Power surge

30 May 2007

The pharmaceutical industry is one to which the Irish Industrial Development Agency (IDA) has long paid particular attention as it seeks to attract and retain inward industrial investment in the country. In this, the IDA has been famously successful as many of the world’s leading players have established major operations here.

Quite apart from the direct effects on the economy of having some of the world’s top drugs companies operating on your doorstep, there are plenty of spin-off opportunities for local businesses to supply such multinationals with the specialised services they need in order to continue operating in a competitive manner. One company that clearly demonstrates the opportunities available is DPS (Dedicated Pharmaceutical Specialists) Engineering, based in Cork.

Founded in 1974 DPS is an engineering and project-management company that specialises in supplying services to the pharmaceutical industry. It designs, builds and fits out pharmaceutical plants and its expertise ranges from designing and building new green-field establishments to retrofitting and upgrading existing factories.

Hardly surprisingly, given the popularity of the Munster region in general and Cork in particular as a location for leading multinational pharmaceutical companies to establish manufacturing plants, Cork remains the company headquarters but its success over the past 30 years has led it to establishing offices in Dublin and in Leiden, Holland. Furthermore, its engineers and project delivery staff can find themselves on sites all over the world.

IT has played a big role in underpinning and maintaining this success and the man in charge of it is Gerard Power, group IT manager based at the company’s headquarters in Cork. Power joined DPS less than a year ago and counts himself fortunate that his time there has coincided with the development and implementation of an aggressive business plan aimed at driving growth in the company.

“My own viewpoint is that IT can enhance any business that wants to be enhanced by it,” he says. “There are always business processes that can benefit from automation.” Quite apart from delivering innovation around the computer-aided design (CAD) applications that form the cornerstone of DPS’s engineering operations, the company has placed a lot of store recently in the ability of modern ICT to enable the concept of the mobile office.

It is in the nature of DPS’s work that it will have engineers on customers’ sites around the world and Power has spent much of his time installing technology that allows those engineers to act, as closely as possible, as if they were sitting at a workstation in the company headquarters. “There are about 350 people in the company if you include contractors,” he says. The majority of those are split evenly between the Dublin and Cork offices with others in the Dutch offices at Leiden. “We currently have people onsite in Singapore and Mexico,” says Power, “as well as one person in Serbia and a construction site in Belgium.”

Maximum efficiency

In order to improve the ability of these people to work at maximum efficiency regardless of where they are, DPS has over the past nine months greatly improved its inter-office communications and centralised many of its key applications. It has implemented Microsoft’s Active Directory, which allows greater access to the company network, with enhanced security, to people who are working offsite. It has installed a 2Mbps MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) network to connect each of its three main offices and has also upgraded its internet pipe to allow faster communications.

It has also centralised its key applications such as its Exchange email server on a cluster of severs and consolidated its storage requirements into a storage area network at its Cork office with a failover NAS (network attached storage) database at its Dublin office. Its CAD applications are also stored on a central server from which operatives working onsite can receive the latest authenticated versions of the software. This makes for much easier management of issues like licences and upgrades.

All of this has been done, says Power, as part of the business plan that is designed to deliver growth and flexibility to the business. The IT department had to play a recognised and important role in executing this plan. “My role as group IT manager is very important and it is getting more and more so, and that’s a good place to be,” he says. Although he does not sit on the board, but reports instead to the finance director, Power says he has been present at some board meetings when plans concerning IT have been discussed. There is no doubt in everybody’s mind that IT is of great strategic importance to the company.

“Everything we have done since I’ve been here has been in conjunction with the business plan, which is to enable growth and the ability to support bigger projects regardless of where the customer is based,” he says. “Every office has to be able to support any project, wherever the customer’s site may be.”

Previously DPS had leased lines connecting its main offices and some very limited virtual private network (VPN) features, but Power decided MPLS was the best way to go to support remote client and, in the near future, to enable voice over internet protocol (VoIP) traffic. “We can split out the MPLS network so that voice has a certain amount of dedicated bandwidth,” he says. “We are looking at putting in VoIP trunks between our offices in Dublin and Cork so that we can cut down on phone charges. It won’t be a huge saving but we will derive some benefit from it.”

The flexibility that a centralised, managed pool of key applications and a state-of-the-art network gives to DPS’s engineers and consultants is a vital competitive advantage when pitching for contracts, according to Power. “The ability our consultants now have to work on a customer’s site and still be connected to their mail as if they were on their own LAN really gives us a boost,” he says. “The fact that they can be onsite dealing closely with clients while effectively not being out of the office at all is where we want to be in terms of the service we offer as a company.”

