The acid test for the transformation that Stephen Goodson engineered for NQ Cranes came when he walked away from it – and nothing happened.
In the past taking a break had been nigh on impossible; if the computer system fell over Goodson, the company’s systems manager, was the only one to call.
Migrating NQ Cranes’ systems to the cloud and working closely with apache.com.au our Microsoft partner meant that “I took a week off and everything got handled while I was away. Couldn’t happen previously, so there’s a benefit straight up.”
It’s a tongue in cheek response – but there will be plenty of SMB companies that recognise the sort of high wire act that their systems managers are often called on to perform. They are the ones who keep the systems running, keep the data secure, tackle management’s reporting expectations, support the field operations team, try to act as the catalyst for business transformation. The list goes on.
Goodson knew that the best way to approach NQ Cranes’ current and future requirements was to rethink the underpinning technology and migrate to the cloud.
Cranes in the cloud
NQ Cranes was established in Mackay in 1987 as a crane and hoist supplier and service provider, particularly for the shipping industry. Today it supplies customers all over the country as well as Papua New Guinea and has a team of 100 staff servicing 15,000 items of equipment.
Goodson is the one-man-band IT manager; he is in charge of everything from network design to system administration. It was an approach that worked for years – but it was risky for him to take leave or get sick. Also Goodson can’t scale – he’s just one man.
To put the business on a better footing for the future Goodson proposed a rethink – move the systems to the cloud, partner with a trusted technology company and forge a strong alliance with a well credentialled partner.
Enter Microsoft Azure, Office 365, Dynamics 365, SharePoint Online, The Power Platform and Microsoft partner, apache.com.au
NQ Cranes had been using Navision as its ERP – but it was an older implementation and highly customised, making updates and upgrades tricky. Transitioning to the cloud-based Dynamics 365 Business Central and Dynamics 365 Field Service meant the core would be continuously updated, but there was still opportunity for some degree of tailoring, “and that was necessary” says Goodson.
“One of the main pain points for us is we have service technicians that we may not see for three, four, five weeks at a time. So, we needed the ability to be able to give them work and have them interact with the ERP system, in a controlled manner. So, when they use a part, when they’re servicing and when they put hours on a job, all those sorts of things are captured and recorded.
“It was done with a fairly manual process before where technicians would send in a document that that would then get typed into the ERP system, to record that transaction so we could then bill our customers.”
NQ Cranes wanted to streamline that further so that when the technician entered the data into the system the client’s invoice would automatically be generated.
“We’re trying to close the lag between performing a job and invoicing the job,” says Goodson, and reduce the delay and risk associated with double or triple data entry.
Working with Microsoft partner apache.com.au, the company was able to tweak the integration between Field Service and Business Central in Dynamics 365 to get a perfect fit for its needs. It has also extended the interaction with field workers using Flow so that a work order is created for them in Business Central live.
Because all of NQ Cranes’ personnel use Office 365, all records and documents are now resident in SharePoint and the company is using Power BI for analytics and decision support, there has been a streamlining effect right across the business.
Security meanwhile has been enhanced through proactive features embedded in the Microsoft SaaS suite of products including Office 365 and Dynamics 365 which provide security hints and a reminder list of tasks in order to boost security.
It all means that admin staff are no longer locked to their desk. Senior executives have the flexibility to run the business from where it makes most sense for them – one works from Townsville even though his business responsibilities are in Mackay, for example.
No one is shackled to a desktop computer because all the data and applications needed to manage and run the business can be accessed through the cloud.
“Being cloud based means we have access to our information, when we want it, from wherever we want it,” with no compromise of security, says Goodson.
It also meant he was able to strip away friction from his engagement with the partner, apache.cm.au. “I’m working a lot with Apache’s Senior Functional Consultant for Dynamics 365 on a daily basis, who is actually in Brazil at the moment, and I’ve just been on Teams with him most of the morning, doing development, working through business process flow, and that sort of collaboration within Dynamics.
“And it’s no different to if he was sitting beside me here.”
The Teams advantage
Microsoft Teams is proving a communications and collaboration boon for the entire organisation – and the company is planning to deploy Teams Calling which will help rein in telecommunications costs.
