Signs Of Success: Engineer-To-Order Manufacturing Technology

Poblocki Sign Co. uses Encompix technology to better measure potential order flow.

Poblocki Sign Co. was founded almost eighty years ago to design and build theater marquees. When the rise of television drove many movie houses out of business after World War II, the company’s focus changed to custom architectural signage. Today, Poblocki serves the higher end of the sign industry, meeting the sophisticated signage needs of large corporations and institutions such as hospital complexes, universities, and sports stadiums. Besides manufacturing the exterior signs, Poblocki is also responsible for all interior signage systems.

Based in Milwaukee, Poblocki currently employs about 145 people and has $23M in annual sales. Several years ago, realizing that it’s difficult to grow a business without a clear perspective on potential orders and available capacity, Poblocki went looking for ways to better gauge its order flow. In recent years, the company has grown dramatically in revenue without adding personnel; in fact, technology solutions implemented five years ago have provided a competitive advantage and allow the company to look for additional profit centers and to continue an aggressive lean process.

Five Years Ago…4 Key Issues

Poblocki had a 10-year-old legacy system written in proprietary code that had been developed by an independent consultant. It was very limited and could not provide the company with any leading-indicator type of information.

Poblocki identified four key issues for the selection of a new information system. The first was proposal management. Poblocki normally has a high number of outstanding proposals to companies that have indicated they need a sign or signage program. In the former system the Poblocki prospects were not tracked in any way except a count of how many proposals were sent out. The company was unable to quantify the value of the proposals, and if a percentage were converted into sales, determine the capacity to schedule and delivery product on time.

The company was frustrated because it could not quantify where it was headed, other than having a general indication that there was an increase in proposals delivered versus the same period in the previous year. Poblocki management was determined to gain forward-looking data.

The second issue was scheduling. The previous system did not schedule jobs, it only showed that there were open work orders. After an order came into the shop, there was no way to track its progress other than to walk around and look for it.

Material management was the third issue.  One of the things that hurt Poblocki was not having the correct material on-hand when needed, also due to the lack of visibility.

Finally, the company wanted to standardize its processes among its divisions.

New Technology Selection Process

After reviewing product information from a number of business system vendors, Poblocki arrived at a short list of three. A major point was the ability to support ETO (Engineer-to-Order) manufacturing. This sign company is a custom shop rather than a repetitive manufacturing environment; everything is designed and built-to-order rather than to inventory, and the company selected the ETO ERP (enterprise resource planning) system by Encompix, a business unit of Made2Manage Systems.

The Encompix system had the attributes to support the type of manufacturing required. Poblocki licensed the system in August 2000 and began implementation the following month; after a seven month implementation the company went live as planned in April 2001.

Benefits of New Technology in the Sign Business

The benefits of the new technology were numerous. Over the past five years, each job has been tracked throughout the entire manufacturing process and WIP (work-in-progress) information is available immediately. The new system has dramatically improved the entire company accounting functionality.

"Before it used to take four weeks to perform our month-end closing; now we close our books in less than a week and we have total confidence in our numbers," said Ron Wisniewski, controller. "By using the data from Encompix and analysis tools like F9 and Crystal Enterprise, we now make more informed decisions and run the business more efficiently."

One of the key issues identified during the evaluation process was material shortage. Because Poblocki did not have a good handle on the physical materials that were in-house, it frequently had to expedite to get materials delivered, or it held orders in production because materials were late. Now, perpetual inventory records are accurate and have eliminated material shortages while maintaining lower inventory levels, even though the business has grown more than 10 percent per year.

2006 and Beyond: Continue Process Improvement, the Sign of the Times

From detailed report writing to parsing the data of each project to profitability, Poblocki has become one of the core regional exterior and interior sign leaders. The efficiencies from an aggressive adoption of technology solutions have allowed the organization to expand other areas of the operation from significant growth in the interior sign division to expensive Project Management expertise.  The ability to conduct a detailed analysis of estimated versus actual costs has allowed historical projects to guide the profitability of current and future projects. 

When the new ERP system was implemented five years ago a new culture of lean manufacturing and continued process improvement began at the sign company. Once a week, the entire staff meets to review what is working and what merits improvement, and the structure allows for a mini-kaizen blitz and corrective action to take place immediately. When there is staff attrition the sign firm does not leap to replace personnel, but rather examines how to reallocate current resources and allow the head count to be reduced, increasing profit, and maintaining excellence and efficiency.

Thomas R. Cutler is the President & CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based TR Cutler, Inc., the largest manufacturing marketing firm worldwide –  Cutler is the founder of the Manufacturing Media Consortium of twenty seven hundred journalists and editors writing about trends in manufacturing.   Cutler is also the author of the Manufacturers’ Public Relations and Media Guide.  Cutler is a frequently published author within the manufacturing sector with more than 300 feature articles authored annually; he can be contacted at

More in Supply Chain