Clever CAD

Naturally, CAD software is the main class of applications used by DPS’s engineers and the company has a wide range of such packages in its portfolio. It uses a combination of the most popular CAD packages including AutoCAD and Bentley, as well as NavisWorks and JetStream. “We use everything from flat 2D drawings to sophisticated 3D graphics,” says Power.

He sees little benefit in using customised applications. “If you write applications in-house, you tend to become very dependent on the person who wrote them and it can be difficult for somebody else to come in and support the application, especially if the original author leaves,” he says. Fortunately, in the case of CAD, there are plenty of ‘off-the-shelf’ packages that are more than adequate for the engineers’ needs.

Which is not to say that there is no development work taking place in-house. “We develop our own intranet,” says Power, “and we also have a very good database administrator as well as a guy in IT who started out as a CAD engineer and therefore has a very detailed knowledge of the applications themselves. Together, they have been able to write Visual Basic applications and SQL scripts that have made the whole department more productive.”

One of the clever things the IT department has done has been to equip CAD drawings with smart tags so that they can be held in a database and searched and retrieved based on a number of criteria. Also, the process of affixing those tags with all the vital information they contain detailing the equipment and structures in the drawings installation has been automated, resulting in huge time savings.

“We can take an AutoCAD drawing,” says Power, “and instead of going through it line item by line item to add tags to it, which is an extremely laborious process and could take somebody up to three hours, we can use the SQL application that our database guy has written to extract the tagged information from an existing CAD drawing stored in our database. That requires knowledge both of SQL and the CAD software itself, which we have as in-house expertise. That cuts the time taken to annotate a drawing fully from three hours down to about 40 minutes, because we do away with double entries. The benefit for the engineers is that the time that was spent on drudge work can now be devoted to the CAD drawing itself.”

Eventually, Power would like to arrive at a situation where the engineers could pull in a drawing supplied by a client and extract any tagged information automatically, but that is a goal rather than a current feature as each client has a different way of doing things. “Every client would have their own set of standards for how something should be done so we would have to automate that feature for each client,” says Power. “There’s a lot of work to do for that.”

Where will IT take DPS in the future? Currently the company is evaluating an enterprise resource planning system to replace its current accounting and order processing which Power describes as “tightly organised but manual. We are looking to put in a solution that would support the processes that are already there”.

The real key for IT, however, is to facilitate the work of the company’s engineers and consultants. Flexibility and speed of response are Power’s watch words. “We have to be able to set up virtual offices for our engineers at client sites, we have to do it quickly and they have to work,” he says. “Clients are all different. Some will not be able to or will not want to work with technologies, for example wireless, that others will be happy with. We have to work around those issues and still deliver high-level services.”

One of the benefits of all DPS’s investment in IT, however, is that IT is now seen as part of the overall proposal the company makes when engaging new clients. “They want to see how we use IT to deliver our services,” says Power. “It’s becoming a strategically very important part of our business.”

The open option

The necessity of dealing with clients in the way that best suits them was at the core of a painful decision Power had to make shortly after joining DPS – whether to commit to Windows and Microsoft Office or opt for an open source alternative. Second only to the pharmaceutical industry, Cork is also a hotbed of open source software activity with some of the industry’s leading exponents based in what is appropriately nicknamed the ‘rebel county’.

“We gave serious consideration to deploying Open Office,” says Power. “We looked at it from the point of view of getting more bang for our buck. At the end of the day, though, we had to make the decision based on our client base. All of our clients use Office – some may use Notes rather than Outlook – but the decision came down to the amount of time and hassle it would have cost us saving documents as and dealing with compatibility issues, not to mention inconveniencing the clients.”

The necessity to save documents in a format other than the default one and the risk of delivering a client a document they would find difficult to read were deemed to be more harmful than the cost benefits of an open source office suite so DPS has standardised on Microsoft Office and Windows.

Power’s progress

Power’s work history is entirely in the IT industry. He has worked for a large computer maker in a support role as well as working in IT departments for manufacturing companies and in the medical devices sector, all of which experience stands him in good stead for working in a business where clients tend to be manufacturing companies with great concerns about compliance with highly regulated environments.

His IT education comprises certificates in computing, a diploma in software engineering and then a degree in computer services management. DPS is his first role as a CIO. “I have been the senior IT person in a company before but I was much further down the reporting food chain than I am here,” he says. “I was not as able to influence business strategy as I have been here. I have been very lucky. The board has been very open to the suggestions put to them and hopefully we will have the opportunity very soon to demonstrate the payback that the investments in IT have made.”

By David D’Arcy

Pictured – Gerard Power, group IT manager, DPS