Case Study: Phifer Incorporated

World's largest insect screening manufacturer gains visibility and control over manufacturing operations with MES software solutions

 In 1952, J. Reese Phifer established Phifer Incorporated in Tuscaloosa, Alabama as a weaver of aluminum insect screening with two main goals of excelling in quality and service. Today, the company is the world’s largest producer of aluminum and fiberglass insect screening products. Throughout the years, the company’s weaving expertise has broadened and expanded to include a wide variety of innovative woven sun control fabrics for windows, designed fabrics for outdoor furniture applications, as well as drawn wire products. Phifer also manufactures woven products for specialty markets including pet care, filtration, contract furniture, wall covering, automotive, ventilation, reinforcement, awning, and marine. Manufacturing and corporate offices are located in Tuscaloosa with warehousing/offices in California, Italy, India, and Asia. Phifer exports all products worldwide and has a full international sales and traffic staff. 


Phifer's top challenges

Manufacturing divisions operated
in silos with little communication or standardization

Legacy in-house specifications
database unmanageable and data
not well structured

IT department programmers required
for all reporting and data
movement to and from ERP

Key stakeholders lacked
visibility into manufacturing

Divisional subject matter experts maintained
spreadsheets and notes outside of database

Lean manufacturing and
continuous improvement initiatives
not supported by technology


In 2003, Phifer implemented a Tier I Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) platform in order to handle the company’s growth and complexity. In order to bridge the divide between the ERP and manufacturing operations, a Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) group was created within the IT department. The MES group developed a proprietary specifications database in which they could store product specs for materials sourcing and the machine settings required for production.

Over time, the proprietary application grew well beyond its intended use, becoming extremely difficult to maintain. Individual areas within the company’s manufacturing operations responsible for metal, fiberglass, and specialty products each operated independently and established separate business processes and data management methods. Personal notes and spreadsheets from machine operators often never made it into the system. Reporting and data accessibility became labor intensive with requests being submitted to the MES group from each department within the company. Product specification changes had to be manually entered by IT one at a time across the database and any data needing to be synced to or from the ERP also required IT involvement.

These symptoms, common for growing manufacturing enterprises, prompted Phifer Chief Information Officer William Cork to explore a new MES software solution. “We were either going to overhaul it in-house or we were going to purchase a piece of software,” stated Cork. Sikich was invited to demonstrate the capabilities of the JUST MES Business Genius® suite, consisting of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), Planning and Scheduling, and Monitoring components. “We did a cost-benefit analysis of developing in-house versus going with JUST MES, and after an extensive vetting process we decided to go with the JUST suite…there was not another solution on the market that could do what it could do.” 


Phifer formed a committee of key stakeholders to come together with a consulting team from Sikich and create a vision for what a new MES software solution would look like. A crucial requirement would be to deliver a system that would support Phifer’s commitment to a lean manufacturing model. Sikich provided an initial analysis of the current system and then built a prototype with the software programs and modules that would form the complete MES solution – JUST PLM, JUST Planning with modules for weaving, beaming, and yarn production, and JUST Monitoring for weaving looms and beaming machines.

The solution implementation posed a significant challenge due to the complexity of Phifer’s operations within the three separate manufacturing divisions for metal screening, fiberglass screening, and specialty products. “There are three divisions at Phifer that each have a different way of working, and even sub-divisions inside of those divisions with different ways of working,” stated Project Manager Carlo Cranchi. “There are eight different kinds of planning logic inside the system that makes the scheduling system very complex, and a lot of people that needed to be trained on the system.”

After a successful implementation of the JUST suite in the metal screening division, Phifer employees immediately began to realize major efficiency improvements in the handling and movement of data. The MES and ERP systems are now completely linked. Getting material data from production to IT to front office used to require a change request and tedious spreadsheet conversions, and has now been replaced by a one-click sync process. Mass changes to spec data had never been a possibility, but now through the JUST PLM system, are executed with ease. “The old system was kind of geared more toward what we do, and not as much as how we can use the data we are collecting to make us better,” said Phifer Director of Product Data Management Laura Jackson. “I think with the JUST suite that we have now, we have the opportunity to do that…to take us to the next level when it comes to manufacturing excellence.”

I think with the JUST suite that we have now, we have the opportunity to do that…to take us to the next level when it comes to manufacturing excellence.” 

– Laura Jackson, Director of Product Data Management at Phifer, Inc.


