Episode #5 of our Tekla Podcast features Karlis and Robert from Alto 4.0, which is a digital expertise and solutions company. Or, in simple terms, a software development office. They have a solid track record of creating and putting into practice solutions that have a beneficial impact on the economy and are known for delivering value to industrial firms through process digitalization. They are a part of UPB, the 30-plus-year-old Latvian company offering precise solutions for complex constructions.
Even though Alto 4.0 has a lot to offer, the Alto ERP system and its usage and functionality are the major focus of this article. The first guest, Karlis Zarins, is the head of sales and business development. Secondly, we have Roberts Dobelis onboard, who is also from the same department of the same company.
Watch the whole interview video here:
or listen it in audio format here:
Karlis and Robert from Alto 4.0 discuss about (precast) fabrication workflow and how we can plan and control it better using, for example, Alto ERP.
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Don’t have time to watch the whole pod? Skim the questions and answers summary in a written format below! 👇
What is the Alto ERP System? What is it Designed for?
Karlis: Long story short, the program is enterprise resource planning software that was created especially for the Precast concrete sector. We also have two further variations that are appropriate for manufacturers of steel and aluminum facades. But in essence, it’s a full solution for effectively, accurately, and confidently managing the entire project life cycle.
So we use Tekla and integrate with it. However, once the design is complete in Tekla and you have something that can be manufactured along with some supporting drawings, the life cycle in our system begins. The process is completed with assembly or installation.
Alto ERP helps better control the processes from manufacturing until elements are placed in their proper location in a building. It will reduce the number of calls, emails, and turmoil that can result from doing this manually. That is the software’s core functionality.
Why did Alto 4.0 develop its ERP system and not buy an already-used one? Couldn’t the latter have been cost-effective?
Karlis: Our mother company, UPB, was looking for a way to better manage the construction process about seven to eight years ago. Unfortunately, they were unable to find anything suitable. There were some sizable ERP systems created for FMCG manufacturing, but they were all conventional financial systems. Not only were we interested in an accounting system, but also one that would facilitate the building process. We didn’t think any options were viable at the time, as I already said. The UPB management decided to develop its software as a result because they were highly creative and knowledgeable about the digital world.
Without a doubt, the cost is higher than if we had opted for an already-built ERP system. But once more, neither system was satisfactory. Now, there are some other software on the market, but still, for precasters there is a very small selection to choose from. The fact that purchasing a system is preferable is the driving force behind our current commercial availability. We have put so much into it that it would be pointless to keep it to ourselves. That’s why Alto ERP is commercially available now.
You must plan the production of your precast facility and ensure that you have access to the most recent drawings. At the same time, getting this information efficiently straight out of Tekla Structures. The choice becomes extremely limited or nearly nonexistent after that, and that’s where Alto ERP comes in. Then, we essentially try to address these particular difficulties. It’s a very specialized field, but this software fits it perfectly.
Who is best suited to use the Alto ERP software, and what advice would you give to businesses that do not have an ERP system?
Karlis: It is ideal for precast fabricators. Besides, this software is the best fit for those doing project-specific items. Precast panels, stairs, sandwich walls, and a host of other structures are among them. It’s less appropriate for those producing repetitive elements that are similar to off-the-shelf products, produced in terms of just having the appropriate quantity in stock. The reason is the loss of functionality.
Robert: The second question is a good transition from the point Karlis made when he said our system has features that other general ERP systems don’t have, i.e., access to most current drawings and possibility to production and manufacturing scheduling that you won’t find elsewhere. Furthermore, businesses face difficulties because everything is not centralized. It is a result of their use of Excel sheets or common ERP systems. This suggests that you will be exchanging project-related emails and texts much more frequently. It obviously wastes time and money.
How does the ERP System coordinate with everything from production design to logistics installations?
Karlis: Knowing the operations that take place in the background will probably make the software seem complex to you. However, it adheres to the same principles that are necessary to complete any task. I would categorize them as three Ws. What you need to do, who needs to do it, and when you need to do it. Afterward, our system comes into play. It has a cloud feature. As a result, any information you enter is accessible to everyone, and any changes are noted. That’s how the coordination happens.
