CIO interview: Doug May, business systems director, LoneStar Group

Doug May, business systems director at component maker LoneStar Group, has found a novel use for Raspberry Pi computers

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CIOs clamour for the kind of IT innovation that can help deliver business change. For some technology chiefs, innovation remains an ephemeral target and they struggle to tap into the best new ideas that can help increase their firm’s competitiveness. For Doug May, business systems director at components manufacturer LoneStar Group, creative thinking is simply a way of working.

“As a manufacturing business, we’re going through a lot of change,” he says, referring to an ongoing transformation programme at the global fasteners and sealings specialist.

“When your resources are limited, you have to think about technology in a different way. Rather than moaning because your budget is tight, you have to think about how you can increase the business value of IT with the resources you’ve been given.”

May has managed to hold his IT budget stable for three years, while still managing to use innovative technology to change the way the business works. “IT isn’t always seen as a value-add in manufacturing but more and more of our business relies on technology. Modern manufacturing firms have to be digitally embedded businesses,” he says.

It is this kind of forward thinking that governs May’s considerations about how to use innovative technology to overcome significant business challenges. A recent office move to new headquarters, near Wednesbury in the West Midlands, led May to think about how IT can increase efficiency and boost effectiveness. But perhaps his most novel idea has involved the use of low-cost Raspberry Pi devices in a manufacturing environment.

As easy as Pi

During the past 12 months, LoneStar has introduced the ARM-based Raspberry Pi computers to the firm’s shop floor. May says the idea for the project came about as he and his IT team were thinking about how to deal with end-of-life Microsoft Windows XP PCs. The business often re-uses legacy computers from the back office on the shop floor. These older devices are used to help staff monitor progress in discrete areas of the manufacturing process.

However, the approach is not without its downside. The PCs, says May, take up space on the shop floor, especially when you consider the cabling and terminals. More problematically, Microsoft has stopped supporting Windows XP, meaning there are no security and technical updates available for devices that had become an important element of the manufacturing production process.

His team sat together and discussed the challenge. One IT professional, who used a Raspberry Pi at home, suggested the small devices could provide a workable alternative to XP PCs on the shop floor. The computers have proved popular in education environments, particularly in showing school children the benefits of coding.

The use of the Raspberry Pi in a business context is rare, although some firms – notably the Financial Times and IBM – have started experimenting with the devices, where the computers have been used to power ad hoc systems aimed at solving specific business challenges. It was an approach that resonated with May, and he and his team set about replacing end-of-life XP machines on the shop floor with Raspberry Pi devices.

The computers connect to a standard Samsung display unit through the HDMI port and they draw power via a USB connection. Each Raspberry Pi is connected to the wider LoneStar network through Category 6 cabling, and the specific program for each part of the production process is sent to the unit and controlled via Microsoft Terminal Server.

The first programs on the shop floor focused on to-do-lists, allowing manufacturing workers to use the Raspberry Pi to see and sign-off tasks. As the tasks are completed, the results are entered into the device and sent across the network to the central LoneStar ERP system. The initial roll-out was such a success that May and his team moved the initiative beyond the shop floor and into other areas of the business.

Don’t discount something just because it is cheap. We’re now using Raspberry Pi devices across the business and all that approach took was a little bit of lateral thinking 

 Doug May, LoneStar Group 

Raspberry Pi devices, for example, are now set up in the sales department. Once again, these computers connect back to the wider LoneStar network, showing sales people their targets and performance records on a rolling basis. The Raspberry Pi has also been used to run discrete modules in a training and development setting. May is so impressed by the success of the devices that he continues to think of new ways to make the most of the approach.

“I like to think of the initiative as virtualisation by the back door,” he says. “We’ve been able to replace all the XP computers on the shop floor. If we have to make changes to the programs, we just make modifications centrally via Terminal Server, rather than having to make changes to each individual PC.”

May is keen on the flexibility of the approach. He points to other benefits too, including the ability to remove much of the cabling and paraphernalia associated with a traditional desktop PC. But perhaps the biggest benefit of all is cost – each Raspberry Pi unit costs less than £50 to buy.

“Don’t discount something just because it is cheap,” says May. “We’re now using Raspberry Pi devices across the business and all that approach took was a little bit of lateral thinking.” That process continues to evolve and May is keen to think about how the computers could be used in other areas of the organisation, and possibly beyond simple, discrete tasks.

“We’ve started thinking whether we could realistically use the Raspberry Pi to replace all desktop computers,” he says. “It’s early days because the on-board memory is simply an SD card. But the potential is huge and it would be great if we could use the computers for day-to-day operational tasks, like word processing. It’s an area we’ll continue to think about.”  

Moving offices and moving forwards

May focuses on how he can use novel ideas to produce business value. “Good IT managers are pragmatic and open-minded about how technology can be used to help the business,” he says. “Many CIOs fall into the trap of becoming heavily reliant on certain providers. You need to embrace new smaller suppliers and think about how they can help solve your business problems.”

His desire to find new and effective partners has been tested by LoneStar’s recent move to new headquarters, near Wednesbury in the West Midlands. Office moves can present a notoriously tricky challenge for IT leaders. The underlying nature of IT in modern business communications means CIOs must use their knowledge of technology to help the organisation collaborate. It is a considerable test but the right approach can produce big benefits in efficiency and effectiveness.

“It’s an all-new IT set up,” says May of the state-of-the-art facility. He has brought together software and hardware in a range of areas from phone systems to printers: “You’re never completely convinced that such a huge process of consolidation will work until everyone is in the office doing his or her work.”

A completely new core network has been introduced and is being managed by an external service provider. Phone numbers are portable and employees are given access to softphone applications that enable voice over internet protocol (VoIP) telephone calls to be made from computing devices. Workers benefit from Cisco presence technology.

“It’s early days, so with some technologies we’re probably barely scraping 10% of potential usage right now,” he says. “We’ve tried to make loads of small IT-based changes that don’t necessarily cost a lot of money but which really improve business operations.”

One example is the introduction of FollowMe technology from Xerox, which allows users to print to a shared queue from any enabled output device. The approach has allowed the organisation to consolidate devices and to reduce the number of printers in the head office from more than 100 to just 11.

At a broader level, May says that he and his IT team have created an infrastructure with room to allow the organisation to change and grow. All UK sites are connected with fibre and the firm’s Cisco Unity unified messaging system is also being pushed to the firm’s US offices.

Rigorous testing

The approach means costs are contained, as calls across the internal network will be free. And if May and his team needs to add more people to the network, the business will only have to pay for devices and licences. The organisation, then, has created a flexible base for future changes in IT provision. May’s advice to other CIOs approaching an office move is to be similarly forward-looking but to take careful, preparatory steps.

“I moved our IT team in three weeks before the rest of the office. If you get in early you can sort any problems. We checked simple things, like making sure that calls could be re-routed from each device. We tried every phone and laptop point in the new building and discovered that about 60% of connections were not working as we would have expected,” he says.

“If you think something’s only going to take a few weeks, then step back and give yourself a bit more time – everything involved in moving headquarters is a real process. My advice is to test absolutely everything. You can’t afford for your business to turn up on day one and to not be able to work. The best way to be ready for the change as an IT team is to sit together and brainstorm all the small elements that might have an impact.”

May, then, is always open to new ideas. It is an outlook he will continue to adopt as he creates the platforms, processes and partnerships to help LoneStar make the most of new IT.

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