Lawson Products Turns to Microsoft’s COM For Platform-Independent, Web-Enabled Interface

REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 22, 1997 — Lawson Products distributes 37,000 industrial products to more than 200,000 customers in four countries, so it knows the importance of getting the right component to the right place at the right time. When it came to choosing the right components for its own information systems, the company turned to Microsoft Corp. and its Component Object Model (COM) technology.

Lawson uses COM to build middle-tier business objects that access and manipulate enterprisewide data. As a result of leveraging these business objects, development time for new applications has been cut from months to days. Lawson gained the flexibility to add new components and interfaces to its data when needed – as well as the ability to access its enterprisewide data from a variety of applications. The COM-based business objects can be written in any language, used from any language, and run on a variety of platforms.

“We chose COM because we wanted to make our developers as productive as possible by giving them the maximum in reusable code,” said Jim Mann, vice president and chief information officer at Lawson Products. “Until COM, when a shared set of code was modified or fixed, we had to propagate that changed logic into multiple projects throughout the enterprise. We’ll also achieve benefits far into the future because the components being written today in COM can be reused in new applications.”

Lawson began its pioneering use of COM three years ago. It has benefited from increased productivity that is crucial to a department that has just five developers to create and maintain seven customized applications, with several applications under development. Mann said COM was the only object technology for which a broad range of development tools already existed.

Lawson’s is among the more than 200 million systems worldwide to rely on COM, the industry’s most widely adopted technology for object-based development. Independent companies have been quick to adopt COM; the industry for third-party COM components, now $410 million a year, is set to climb 65 percent annually to $3 billion by 2001, according to Giga Information Group. COM provides the infrastructure for applications from over 2,000 companies, written in any language, including the Microsoft® Visual Basic® programming system, Visual C++® development system, Visual J++
™development software, PowerBuilder, Delphi and many more. COM is supported on all Windows® operating systems, and now on non-Windows operating systems as well.

Another key COM benefit for Lawson is its support for data-driven applications that separate the data from the interface. As a result, different user interfaces can be developed for different needs and platforms. Lawson can also quickly add interface elements as the need arises. COM supports Lawson’s growing use of its intranet, too. The same objects used in its client/server environment can also be used on the intranet.

“We moved to COM when we realized we had data duplication all over our organization and that a central data depository was needed,” Mann said. “We have been gradually centralizing our data into one location, and providing access to it through COM-based business objects. In-house-written applications let users access data from a variety of applications just by reusing our COM business objects as required.”

For example, Lawson has captured business rules for product pricing in a comprehensive COM object. When an agent calls on a customer, the COM object immediately searches the customer database. It develops a price quote based on whether the customer has purchased the product previously, is on a national price schedule, has been assigned a custom price by the agent, or has been assigned a default price.

Because these pricing rules are encapsulated in COM-based business objects, they can be used in any compatible application, and Lawson uses them in three: a laptop-based sales tool for customer tracking and order entry, a CD-ROM catalog that replaces the company’s 32-pound paper catalog, and Lawson’s interactive Web site. With COM, only the new front-end applications need to be rewritten; the underlying business logic is the same COM object reused across both the corporate network and the Internet to call and calculate the pricing information. Mann estimates that reusing the COM pricing object cut the time for developing the additional applications from months to just days.

To create and host its COM-based solution, Lawson used Visual C++ 5.0, Visual Basic 5.0, Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS), Microsoft Windows NT® Server network operating system 4.0, Microsoft SQL Server
6.5 and Microsoft Access 8.0. For the laptop-based sales tool, it developed ActiveX
Controls that are hosted in an application whose GUI was written in Visual C++. For its intranet, the COM-based business objects run on Windows NT Server, utilizing Microsoft Transaction Server, Active Server Pages and Internet Information Server. The MTS components have methods that return formatted HTML for navigation, ordering and other functions.

Lawson Products is a distributor of approximately 37,000 expendable maintenance, repair and replacement fasteners, parts, chemical specialties, welding rods and supplies, hydraulic and other flexible hose, fittings, and electrical and shop supplies. These products are used for the repair and maintenance of capital equipment of all types in the industrial, heavy-duty equipment, in-plant, buildings, and grounds maintenance and transportation fields. It serves customers from 11 strategically located distribution centers by approximately 1,600 agents in the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, England and Mexico. Lawson Products was founded in 1952.

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