Bean counter keeps coffee brewing at Silocaf


Project: Inventory Management Systems (IMS)

Purpose: To provide a real-time inventory system that provides accurate and timely inventory data to clients.

Benefits: Ability to analyze information allows for better inventory management; an almost 50% savings over the cost of implementing a commercial inventory management package.

Platforms: AS/400, Windows NT

In the coffee industry, no two beans are exactly alike. Beans change from country to country, city to city, and season to season. But Silocaf of New Orleans, a coffee bean processing plant, was determined to find a coffee blend that tasted the same no matter the location or season. To do that, the company needed a way to track its inventory of hundreds of different kinds and qualities of coffee beans from locales such as Brazil, Mexico, Columbia, Guatemala, Taiwan, India, Ethiopia and Vietnam, so that it could always produce the same blends.

Silocaf already had a system in place called Lookout, which controlled how things moved through the plant. What Silocaf did not have, however, was live inventory, according to Sean Varnado, IS manager. Keeping inventory "was totally man-driven and hard to do," he explained, and was maintained on paper and through an old, standalone inventory package. All of that changed with the birth of the Inventory Management Systems (IMS) project in January 1998.

After examining tools from 11 different companies, the team chose Sterling Software's Cool:Plex for the project. Varnado —who joined the project more than halfway through, after the project's founder was promoted — was not involved in that initial decision. This "change in guard," as he calls it, presented a bit of a challenge, but Varnado said it was not a big issue. "I knew Cool:Plex and the way it allows you to finish your data," he explained. "[The project] was very easy to pick up. I did very little cross-training."


IS manager, programmer, two contract programmers

The development team was drawn to Cool:Plex because of its data modeling feature that allowed the group to model and complete phases of programming the new system. It also made quick changes and maintenance easy. Rather than having to make numerous changes manually as a result of one change, Cool:Plex does it all. "Changes are automatically maintained by one change," Varnado said. "One change basically affects the whole world."

The development team included two contract programmers with more than two years of experience each, and two Silocaf employees — a programmer and an IS manager — who each had three to four weeks of training in Cool:Plex.

The IT department worked with users to analyze the needs of the company and to provide documentation for an RFP. The top three proposals were selected and reviewed before the team finally chose Sterling's Cool:Plex.



The group worked with both clients (for whom they process the coffee) and users (who use IMS) throughout the project. A steering committee was set up consisting of executives, managers, users and clients. The team provided weekly reports on the project development to this committee. Users were involved in the analysis, design, testing and implementation stages. IMS went live in March 1999, 14 months after its inception.

IMS is tightly integrated with Silocaf's Programmable Logical Controller system, Lookout, that runs the coffee bean processing plant. Because Lookout tracks all the coffee, blends and qualities in the plant, this integration allows for built-in, automated quality checks. If a system operator attempts to put one kind of bean into a silo that already has a different grade of bean, the software will not let that happen. Employees enter new inventory information directly into IMS from computer terminals at the receiving docks. Lookout executes orders, and IMS validates them. "One [system] cannot work without the other one today," noted Varnado.

Thanks to IMS, Silocaf's clients have full access to inventory information and can enter shipment information directly into IMS. Silocaf is also better able to manage its inventory and keep its processes within the plant efficient.
— Lana Gates