With the main applications refreshed and operating in the cloud, Goodson has been able to turn his attention from the basics of running infrastructure to more value-adding work. One key area is management reporting where Power BI is delivering significant benefits.
Goodson says; “Power BI, that’s where we’re going to get the value from this project. So I’ve been working in and around business systems for quite a `while. One of the key problems that I’ve seen with business solutions, is the ability to be able to do reporting and exception reporting out of them easily.
“The Power BI Suite allows me to pull information from anywhere in the common data model and SharePoint, pull them all together and do my exception reporting or dashboarding myself. The financial controller can run his own stuff. It frees up resources dramatically.”
Power BI has democratised and simplified access to intelligence right across the organisation. For example, the managing director doesn’t need to know how to navigate Dynamics 365 or SharePoint – instead Power BI acts as a front door to the information he needs.
Goodson explains; “I can bring the important stuff to his attention through a dashboard using Power BI. If he needs to drill down, he can click into it and drill down.
“Anytime you talk to any of them at any of the senior management, even at the managers’ level, they live and die by the dashboard. Now the dashboarding is still in development – we’re still improving it, we’re still adding reports and that sort of stuff, but the ability to be able to bring the health and safety KPIs and show the number of customer assets on agreement, the number of technician hours expected on services for the next month by area, and those sorts of things, to the one screen for them is gold.“
Connected Field Service
Apache.com.au, Microsoft and Dicker Data are working closely with NQC to extend the solution to infuse IOT, Machine learning and AI into the entire platform.
The end goal is to improve occupational health and safety for the operators and impacted employees of the hoists while extending the CAPEX lifecycle, safety and reliability of the hoists. From measuring the number of lifts to monitoring the hoist equipment for key performance criteria an optimum operation of equipment will be possible.
Automated predictive maintenance, break fix scheduling and self-healing suggestions will help achieve the desired outcomes whilst the automated work order creation will ensure no jobs go unscheduled, as does happen with manual processes on so many pieces of equipment.
Goodson has been the driving force behind the program of work – but he gives significant credit to the team at Microsoft partner apache.com.au. Working with a trusted partner brings him access to a team of experts who can provide advice and support based on broad experience and technical know-how. apache’s deep domain knowledge and links into Microsoft mean that NQ Cranes has also been able to tap the Microsoft engineering community for insight and advice when it’s been needed.
apache.com.au has international resources itself that NQ Cranes can use (witness the Brazil connection) – and also uses exactly the same platforms as NQ Cranes to manage its own business which engendered additional levels of trust and confidence.
Rob Garsia, director of Apache says; “NQ Cranes was facing the sort of challenges that we see in many SMBs. It wanted resilient secure information systems that would inject a measure of flexibility for its staff with no compromise of trust or performance, the solution had a mandatory requirement to scale rapidly with the company growth. It also wanted good value and the sort of platforms that could be finessed to fit their unique business needs – but not need the sorts of fierce customisation that it might compromise the platform’s ability to be updated and improved in the future. Microsoft’s SaaS and Azure were the perfect fit.
“We have worked with NQ Cranes to really understand the business, to get a feel for their future needs, and leveraged Microsoft’s best of breed solutions – which we also use to run our company – to transform the business and give it a clear runway to support its continued success.”
Goodson says the systems are still bedding down – and some such as Teams Calling and Connected Field Service are yet to be deployed (he’s waiting for the current communications contract to expire). He is also still running the company website on-premise – but plans to move that to Azure by year’s end. Measuring the total return on investment will take some time but in the big picture a complete digital transformation with measurable returns in under 18 months is phenomenal.
The whole business is very confident they have made the right decision – and have good reason for that confidence.
As an Australian manufacturing business NQ Cranes is eligible for certain government grants as long as it can show an investment that will enhance the business. When the company took its digital transformation and cloud migration plans to the State Government it received a big tick of approval in the form of a grant to help pay for some of the work.
Goodson says; “They assessed that our approach and our desire to implement and end to end business cloud solution underpinned by the flagship ERP products Business Central with Field Service, was valid enough I suppose, to commit a fair bit of funding to help us with our strategy.
“That kind of speaks to the validity of the project, if someone else external has assessed it and said, ‘Yep, we will help you pay for that’.”
It’s another reason for him to be able to relax when he next takes a holiday.