That's the case for West Paw Design. Recently, the Bozeman, Mont.-based pet supply firm began streamlining its operational and production processes by moving more of them to Apple's iPad, each equipped with a Bluetooth-enabled barcode scanner and custom-built Filemaker Go applications. The move has saved money, created significant operational efficiencies, and aligned with the company's longstanding green philosophy. (Organic cat-nip was among its early products.)
Don't let West Paw's industry fool you--this isn't the return of Pets.com. Rather, West Paw is a 15-year-old small business that grew each year during the recession and posted 10% growth in 2011. CEO Spencer Williams said West Paw's technology focus has helped better empower each of the company's 50 employees to make decisions, and as well finding operational efficiencies that help a small business compete on a grand scale. That's particularly important because West Paw does everything in-house under one roof--from product development to manufacturing to shipping.
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"That is really critical from the standpoint of controlling our product costs and allowing us to compete as a domestic manufacturer on a global scale," Williams said in an interview. "It [also] allows us to improve our operational efficiencies from the standpoint of waste, and waste is often in the form of paper--pushing paper."
West Paw first grasped the potential of tablets before the iPad had even launched. The company began bringing iPhone and iPod Touches--even though they were available in Russia before he could buy one in Montana, Williams noted with a chuckle--to trade shows. That enabled them to work with customers in the booth using live data on the company's servers back in Bozeman.
"What happened in the year of that experiment is we realized that the interface was just a little too small to really allow us to work with our customers and our broad product range," Williams said. "When iPad was introduced--wow, suddenly we had a little more real estate, and we had the horsepower."
That led naturally to looking at what West Paw could do with it in terms of internal operations. Since the company was already a Filemaker user, the addition of the Go app was relatively seamless. When iPad 2 came out, Williams and team added a Bluetooth scanner to the mix and began deploying units onto the production floor to replace existing database, inventory, shipping, and other applications and processes. In other words: Every step--from idea to shipment--that goes into making and managing a large, diverse product catalog. Williams said the results were nearly immediate--improved speed, agility, and efficiency on the production floor.
West Paw's results speak to something common among many SMBs: calculating a return on technology investments is rarely a strict matter of dollars and cents, even when resources are stretched thin.
"As a small company, we don't have teams of people studying the ROI of our initiatives," Williams said, adding that he sees the return in the work being done by each member of team. "When you can take technology and not put shackles on people but liberate their ability to affect positive changes within the company, the ROI on that is very difficult to calculate."
There's also the easy alignment with West Paw's sustainability efforts. They're prepping a new shipping system using a similar iPad-Filemaker-Bluetooth mix that the company estimates will reduce paper consumption by 200,000 sheets annually. As it continues to transform all aspects of its operations, West Paw expects to reduce its environmental footprint some 80%.
Yet the financial case also is clear. Chad Oster, who heads up IT and Filemaker development at West Paw, said via email that the company's traditional barcode scanning hardware ran about $2,300 per station. The iPad-Filemaker Go-Bluetooth deployment costs $850. The difference netted $5,800 in immediate cost savings for West Paw's first four deployments. Oster said he has realized significant savings in set-up and installation, employee training, and help desk support--some 40 hours per year, per iPad--by his calculation. And those aren't the largest savings.
"Our biggest cost savings comes from being able to track our raw materials, work in process, and finished goods inventory more efficiently than we ever have in the past," Oster said. That comes in the form of automation, reduced steps in the customer fulfillment process, and the ability to create custom products without disrupting normal manufacturing.
Not surprisingly, West Paw is reducing the amount of conventional hardware from its IT portfolio, including its previous barcode scanners. Williams said some PCs remain in the mix--most likely laptops--but he can't imagine signing a purchase order for a new desktop anytime soon. iPad deployments will continue; plans are in progress for every department in the company because of the quick success on the production floor. Williams said the next big IT projects likely involving moving West Paw's internal servers to the cloud and investing in an internal communications and collaboration platform.
Expect a few more iPad purchases, too. The ROI case is no longer open for debate for the CEO, who values the tablet's versatility across each level of the organization.
"I like it when I travel--I can be highly effective on it. And I know the people on the production floor who are trying to figure out which dog bed to make next love it because they have the information at their fingertips," Williams said. "If that's not a transcending technology, I don't know what is."
According to our Outlook 2012 Survey, IT should expect soaring demand but cautious hiring as companies use technology to try to get closer to customers. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek: Inside Windows Server 8. (Free registration required.)