Boise Cascade Cuts Through the Analytics Backlog

Wood-Products Manufacturer Builds Operational Value With InfoApps™ and In-Document Analytics

Most people don't think of wood products mills as high-tech operations, but at Boise Cascade, one of the leading manufacturers of engineered wood in North America, technology has transformed nearly every facet of the operation – and is pushing its way into the supply chain as well. Software solutions from Information Builders are at the heart of Boise Cascade's evolving technology stack.

For years, Boise Cascade has provided BC Connect, a web-based portal to its customers. The portal provides valuable information to customers about building projects, design specifications, and material lists – along with key product metrics for internal personnel. However, BC Connect lacked an analytics and business intelligence (BI) component that allowed people to easily examine and visualize information.

Boise Cascade also wanted analytics capabilities to more accurately track more than $30 million in annual rebates that the company pays out to its customers and dealers. Accountants were using an Excel-based system for tracking the rebates and couldn't get fine-grained analytics to determine if the rebates provided actual value to everyone involved.

"Boise Cascade pays out tens of millions of dollars in rebates every year, but our accountants had very little insight as to whether the rebates were even being accurately calculated," says Mary Lou Southwood, senior application development manager for the Wood Products Division at Boise Cascade.

Southwood and her team determined they needed analytics to forecast projected payments and better understand their valued customers. As they looked for a reporting tool to replace Oracle Hyperion, they considered solutions from IBM/Cognos, Microsoft, MicroStrategy, and Information Builders.

"Information Builders offered so much more than the other vendors," Southwood says. “I was excited about the iWay products for integration and data integrity. My colleagues were excited about the possibility of creating charts, graphs, and InfoApps™ with WebFOCUS. It all seemed very user-friendly."

InfoApps™ are reusable analytics modules that help users at the point of decision. Unlike traditional rigid tabular summaries and columnar reports, InfoApps facilitate self-service queries with thousands of permutations.

Customer-Rebate InfoApp™

After purchasing Information Builders' software, Southwood's team quickly developed a customer rebate InfoApp™. “We offer rebates and allowances to distributors, dealers, and builders based on how many homes they build, how many linear feet of product they use, and many other factors,” Southwood explains. “The customer rebate InfoApp™ helps us determine if the rebates and allowances make sense. Do they provide value to our company or do they cause us to lose money?”

Parameterized fields within the InfoApp™ empower users to filter or summarize the data. Boise Cascade’s customer service department uses the app to help customers group their purchases so they can get the biggest bang for the buck. For example, buying a slightly larger quantity of a particular material might qualify them for a discount.

“WebFOCUS allows us to predict what the rebates will be long before customers apply for them,” Southwood adds. “Because we have to track accruals from month to month, there is less chance that the requests for rebates will exceed what we accrue during the accounting period.”

In-Document Analytics and Profitability Analysis

Boise Cascade subsequently created a profitability analysis dashboard that uses Information Builders’ In-Document Analytics to package a portable data set with a customized application. Based on Active Technologies, the dashboard extends interactive analytics capabilities to users who want to visualize their data in unique ways – without requiring them to install specialized software. Each Active Report combines an analytics engine with an active payload of data for easy viewing and manipulation on desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets.

For example, account managers might drill into Active Reports report to filter sales data by distributor, dealer, builder, product type, SKU, and other variables. With a few clicks, they can see a profitability breakdown for any product, customer, or region. The executive management team uses an active dashboard to track profitability for the division as a whole. An embedded security architecture governs which users can see which data. These security constraints are carried forward to all reports, dashboards, graphs, and other displays.

Monitoring the Operation at a Discrete Level

Another InfoApp™ brings analytical and BI capabilities to Boise Cascade’s data-intensive SawTek® operation, which automates the cutting and assembly of BCI® joists for building projects. The saws contain specialized software that can analyze building plans, and then guide the equipment to cut the BCI® joists in precise lengths and quantities, complete with labeled pieces and positionalprinted pieces. The program performs a series of calculations to optimize the cuts and reduce waste, and then generates assembly plans and construction documents that specify where all the pieces go. Boise Cascade provides the SawTek® equipment to dealers so they can offer this valueadded service to builders.

WebFOCUS extracts data from the SawTek® system and presents it through an InfoApp™, allowing Boise Cascade to monitor the usage and efficiency of the saws by location, dealer, customer, location, shift, and other variables. The data is refreshed throughout the day, giving analysts a near real-time look at this important part of the operation.

Boise Cascade also created a Daily InfoApp™ that enables managers to monitor many aspects of the company’s manufacturing and sales operations. Users can see at a glance how each product is performing. Southwood says the Daily InfoApp™ has the potential to be a big time-saver as it will gradually become a company-wide application, replacing an Excel-based reporting system for one component of the company that requires manual data entry each morning. “An employee has to manually extract data from multiple sources at 5:00 AM, load it into an Excel spreadsheet, run reports, and distribute them to management,” she notes. “WebFOCUS automates this same daily cycle. Users access a WebFOCUS dashboard to drill into this information, as well as subscribe to Active Reports by e-mail.”

Behind the scenes, iWay Software solutions continually refreshes the data in the InfoApp™ and Active Reports. iWay also plays a fundamental role in a new data warehouse project that integrates data from the Wood Products Division and other parts of the company. According to Southwood, iWay makes it easy to combine data from Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Access, IBM DB2, Oracle Database, as well as Progress and Universe databases. It rationalizes these dissimilar data sources into a unified SQL Server data warehouse.

iWay will ultimately play a role ensuring data quality in this data warehouse. Southwood says this is an important part of the project, since the data they collect represents the fundamental activities of the enterprise including order management, accounting, distribution, transportation, and inventory.

Extending Insight to Customers and Partners

Boise Cascade has made quick progress in its efforts to spread analytics throughout the enterprise. Currently about 150 corporate employees rely on WebFOCUS to access, analyze, and visualize information. In the wake of this success, the Wood Products Division is creating InfoApps™ that allow manufacturing associates to analyze data related to production volumes, inventory volumes, and the value of orders booked, shipped, and invoiced. They plan to gradually extend analytics capabilities up and down the supply chain to make the extended organization more efficient and responsive –from the manufacturing plants to distributors, dealers, and builders.

Meanwhile, users in the accounting department have begun using WebFOCUS InfoAssist+ to create self-service queries that monitor the purchase of raw materials. “Having user-friendly analytics allows account managers to make smarter decisions – not only on who they sell to, but on what mix of products they offer,” Southwood concludes. “They love the InfoApps™ because they allow them to solve specific business problems and get answers to specific questions.”