Hitachi Rail is a global, multi-billion dollar, end-to-end rail solutions company, which has over 10,000 employees and operations in the US, EMEA and Asia-Pacific. However, here in the UK, the company faced some uphill challenges with a new SAP ECC 6.0 implementation in its factory and warehouse, which was seeing users revert back to paper-based processes to build trains thanks to its lack of usability.
That was until the company started using Neptune Software’s UX Platform to build intuitive, mobile-first apps on top of SAP, which reduced complex processes that employees didn’t want to use, down to simple mobile interfaces that just require a few clicks and minimal inputting.
Gareth Duke, a SAP HCM Functional Specialist at Hitachi Rail, explained that the Neptune platform is helping Hitachi Rail achieve its broader technology outcomes. He said:
At Hitachi we are very keen on embracing developing new technologies to allow us to simplify and improve our rail solutions. Some of the things we are working on at the moment include e-ticketing, predictive maintenance, digitally differentiated rolling stock and the digital factory. Neptune is a key enabler to allow us to leverage our SAP system and achieve these goals.
Best laid plans
Duke said that when he joined Hitachi Rail back in 2015, the company was facing difficulties with its SAP implementation. Primarily, the system had been designed before Hitachi Rail’s factory was ever built, which meant that the system that was delivered was the design partner’s best guess at how you would build trains in SAP.
The reality, according to Duke, was unfortunately quite different. He said:
This led to low usage of SAP and the users perceiving SAP to be complex and difficult to interact with. The introduction of SAP actually slowed processes down, rather than speeding them up, which is obviously not what we wanted.
All of this led to a proliferation of offline systems and users buying their own IT solutions and using them in place of SAP, where SAP could and should have been used.
With the SAP implementation proving to be a barrier to adoption and the effective running of the Hitachi Rail factory, in 2016 the business took a decision to adopt Neptune Software as an app development tool, with the aim of providing a more user-friendly, service design approach to the system.
Since then, the company has developed more than 60 apps using the Neptune platform, which are used daily by over 1,000 users. They also run across multiple platforms, including Android scanners, Windows tablets, and desktop and touchscreen PCs. Hitachi rail is also building across multiple SAP modules, including WM, PM, PP, QM and HR.
On the complexity - or lack thereof - Duke said:
Neptune is very easy to develop new apps. It has a drag and drop interface, so you can very quickly build screens, pages, applications. And with one click you can render them in a browser. So you can actually see what you’re building. It’s also easy to maintain. Any changes that you do using Neptune are transported through your SAP landscape. So they can move as quickly as your transport system allows them to.
Ease of use
Duke provided an example of how Neptune Software has been used to “transform” Hitachi Rail’s warehouse solution, where apps are used in every stage of the warehousing process - from goods receipt, to put away, picking, right through to consolidation. Apps have also been developed for the day-to-day business, from movement of goods, to stock overview, inventory and stock take.
The apps Duke highlighted typically involved one to three screens, contained minimal fields and were simple to follow. Some just involved using a scanner to input the information automatically and then clicking through the pages to confirm the data is correct. Duke said:
For example, before developing the stock take and inventory app, users were going to bins, doing manual counts on paper, they were then going back to the terminal and then entering that information in the SAP back-end and posting it there.
Now, they literally pick up a hand scanner, they go to the bin, they scan through the materials, and the information is integrated straight away. It’s a faster process, we’ve removed the double entry, but also the transit time across the warehouse. We’ve seen a big increase in the amount of counting they can actually do.
Outcomes for the business
Duke stated that the Neptune Software platform has introduced a number of benefits for Hitachi Rail. These include increased productions, as well as users spending less time interacting with SAP and more time on tasks that actually add value. He said:
They can therefore spend more time doing what they’re actually there for, building trains.
In addition, Hitachi Rail’s data reliability has improved as a result. Data integrity is a challenge for any business, but is particularly prone to error in a large warehouse with so many moving parts and users. Duke said:
Real-time reporting via the tablets has also allowed the business to quickly see where any blockages are appearing, either systematically or within processes, so that we can work on them very quickly.
And we’ve got improved data accuracy. Data accuracy is a lot more visible and a lot easier to consume. The use of kiosks - or touchscreen PCs - has opened up SAP to our shop floor users. They’re able to transact in SAP without knowing that they’re transacting in SAP. They never have to go anywhere near the SAP system.
SAP is now seen by the system as the go-to system for new developments. Departments are actively wanting to shelve their old Excel-based solutions and bring solutions into SAP with a mobile front-end built in Neptune.
Continue to iterate
Duke also had some advice for other companies that may be considering developing on top of SAP using the Neptune platform. Primarily, listen to users and continue to iterate based on what they need. The platform makes it easy to develop a variety of apps on top of SAP modules - but it’s important to still focus on user need, otherwise those interacting with the platform will go back to what they were doing previously. He said:
We found that if there's something that you can't do, say so. But also try and have a work around and try and offer alternatives. And in reality, we haven't come across any situation at the moment where we haven't been able to offer at least an alternative solution. When you can render an app in one click, it means that you can build proof of concepts very quickly, You can display them to the business to get an idea if this actually what they were wanting, if our thinking behind this is correct.
And when something’s gone live, it’s important to monitor usage and feedback from the operators. And be prepared to make changes once the apps are being used. The app should reflect the needs of the user, not vice versa. You might deliver an app that works well according to the process you’ve defined. But if the user does something different, they won’t use the app and they’ll go back to their paper-based solutions.