Sebastian Technologies Streamlines Field Engineering For Global Certification Company
OpenInsight New HTML Publishing Features Drive Accounting and Customer Management System Deployed by TÜV Rheinland of North America, Inc.
Since 1981, Sebastian Technologies has carved out a niche as a premium provider of systems integration services in specialty markets such as materials trading, asset-management for financial services firms, and even local-police dispatching. At one point, Sebastian’s applications were the heart of the Resolution Trust Corporation’s IT systems to track assets recovered as part of the clean-up of numerous failed savings and loan institutions in the early 1990’s.
Today, the firm is a leading provider of integrated job accounting systems for field engineers. One of its premier customers is TÜV Rheinland of North America, a global provider of engineering certification services for manufacturing customers around the world. TÜV Rheinland of North America’s engineers work on-site on five continents to help their customers attain various certifications such as Underwriters Laboratories’ approval or ISO 9001 quality certification.
With hundreds of field engineers performing different types of certification projects in locations around the world, TÜV Rheinland of North America is unlike most engineering consulting firms. The testing that engineers perform can range from ISO testing to safety testing, ergonomics, usability, and other metrics. And expenses must be carefully tracked for each job and each client.
Until recently, the company’s time and billing systems were predominantly paper-based, requiring laborious, time-intensive processes that were also error-prone. Worst of all, the time delay from completed project to printing an invoice could be as long as six weeks, which hampered TÜV Rheinland of North America’s cash flow as well.
According to Paul Marraffa, president of Sebastian Technologies, TÜV Rheinland of North America faced numerous challenges in this area. "Engineers would fill out multiple reports for each project and fax them to a regional office," he said. "There were separate forms for time tracking, subcontracting expenses, and travel expenses. These were faxed into regional offices where they’d be retyped into a Clipper database to be consolidated into a single customer invoice. Then, that data had to be exported into a MAS90 accounting system, massaged, and entered into their general ledger. For reports, the data would then move to Microsoft Excel for simple three-dimensional modeling. By the time invoices physically were mailed, it was often 45 days after the work was done."
TÜV Rheinland of North America turned to Sebastian to streamline the process. "They were looking at going with SAP R/3, but SAP couldn’t provide the level of customization and service that we could," Marraffa said. "We proposed our XDATE (eXplicit DAta Transaction Exchange) system based on Revelation’s OpenInsight."
A Windows Platform With A Better Data Structure
"We absolutely wanted a Windows platform for the XDATE application," Marraffa said. "We really liked the OpenInsight data structure. With linear-hash, we can freely add and append to records without any limitation or restriction. Other potential solutions lacked the ability to handle transactional data, lacked integrated database connections or couldn’t properly handle relational data dependencies."
Moving to Weekly Billing Cycles
Just six weeks after they began coding the application, Sebastian had an on-site beta version ready for testing. "The goal with XDATE was to move billing from a monthly process that was 45 days in arrears to a weekly process that was current with the work performed for the client," Marraffa said. "Two weeks later, we generated our first invoices. There was a series of catch-up cycles to gradually tighten the billing cycles. Two months later, we were billing on a weekly basis for the previous week’s work. OpenInsight enabled us to generate a huge amount of code very quickly that was also quite robust”"
Using XDATE, TÜV Rheinland of North America’s engineers can retrieve files for new jobs and tasks. XDATE presents three primary forms for them:
"Usability was a key concern," Marraffa affirms. "Some of our engineers are out in the field working with software companies to validate other commercial software packages. We have people who are testing software for ergonomics and quality, so they’re naturally very choosy about the products they work with," he said. "OpenInsight has passed their careful scrutiny, so we know it’s good."
Web Publishing Through OpenInsight
Each week, the engineer connects through the Web (using a Secure Sockets Layer connection) to a central server in Newtown, Conn. to upload the engineer’s time and job details for the week. In Newtown, an XDATE OpenInsight server validates the data and consolidates it to create customer invoices. Using OpenInsight’s new HTML publishing features, XDATE even creates a confirmation record that is posted in the company’s Intranet, enabling the engineer to review the costs that are being posted to the customer’s account.
During the same connection - or at any other convenient time - the engineer can also log into the TÜV Rheinland of North America intranet to retrieve folders for new accounts and jobs for the upcoming period that have been entered into the central XDATE server in Newtown.
"TÜV Rheinland of North America’s sales staff can open an OpenInsight form in Newtown to create a new account folder or job folder and save it on the OpenInsight server," said Marraffa. "OpenInsight then automatically generates the HTML required to publish that data on the Microsoft Internet Information Server. The engineer can then either view the information on our intranet from a regular browser or he can update his PC by downloading the new job information using OpenInsight."
"When the engineer clicks on ‘Update,’ OpenInsight does a ‘streaming’ update for each engineer's local PC," Marraffa said. "Only the incremental data is transmitted and loaded, which saves time and avoids versioning headaches. With OpenInsight, there is an easy and seamless exchange between the HTML and linear hash data."
In the next phase, Sebastian will be working with TÜV Rheinland of North America is to create even tighter integration of the time and accounting system with their general ledger and other financial systems. "This will ensure a better cash flow for the company and create better cost-accounting and profitability analysis as well."
"OpenInsight is virtually maintenance free. The only interaction with the application is the engineers entering and retrieving their job data - wherever they are, whenever they like - no duplicate data, no importing and exporting, no wasted time, and no confusion. It’s been a great solution for us and our customers."