Silos-based operations cause delays in production design and logistics setup. You are unable to execute the original plan. There are always some delays here and there. So, we have all the information about the element, whether it is a sandwich wall, a panel, a column, etc. We always associate its assembly, installation, shipping, manufacturing, and design dates with it. And if there are any changes, everyone gets a notification. Alto ERP can handle a number of big projects at once. Manually doing it would take a lot of manpower and effort. You should leave this task to a computer.
How does the company do its work planning with the ERP system?
Karlis: So, when planning, we keep the end in mind. For instance, the second-floor column needs to be finished by mid-July. We now begin to compute backward. The specific element is chosen, and a deadline is provided by the assembly and installation managers, who are in charge of the project’s overall schedule and delivery. Now everyone gets a notification.
Consider that the item is located at a location north of Sweden, a port away from the logistics hub. We need two weeks for shipping. So, by the first of July, it must leave the warehouse. One week each for production and sourcing the specific concrete. The internal approval of the final design will then take a few more weeks. To sum up, we start with the assembly and calculate backward from there.
How do they deal with the unpleasant surprises (e.g. something gets broken) that trouble the work?
Karlis: Surprise is the opposite of planning. You knew what needed to be done and who was going to do it and when it had to be done. However, if anything changes and anyone isn’t aware, this is what I call a surprise. So, in our system, whenever a change happens, everyone gets a notification. This way you can eliminate surprises and address these plan changes.
Robert: In addition to the above points, Alto ERP also has a mistake-reporting feature. If any problem occurs, like a defective element arriving on site or there being safety issues, the person can report them. He or she can make a claim and notify the responsible department to fix the issue. It can also include pictures to digitize everything.
How do the Technical and Transportation teams cooperate? What is the role of Industrial Scanners?
Robert: We consider ourselves fortunate that even non-technical guys can use the system. It would be a hassle to check everything with a computer in the factory periodically. The industrial scanner steps in at this point. It is a specific scanner that allows us to scan the QR codes of the elements. You can get the QR code for any element by adding it to our ERP system. To access the element’s updates in the factory, you must locate it and scan the code.
Scanning it will allow inserting or getting information about its quality control, loading time, arrival time, and so on. We also take pictures using the same scanner along the way. So, that’s basically how we do quality control.
While loading the elements onto the truck, we can scan the QR code of the actual delivery. Following that, we can see all elements that needed to be loaded onto the truck, as well as their locations. So, you won’t be running around your warehouse, which is full of other elements as well.
Our system will alert you that something might be wrong if you attempt to add an element that isn’t supposed to be on the truck. Now, the scanning procedure can be repeated when the truck pulls up to the location or site to make sure the right product has been delivered. While assembling, you can repeat the process and inform everyone of all the updates.
Do any problems occur with the QR codes where they can’t be scanned because they are damaged or being under concrete?
Karlis: Something occurs every time. It is simply inevitable that nothing will happen to the items as you transport them 500 kilometers in an open truck. However, I would phrase the query as follows: What else, besides the QR code? How would you then know what’s on the truck? What’s the alternative?
We can access from the system to the delivery plan as a backup in case the QR code sticker is damaged for some reason. Overall, there are always advantages and disadvantages. In our case, the benefits outweigh the cons that appear in some rare cases.
How does the company ensure every process, from fabrication to transportation, goes well and according to plan?
Karlis: If we consider it from the perspective of the customer, who is the person purchasing or whose home is being built, they always desire the highest quality. And from the investor’s perspective, it is your duty to complete the task on time and with good quality.
It’s great that each of the departments—logistics, manufacturing, and design—has its own internal quality controls. The only challenge with big construction projects is getting everyone on the same page. The secret is synchronization. The team will deliver on time if their coordination is strong. Once more, the three Ws are important. Who does what by when?
So as you can see, managing such large projects requires juggling many balls simultaneously. This would have been incredibly challenging if not for our Alto ERP system. The software unites everyone.
Rather than focusing on individual performances, the goal is to get the team to work as a unit. Therefore, I recommend this ERP system to businesses that are just beginning to recognize complexity. You feel the pressure when there is a need for a lot of coordination among several ongoing projects. Yes, disorganization allows you to get the job done, but it will only work in the short run.
Demonstration of the Alto ERP software
Robert: As you would imagine, the system is complex. It has many features that won’t be able to show in one sitting. So, I will explain some of the higher-level ones and how the project life cycle moves.
