Newlines Road to Success May 11, 2014

Like many software vendors, Newline Computing wanted to modernize its core software package so it could offer features such as a graphical user interface and access to data from mobile, hand-held devices.  It also wanted to move to a relational database and re-energize the task of software development, all with minimal retraining and investment.  The solution it chose? Acucorp's extended 5 family of technologies and Microsofts MS SQL.

On The Road

Founded in 1987, Newline Computing Systems Ltd., specializes in just-in-time (JIT) inventory managment systems for automotive manufacturers such as Renault in France and Audi in Germnay.  Newline's core packages, the Palletized Stock System (PASS) application, performs inventory control and warehousing management for manufacturers, and today includes a variety of add-on modules such as scanning and bar code reading.  These modules give individual manufacturers the ability to tailor the system to meet their needs.

Getting Up To Speed

Originally, Newline PASS system was a character-based UNIX application developed in Micro Focus COBOL.  As Newline prepares PASS for the year 2000, it decided to modernize the application and move it into a MS Windows NT environment.  Because Newline felt that the absence of a graphical user interface was putting it at a competitive disadvantage, the development of a GUI was critical to Newline at this juncture.  Also critical was the ability for users to access data from mobile, hand-held devices such as bar code readers and scanners. A file size limitation in MF COBOL was of concern to them, and very large flat data files often became corrupted - resulting in system downtime - and Newline wanted to move to a relational database. Automotive manufacturers measure the cost of failuer in terms of tens of thousands of pounds per minute, so it was imperative that Newline eliminate file corruption problems.  After considering many alternatives, Newline selected Microsofts MS SQL database.  Newline would use embedded SQL to provide access to the data and to give programmers a higher degree of control over the data. Finally, Newline hoped to expand its customer base over a wider geographical area in the future, so it required development tools that were stable and offered good remote support techniques. Newline serached for tools that would make use of the skills of its existing workforce, thus avoiding extensive retraining.  At the same time, it sought a more exciting development environment for programmers and it wanted tools that could support rapid production.  Warehouse staff at Renault, for instance, have only 44 minutes to process each factory request for parts from the time the request is received in the warehouse to the time the parts are fitted to the vehicle.  It is vital that Newline's application support these stringent demands. Last, but equally important, Newline wanted to work with a company that had a demonstrated long-term commitment to its products and that would make a long-term commitment to Newline.

Shifting Into High Gear

After deliberation, Newline decided to reimplement the application from scratch rather than update the existing PASS application.  This would free Newline to consider new development alternatives, and give it an opportunity to add new, much desired functionality to the application. Newline considered several COBOL solutions as well as non-COBOL languages such as Visual Basic and Delphi before selecting Acucorp's extend5 solutions.  Newline felt that the other COBOL vendors were either less focused on COBOL, or that their packages were less advanced that Acucorp's and it was not satisfied with the event-driven approach of the non-COBOL languages for its sophisticated business application. According to Neil Cartwright, Products Development Director at the Newline facility in Erdington, UK, Newline decided to stay with COBOL to take advantage of its existing skills, and because it liked the descriptiveness of COBOL, its ease of use, and speed of problem solving.  Newline decided to go with Acucorp because of its stability and its ability to provide local support in the United Kingdom.  Also important was the fact that Acucorp could work with the MS SQL database and that it offered strong graphical development tools in COBOL with top class debugging and tracing tools. Once the tools were selected, Newline began writing a new PASS application using Acucorp's graphical workbench environment, AcuBench. Some existing Micro Focus programs were converted to ACUCOBOL-GT for placement in the workbench, particularly standard procedures and programs that had no screens. Where the old application was character-based the new application was entirely graphical.  The programmers were extremely excited about AcuBench's graphical development environment and found the graphical development environment and found the graphical screen designer very intuitive.  Cartwright said that "Acucorp has kept all of COBOLs strangth and made it an exciting languahe again!".  One developer with Visual Basic training, Andrew Shaw, took to AcuBench very quickly due to the similarities between the two.  Shaw now says that he prefers the AcuBench development environment because of the more structured nature of the code that the screen designer produces. Concurrent with the graphical development, Newline extracted the data in one manufacturer's flat Micro Focus ISAM files and placed it into MS SQL.  It then embedded SQL statements into the ACUCOBOL-GT source code so that end users could access the relational database from the new PASS application.  The finished source was run through the AcuSQL precompiler for behind the scenes SQL-to-COBOL translation, then through the AcuCOBOL-GT compiler. Development productivity increased as time passed.  Newline's test system was installed at its first manufacturing facility, Renault, within eight months and in less than one year, the system went into production use. "We could never have managed the tight project deadlines without Acucorp" Cartwright says.

Life In The Fast Lane

Today, with the help of British hauling company, Exel, Newline's enhanced PASS system is operational at two sites: Renault in France and Audi in Germany, and implementation is underway at other automotive manufacturers in the UK, France and Sweden. At Renault's high-volume production warehouse in Le Havre, whenever a part request is received from the factory, the new PASS system creates barcode labels that give warehouse personnel information about which parts pull, when to pull them, and where they are to be delivered.  The staff use radio frequency bar code scanners and hand-held devices to read the bar code data real-time.  The system features an automatic warning indication if the wrong part is about to be pulled off the shelves, and when the right item is pulled, the system updates the warehouse inventory database.  Each hand-held device has an operating range of up to 60 meters from the base-station. In the PASS application, a Microsoft ActiveX control called MSCOM32 is used to control the mobile devices, through the terminal's COM port. The new PASS application offers many benefits including speed, accuracy, and ease of use.  With scanners and barcode labels, warehouse staff are able to meet Renault's 44 minute per request criteria.  In addition, Newline is able to support and debug the PASS system in France from its offices in the UK, and it is able to install new customer systems at a faster rate, and to train end users much more quickly (because of the GUI). "Everything that has happened in the last year has served to confirm that our decision to use Acucorp development tools was the right one" Mike Carus, Managing Director at Newline, says "Acucorp gave us better tools, faster development, better service."