Casual innovation: F&P's IT underpins the enterprise

Few New Zealand companies would be as technology-intensive as Fisher & Paykel. The product is king, and the drive to design, manufacture, market and sell is underpinned by technology - including information technology - every step. IT manager Bruce Caldwell is modest about the role IT plays in the $850 million company. There is an air of quiet achievement about him and the company in general.

Few New Zealand companies would be as technology-intensive as Fisher & Paykel. The product is king, and the drive to design, manufacture, market and sell is underpinned by technology — including information technology — every step.

IT manager Bruce Caldwell is modest about the role IT plays in the $850 million company. There is an air of quiet achievement about him and the company in general. Of the 3400 employees, CEO Gary Paykel is the only person with an office. Managers dress down and egalitarianism is a strong ethic within the company. Having sold its CellNet business to Telecom, F&P is now getting out of distribution to focus on whiteware appliances, its fast-growing healthcare appliance business (65% of products are exported) and the finance company that provides finance for F&P partners.

"We focus on innovative product design and quality is paramount," says Caldwell. "The role of IT at Fisher & Paykel is to underpin the enterprise — the better it is, the less it's seen, the less it costs."

Of the 50 to 60 IT people in the company, 30 work for the corporate systems team looking after operations, training, technical support and the network; the rest are distributed among business units as business systems managers and analysts. There are still some applications software teams, says Caldwell, although the company is tending to buy more than build. Direct IT spending makes up about 2% of revenue.

IT is integral to most parts of the business. Fisher & Paykel is one of the biggest CAD (computer-aided design) users in the country, with designers doing three-dimensional, full solid modelling on Sun and SGI boxes. An assembly management database downloads mouldings directly from CAD models to production milling machines. F&P uses enterprise resource planning (ERP) and supply-chain systems for flexible manufacturing.

Caldwell says the ability to make small quantities and carry as little inventory as possible are the company's core competitive competencies. Supply-chain management also encompasses electronic commerce and EDI links to dealers. An Internet site, several years old, is being revamped. "We've had the site for a couple of years but now it's really serious. We want to represent the company in a more thorough and professional way. We have a webmaster in marketing who is leading it.

"We also have an intranet and we're looking very closely at using multimedia for training right across the company."

A call centre and inhouse-developed data warehouse logs every warranty and defect call.

The database is used by design teams and also generates reports for the board of directors. Projects are led by the business units, which have their own systems managers, and the corporate IT division supports them.

"Our role is to facilitate rather than lead the way," says Caldwell. "Because it is a technology company, many of the guys and girls are already very computer literate. We also have a wide community of systems managers. For example, there is a CAD design manager who floats across the whole company working with engineering managers in their divisions."

One of the largest projects on the go is the Q3 implementation of the ERP solution JD Edwards for manufacturing, finan-cials, sales and distribution. The system will interface with numerous custom solutions built by Fisher & Paykel such as requirements planning and real-time scheduling.

"The main reason for the new system is Y2K compliance," says Cald-well, "but the company took the opportunity to really look at getting things simplified and to take a step forward and scale down our bespoke systems.

"It's a major project with senior managers driving it, not IT people. The business process part is driving the technical infrastructure and they're very closely linked all the way through. I think it's part of the maturing of the organisation. Ten years ago the central [IT] group was driving ahead and starting projects. Now the company is much more mature where we have the business driving the infrastructure."

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