Rocky Brands Steps Up to PLM Platform

Rocky Brands is an old-fashioned kind of company — it is still headquartered in the small town of Nelsonville, Ohio, where it was founded in 1932, and much of its corporate culture is centered around giving back to that community. In terms of its business operations, however, Rocky Brands is anything but old-fashioned. This manufacturer of outdoor footwear is marching into the future with a number of ambitious IT projects.

The company gained fame with an innovative type of hunting boots — the eponymous Rocky Boots — and through growth and acquisitions it expanded to other outdoor, work, western, duty and military footwear as well as outdoor and work apparel and accessories. A year ago, it acquired Creative Recreation, a lifestyle footwear company, which it plans to use as a launching pad to enter the casual footwear market.

With so many specialized, highly technical styles — and so many demanding customers, including the U.S. military — product design and development are central to Rocky Brands’ business. As Mary Lorenz, the company’s vice president of strategy execution and process improvement, puts it, “What customers buy from us is an awesome product proposition.”

Over the past few years, Rocky Brands has increased its efforts to incorporate the “voice of the customer” into its products. In addition to using such familiar tools as focus groups, Rocky Brands product developers spend days in retail stores, coal mines and hunting blinds, talking with customers and learning firsthand how their products perform in real-world situations. (One thing they learned in the hunting blind was that their outdoor apparel needed better padding.)

Syncing up PLM and ERP
This focus on product development makes product lifecycle management software especially critical for Rocky Brands. The company has used NGC Software’s Extended PLM/SCM solution since 2005, but, Lorenz says, the original PLM implementation was “bare-bones.” Not until several years later, when Rocky Brands upgraded its Infor ERP system to System21 Aurora, did PLM come to the fore.

The ERP upgrade called for improving its item-master database, which was based in part on data that originated in the PLM system. To keep the two databases in sync, NGC added fields to the PLM system so that all item-master data could be entered there, and it collaborated with Infor on a process that exported data hourly from the PLM system to the ERP system.  

Lorenz explains, “Once you order salesman samples, you have to shore up the product data and get it costed before you can write a purchase order. That typically took four to five days.” The process required routing a spreadsheet to the supply chain planning group, the cost accounting group, and others, and manually re-keying data into the ERP at the end.

Today, with an expanded PLM and an automated interface, item-master information can be gathered earlier and entered directly into the PLM. Because all parties have access to the data, records don’t have to “sit on someone’s desk and wait for approval” before being routed to the next party. As soon as product developers are ready to order samples, they can export the item data to the ERP (which then becomes the system of record) and create a purchase order immediately — speeding up the entire production process by four to five days.

Where the cost accounting group previously had to handle purchase order data at least three times, today it handles it only once. Duplicate work has been eliminated, and the number of data entry errors was greatly reduced.

Bringing in marketing ande-commerce data
Once Rocky Brands realized how useful a customized PLM tool could be, it embarked on other PLM-related projects. The first was Project Step It Up, which further expanded the PLM database to include marketing and
e-commerce data about each product.

Previously, Lorenz says, “that information was maintained on people’s hard drives in spreadsheets, Word, and little databases. It was a horror story to get it all pulled together. We were always scrambling when it was time to put it up on the website.” The solution was to work with NGC to expand the PLM system to include the product story, bullet points, search criteria and even photographs.

When marketing and e-commerce data was added to PLM, it could be synced to the e-commerce system that supports the company’s dozen websites. This change greatly improved data integrity, Lorenz says, and it encouraged collaboration among teams in different functional areas. It also got data onto the websites more quickly, which enabled products to be sold sooner.

Project Step It Up, in turn, gave rise to several spinoff projects. One of these, Lean Label and Pack, made use of existing PLM functionality to manage packaging information. Brand graphic designers and managers can now enter labeling data, including photographs, into the PLM and use the PLM calendaring function to assign responsibilities and meet deadlines. The process has been standardized, the information is consistent, and the data is where it’s needed, when it’s needed. While a typical new label development process used to involve sending six revisions to the vendor, only three are needed today, and the cost variance attributable to label and packaging changes fell from $0.27 to zero.

Rocky Brands also asked NGC to make the PLM system’s line planning tool more robust by adding detailed cost information and other attributes that are displayed on the line plan. Today, the tool is used by the product development, sales and marketing teams. “They look at it at the beginning of every season,” Lorenz says, “so they can see if there are holes in the line or if the price points are right.” Because the line plan report contains so much information, it can also be used for data integrity audits.

Packing and shipping
Rocky Brands also implemented NGC’s EZ-Ship solution, a factory scan/pack system that integrates with the Supply Chain Management system to ensure carton compliance and inventory accuracy. This improved the flow of products through the scanning, packing and shipping process while ensuring the use of standard carton labeling and ASN formats. The system also enabled the company to improve its finished goods inventory management.

Lorenz explains, “The last thing the inspectors do after verifying the product is to put the shoes in a shoebox, attach a label with the size, and put the shoebox in a carton. It might be very easy to put a size-8 shoe in a size-7 carton. But now, when the carton goes out to shipping, the shipping department proofs the carton label and attaches the label to the carton. If an audio alarm goes off, they have an exception to work on.”

EZ-Ship makes validation easier at the receiving end as well. Lorenz says, “In the past, we didn’t have standard ASNs, only a bar-code label with no size or style information. … It was always a scramble, when those products came in, understanding whether we got everything we were supposed to. Now there’s more visibility and more validation of, ‘Did we get what they said they were going to send us?’”

Using EZ-Ship also allowed Rocky Brands to streamline the direct-to-consumer shipping process. Rocky Brands has immediate visibility into the date each shipment left the factory and whether it was packaged in the way the customer wanted. Because the system supports musical packaging (mixed sizes in a package), customer distribution centers no longer have to repack cartons to send to their stores.

Later, when Rocky Brands decided to convert its two company-owned factories over to the same ordering and shipping processes used by vendor factories, NGC was again able to help. Lorenz and her team devised a packing and delivery process, based on EZ-Ship, that she says “looked great on paper.” NGC consultants then worked with the factories to fine-tune and improve the process so that it worked well in real-world conditions. “Using that software and working with NGC has transformed the receiving process at the warehouse,” Lorenz says.

New projects
Currently, Rocky Brands is working with NGC on an advanced module for quality audits in factories. “There are some really cool enhancements,” Lorenz says. For example, quality inspectors can use tablet computers to enter data and take pictures of defects, store the data locally and then upload it from the tablet to the PLM when they return to the office. An enhanced vendor scorecard is also in the works, showing current and historical performance in terms of on-time delivery, lead time and other metrics.

And Lorenz hasn’t run out of ideas for new projects. She is working on streamlining the purchase-order delivery process to make it easier for factories to sort through POs, as well as considering acquiring a business intelligence tool. (“We’ve got a lot of data,” she says. “We want to start leveraging that.”) Additional projects involving the order-to-cash process, invoicing and accounts receivable are “just in their infancy.” 

Systems at a Glance
Supply-chain management and product life cycle management: 
e-SPS (NGC Software)
Enterprise resource planning: System 12 Aurora (Infor)
E-commerce platform: Demandware Commerce (Demandware)
Warehouse management: WMS (Manhattan Associates)
Customer relationship management: Dynamics CRM (Microsoft)

Masha Zager is a New York-based Apparel contributing writer specializing in retail and business technology.
This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds