Building materials firm hits the road with SAP mobility initiatives

A building materials firm launched two pilot projects to see how easy it would be to build and deploy applications on the Sybase Unwired Platform.

Pacific Coast Building Products wanted to find out how easy it is to deploy SAP mobile applications on the Sybase Unwired Platform. But the building materials firm couldn't find enough real-world information about how to go about it.

That's when the company decided to take matters into its own hands.

"Apart from vendors, nobody's doing a tremendous amount [with SAP mobility] from an enterprise perspective," said Mike O'Dell, Pacific Coast Building Products CIO. "You can see SAP releasing all of these applications, but it's hard to find anyone that's actually implemented them."

According to O'Dell, the company ended up looking to answer questions about mobilizing SAP processes on the Sybase Unwired Platform (SUP) by creating a custom sales application from the ground up. At the same time, it wanted to test what was involved with implementing one of SAP's ready-made mobile applications, so the company also decided to pilot a canned timesheet app for hourly employees and contractors.

You can see SAP releasing all of these applications, but it's hard to find anyone that's actually implemented them.

Mike O'Dell, CIO of Pacific Coast Building Products

"The goal of the [projects] was to familiarize ourselves with the technology and its viability [and find out if] this is what we want to use," O'Dell said. "We think mobility's going to be important. The sooner we get to that mobility endgame, the better."

Collaboration with trade association members a big help

Pacific Coast Building Products is an active member of an executive advisory council for a building materials industry trade association. About a year ago, the council created a mobility work group. The group looked at a range of issues and challenges found in the building materials industry and how mobile technology could be used for both employees and customers, according to Melody Frinzell, who helped manage both pilot mobility projects for Pacific Coast.

"We developed a list of our top use cases and [thought about] how we would want to use mobility," she said, adding that Pacific Coast worked closely with SAP to get both applications up and running.

One custom-made mobile app, one canned

Apart from the prefabricated SAP timesheet app, Pacific Coast wanted to test the SAP mobility development and implementation process. So it designed the sales app from scratch for Basalite Concrete Products, a subsidiary that makes a range of products used in landscaping.

The app, which is not yet available for public use, allows Basalite's customers -- landscapers in particular -- to determine what products they need to purchase with the help of a mobilized catalog of products. It also gives them a way to check on the status of pending orders. It's a simplified version of an application that already resides in the subsidiary's website. The decision to model the app after one already in use made it easy to get the process rolling, according to Pacific Coast.

"We already had our process figured out. We already knew what the application itself should do, and we could just focus on the mobile technology and integrating SAP, SUP and SAP NetWeaver Gateway," Frinzell said. "That was a great scope."

Designed for Apple

Although using the SUP allows companies to develop one version of an application that runs across different platforms and devices, Pacific Coast decided to develop their custom app specifically for the Apple iOS operating system.

"We knew the hardware. We had a very specific scope. We weren't targeting the world, necessarily," Frinzell said.

Sales app "not quite ready for primetime"

Frinzell said the time sheet app was a great place to start in terms of experimenting with mobile applications, but that it may be too basic for Pacific Coast's own current needs. That doesn't mean it won't be using SAP mobility apps in the future, however.

"If there's an easy-to-use app that's already available, we can use our development resources on something else," Frinzell said. "If there's a utility app for vacation requests, for example, we don't have to develop it."

The custom design and sales application, however, will continue until it's ready to be used in production, according to Frinzell. "It's not quite ready for primetime," she said.

Pacific Coast took an iterative approach to get the pilot rolling and to provide opportunities for both technical discovery and business feedback, said Frinzell. The pilot application allows customers to view basic invoice information and has graphics as placeholders to help business testers envision how it will work overall. In the future, they will be able to bring up more detailed information regarding the status of their account and be able to actually place orders. Also part of future plans is a building design tool that allows users to lay out dimensions of what it is they're trying to build, determine how much product they'll need for that project, and submit a quote request.

"We'll extend it, make it a real application and roll it out to our dealers," O'Dell said about the custom application.

Next: Read about the challenges Pacific Coast ran into during its SUP mobile pilot projects and find out what it learned.

This was first published in September 2012
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