Firstly, the main dashboard, where you have all the notifications we told you about.
Projects at the bidding stage
You can insert projects base info with preliminary cost estimations. Everyone with access can see this information with the status if the project has been won or lost.
Overview of ongoing projects
The projects you have won, you can easily add to this section. You can view all of the projects and learn more about them. There’s an option to see the client’s information and calender about the delivery dates. There are many other options to explore and information to add. You can use this section as a document management system.
Elements come from Tekla to Alto ERP system. After that, we don’t add them to the assembly plan manually by choosing elements from the list. Rather, we use our interactive IFC model. Simply select the elements and the assembly date for the selected elements.
In the Elements list, all the elements are color-coded. The purple color indicates that the concrete element has already been assembled. The light green ones have been designed. The other colors show other details that indicate how far each element is in the process.
Clicking on a specific element will provide you with its basic information, along with its DWG and PDF. Since we use the LOD standard 400 of Tekla, the engineers can add additional details to the element. For instance, what type of concrete should be used, what reinforcement is required, and so on. It helps with the manufacturing process.
It is very important here that you can always see the latest up-to-date information, but just in case, all the revisions are also stored behind the curtains.
The Alto ERP system has built-in machine learning. The more projects you do and the more elements there are with the information, the more accurate elements automated estimations are. Alto ERP finds the most similar elements from the past for each element and estimates current element production time and cost based on this real.
This feature allows planners to include relevant data for each delivery. Clicking on any delivery will show the type of elements that will go on the truck, their weight, size, and other details. You can also take printouts for the delivery drivers. We use QR codes and scanners to update the statuses once we unload and assemble elements at the site.
Overviews of the project
Going back to the start of the project, we have three high-level ways to overlook the project.
- You can see the high-level statuses with completion rates.
- Go to a specific element and check how it’s going.
- The best way is to use the IFC model for better visualization of statuses. Not only can we visualize the current situation, but we can also show the situation at any date from the past.
Here, the users can ask for vacations, sick leaves and plan business trips. The former depends upon the approval of the HR management.
Secondly, we can see where the business trip is happening, what hotel they are staying in, and so on.
Virtual Warehouse for material planning
Our Alto ERP system has information about what details need to go into an element. A virtual warehouse database tracks how much concrete, rebars, embeds and other specific details we have currently and what we need to order.
Delivery and trucks planning
You can see the elements in a list sorted by assembly dates. Information about the element’s weight and dimensions are also included. Based on that, you can easily select elements and add them to a specific delivery.
Users can add more information in the shipment section. What truck should transport the element, who should drive it, and so on.
Finding elements from Warehouse
There’s an “Element Location in Warehouse” option in our Alto ERP system, where you can find where are the other elements that will go with the same delivery and place them together. Then you can use the scanner to save the current element location in the Warehouse. The most essential part is retrieving the elements from the warehouse when the delivery truck arrives.
The prefab manufacturing plan for production tables allows you to add elements on specific tables at specific dates. Just drag-and-drop elements on virtual tables. The system actually gives automated suggestions on what pallet to place each element.
You can see how these elements fit on tables. You can even put two or three small elements on the same table if they fit and if they don‘t fit, you will get a warning error.
It is a great feature because this way it‘s much easier to plan the fabrication of the elements and at the beginning of each day the fabricators can quickly print out the list of the elements with all the drawings.
How does machine learning works in Alto ERP?
Karlis: You enter the production time and cost estimate for the element once manually. Consider a three-layered wall that has a specific thickness, size, rebar, etc. The system compares certain parameters and detects a similarity between the wall you have completed and the one that is coming up.
We also have a ton of ideas in our heads that we haven’t yet put into action. For instance, a scanner that displays an augmented reality image of the fabrication table could be installed on the production facility’s ceiling.
By taking it a step further, we also hope to be more imaginative. If you can walk onto an empty construction site, pull out a screen, and see your future house located in the ideal location, like Trimble, that can be fantastic. The same technology, where you can see the 3D virtual image in front of you, should soon be available for precast production.
Robert: On the machine learning topic, where you have to put the numbers in manually first, the system kind of works as a helper. You can test them later and modify them if needed. The system is unquestionably useful, but humans remain in command. At most, the system can notify you, but you will have the authority to make the changes anytime.
