless at first glance the Web-based system appears to be a promising solution to the problem of managing packaging graphics.

Another company has launched an extranet to help its customers better manage their materials inventory. The former Melinex® and Kaladex® film business of ICI recently purchased by DuPont Polyester (Wilmington DE) launched an extranet in January. (Editor's note: Packaging World's Web archive is sponsored by DuPont Packaging.) The extranet is called COSMOS which stands for Catalog Order Status and Manufacturing On-line System.

It permits converters of packaging materials to place orders directly on-line for polyester packaging films such as Melinex (and soon Mylar®). A converter can check the status of open orders see upcoming and recent ship dates and download packing lists or quality assurance data before an order arrives. It's also possible to view order history pricing and product information inventory levels film manufacturing schedules even DuPont's on-time delivery performance.

The system is updated with fresh data every six hours. Currently about 60 users at more than 30 converters are using the site says DuPont.

PW was permitted to check out a test version of the site. It was easy to navigate with a number of screens offering customer-specific data. Several search screens make it easy to find specific data.

But how does it perform with real customers? Joe Duke gives it a thumbs up. As materials manager for Newtown PA-based Dunmore Corp. a plastic film converter Duke has been using the system since it went live in January.

"It's the closest thing I know of to a real-time inventory program" Duke tells PW. Duke says the ability to check Dunmore's inventory at DuPont as well as DuPont's manufacturing schedules eliminates a lot of voicemail phone tag and faxing of schedules. That translates into faster (often same-day) responses to its customers' production inquiries.

But the greatest benefit says Duke is that Dunmore has been able to reduce raw materials inventory. "Everyone is always pushing the inventory to another level" says Duke. "No one wants to have it on their floor. And if you don't manage the inventory for your supplier ultimately the cost is going to fall to you." That cost-carrying extra inventory as a cushion-has been reduced says Duke.

"I think it reduces inventory at DuPont and at Dunmore" says Duke. "We can forecast our needs a little closer especially when we know the next run dates of the manufacturer. We're not guessing anymore."

As a side note there are now over 100 internal users of COSMOS at DuPont. We're told that these users-chiefly sales marketing and customer service personnel-find the Web-based COSMOS system faster and easier to use than the company's own internal systems.

If you know of an interesting packaging extranet tell us about it at [email protected].

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