When it comes to manufacturing excellence, Phifer has adopted the kaizen methodology of improving all functions of the business while involving all employees. “We really use the Managing for Daily Improvement (MDI) methodology extensively throughout the factory floor. Every product line has a daily MDI walk where they go from process to process reviewing their performance metrics and taking action when we do not meet our metrics,” said William Cork. The JUST Monitoring system has been a major contributing force to these daily kaizen events. Large flat-screen monitors are positioned in highly-visible areas, highlighting division-wide performance metrics. PCs are stationed within individual machine groupings offering the ability to go back and view historical production data for each machine right from the shop floor. Each machine has a Human Machine Interface (HMI) that allows machine operators and other personnel to interact directly with the system.

For Phifer, visibility has long been an issue that frustrated the company’s key stakeholders. Enabling data accessibility through user-generated reports and templates is a core function of JUST MES. Phifer uses bulletin boards stationed throughout the production facility to post reports from the MES software that are reviewed during each MDI walk-thru. “There’s a program within the monitoring called ‘stops trace’, and I really like that program because you can print out on one piece of paper how a weave room did for the previous 24 hours and quickly tell the story of what happened,” commented Cork. “One of my favorite things is that consistently you’re able to get any information out of the system. All throughout the JUST suite you have ‘export to excel’ so you are able to get that data out and do any sort of manipulation.”

Prior to implementing JUST Scheduling, Phifer was using three different home-grown scheduling software programs for weaving, as well as separate applications for yarn production and beaming. “Every scheduler did something completely different than the person working next door to them,” said Cork. The new MES platform has enabled Phifer to standardize on a universal set of tools and processes. The advanced planning capabilities of JUST Scheduling have also given the Phifer planning team greater insight felt upstream in yarn production. “When they schedule their looms, the system will automatically explode the BOM so that they can see their yarn requirements going out very, very far into the future. It gives them the ability to see what yarn they need to be making two or three months from now and if they are going to have the necessary capacity during peak seasons to achieve that,” stated Cork. 


JUST MES is offering Phifer immediate benefits, as well as opening the door to future possibilities. The new software is enabling users to generate their own reports and templates without the need to involve programmers while also providing the preventative maintenance staff with better insight into potential machine issues, helping Phifer to operate smarter. Looking to the future, William Cork believes they are providing the necessary tools for a younger workforce that will want to have the ability to solve problems on the fly. Laura Jackson sees a workforce that better understands the manufacturing processes in play and a system that will enable users to drive innovation. “Innovation is whenever you realize you have some technology that will help you get to that next level that you didn’t think you would ever be able to get to,” added Jackson.

Modern manufacturing companies have an immense challenge in collecting and managing the vast amount of data that can be used to drive innovation and success. The JUST MES solution from Sikich has brought in a level of data sophistication and standardization that Phifer can use to establish a foundation for the future. “They have a more stable solution than in the past and a more standard solution than in the past,” stated Carlo Cranchi. “Data migration used to take a lot of time for Phifer because the data was not well structured in the old system. Now the data is structured in a standard way. Before, every division worked in a different way. Right now all the divisions work in a common way with the same documentation in production and a standardization in the work they are doing.” 

“I could not speak more highly of the people at PA Group (now Sikich) and how good of an asset they’ve been to Phifer.” 

– William Cork, CIO at Phifer, Inc.


One very important aspect of the JUST MES software project for both Phifer and Sikich has been the fit between the consulting team and the company’s employees. “When it comes to any project like this…the critical component to it is the people. It’s the people who are going to be implementing it and the working relationship that the two organizations have,” stated Cork.

Key benefits of working with Sikich for MES

Sikich is committed to the success of private equity companies and their portfolio companies. We can match your momentum with resources and expertise to help you deliver value and reach your objectives on your schedule. Here are nine facts to consider as you think about Sikich as a potential technology partner.

All manufacturing divisions standardized
on a single MES platform creating
uniformity in processes and enhanced communication

Data is stable and structured with
one-click sync between MES and ERP

Reporting and template creation
enabled for end users without
the need for programmer involvement

Planning for capacity and materials
requirements easily projected for
several months into the future

Greater visibility for key stakeholders
to support continuous improvement
initiative with actionable data

Preventative maintenance enhanced with better insight into machine issues and trends

Real-time trending indicators highly visible on large displays throughout facility and historical production
data easily accessible right from shop floor PCs or mobile devices