How long does the Alto ERP implementation take?
Karlis: Theoretically, you would take less time, like some other tasks. It only takes two weeks, and during that time you have numerous meetings or work in various sprints, even though you might have only worked two days. As a result, I would say that after shaking hands and saying, “Okay, let’s do it,” we would likely meet for several sessions spread out over two or three weeks.
Or, to put it another way, we talk about what you’re doing now, what you want to change, and how it works with our Alto ERP system. After that, we essentially go back and think about it for two weeks, trying to sketch a realistic image. The setup of all the technical details might take another two weeks.
The key users may then attend a few scattered training sessions for two weeks. Finally, just holding hands for the upcoming month.
It doesn’t take a lot of time overall. Meetings, conversations, and consideration of various issues are all part of it. The minimum timeframe, in my opinion, is two months.
What are the biggest gains in terms of profit using these advanced ERP systems?
Robert: Yes, in the long run, it is profitable. Either you save money or you just earn more. The gain comes from various fields. The ERP system’s error-reporting or claim feature is the first, as I already explained. The fact that the system can catch them makes individuals more cautious. It knows what everyone is up to.
Second, suppose you discover a defective element. You no longer need to run around and send emails to everyone. Simply make use of the option that allows you to contact the relevant department. The workforce can save a lot of time and effort when planning is user-friendly and optimized. Alto ERP also helps to utilize your workforce and their time better and this way again increase revenue.
So, in summary, it’s the whole Alto ERP system that is profitable, not just a specific feature that solves some real problem from real life.
What are the future plans with Alto ERP?
Karlis: In Northern Europe and Europe at large, Tekla is currently the precast industry standard. So we’ll keep integrating with it to maintain the connection.
Secondly, we want to simplify the implementation so that it is not complex like other large ERP systems. These systems take an eternity, and you have consultants all over the place charging money for just meetings.
Anyway, to start using the Alto ERP system, you need some training. Besides, we are looking forward to adding even more features. A sophisticated automatic planning system that has a lot more parameters. For example, you can choose the color of the concrete, its size, thickness, and so on.
This will also help with the reusability of the molds. It’s not always about the deadline. One might say, let’s make all the items that have the same shape this week. Even though the shipping is two months ahead. Storing the molds in a warehouse is cheaper than actually producing new ones each week.
Overall, we are taking into account the public’s feedback. Also, UPB has a lot in mind. So, we will see what’s needed along the way.
The Future of Building Information Modelling
Karlis: In my opinion, only a small number are using augmented reality. The early adopters are walking around with the AR goggles, but you won’t find many doing the same. Regarding BIM, more businesses will begin implementing it.
Tekla is currently using 3D IFC models. Some companies did it five years ago. Others still view it as the future. So, BIM will become the standard sooner rather than later.
What’s in for BIM? I’m not sure, but I think it’s augmented reality. It is the software interacting with one another. Tekla is used to design the item, with another software handling quantity takeoff. Then you feed the data back to the tendering software, which gives the price. The customer receives this. So it is all in synchronization when being operated with tekla.
Robert: I agree with Karlis that the companies will realize the worth of BIM models when they start using them more. They believe they can continue working without these models because they have done so for 10, 20, and even 30 years. But once they see how effective it can be, they’ll want to put it into practice without a doubt.
The adaptation of BIM is slow at the moment. However, as more people start to talk about it, it will soon increase exponentially.
Final words and recommendations
Karlis: Firstly, thanks for having me. I’d say, companies must eventually adopt BIM-related software. When you start to feel the heat and things require more effort, there’s always software out there for every problem.
All you have to do is take baby steps at first focusing on one thing at a time. Although you might have some difficulty initially, you will soon be able to operate the ERP system.
Robert: I would also like to thank you for inviting me. I hope more people start taking into consideration not only our Alto ERP system but also Tekla. Using babies as an example, giving birth hurts, but the joy you feel afterward is immeasurable.
Similarly, Tekla will initially be difficult to use if you have previously used simpler software. But if you persevere through the pain, there will be a reward and satisfaction that you can’t get anywhere else. Your building information models will be much better, and you can easily manage your projects with Tekla.
Painting pictures with words and showing rather than telling are fundamental principles of Abdul’s heartfelt passion. He is a computer enthusiast, YouTuber, and passionate gamer.
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