Remotely Planning and Deploying an ERP During a Pandemic
You don't have to be a doctor to save lives.
My training is in electrical engineering, but I have spent most of my career working in IT in the pharmaceutical industry. While I may not be a clinician or a researcher, and I can't operate a bioreactor, I do know about data storage and inventory management platforms, which is how researchers and teams stay connected and organize information. My job is to architect the IT infrastructure that helps scientists pioneer new drug therapies that enable people to lead healthier lives. Staying coordinated and connected is the backbone of the development of any new technology and is even more important now, when we're all working remotely or staying 6 feet apart.
I work at , a year-old contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO) that supports the production of therapies that use live biotherapeutic products to treat gut health and microbiome-related illnesses. We are on a rapid growth trajectory. Within a few months of launching, we merged with veteran CDMO Captozyme, leveraging their decade of industry experience and increasing our production and research facilities to 100,000 square feet.
We use live microbiomes to create therapies, which need to be quarantined upon arrival and used before they expire, per FDA regulations. We also have to ensure the availability of consumables like capsules, vials, syringes, and IV bags used to manufacture therapies, as well as PPE (personal protective equipment) for our workers.
Two weeks after we launched, I was brought in as the company's head of IT. I see my job as eliminating roadblocks and ensuring that our people have the information and resources they need to execute for our clients.
Doing Things the Hard Way
As a startup in a relatively new industry, we focused on getting our business off the ground but had yet to fully define our business's operations. There were few internal processes. If you wanted to order supplies, invoice a client, or pay a bill, you did it on paper. Everything was manual and went through the finance department. We had no visibility into supply or inventory levels, and we couldn't track a product and its components through the development or production cycle.
After a few months of doing things the hard way, we had to consolidate supply chain management, FDA compliance, accounting, procurement, and our day-to-day business processes. Deploying enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to collect, store, manage, and interpret data would solve all our problems and streamline every aspect of our operations.
Finding the Right Partner to Deploy the Right Solution
I didn't look far for ERP solutions because I already knew that I wanted to use Microsoft Dynamics. I also knew that I wanted to work with a partner. Arranta Bio had reached critical mass quickly, and the situation called for external expertise. For example, I didn't want to migrate our accounting operations from QuickBooks myself, nor are our team members experts at that. After all, we are focused on manufacturing medications, and IT is a means to that end.
I started looking for a vendor. I had a few names in mind, but I also reached out to my network for referrals. Several of my colleagues recommended Armanino because the company had deployed ERPs for other pharmaceutical clients and therefore understood our challenges.
During our initial meetings with Armanino, their team showed great expertise in answering our questions and addressing our concerns surrounding their product and its adaptability to our pipeline. They introduced us to the consultants working on our ERP project, and we started drilling down to our requirements right away. They’d done this type of work with other companies in our industry and were the perfect fit, so we signed the contract in the middle of March. When the COVID pandemic hit, we all had to start working from home, but we were determined for the project to continue.
Remotely Planning Our Deployment
Like everyone else, we moved our meetings online. At first, we were all a little nervous about working remotely instead of collaborating in person. We had to make some adjustments because we were no longer flying from Massachusetts to Florida, Washington, or the UK to meet with our colleagues. We learned how to accommodate everyone, despite the various time differences. I was amazed at how quickly everyone adapted to this new way of collaborating.
We did a lot of whiteboarding, documented workflows and processes, charted accounts, and laid out the scope of the project. There were a lot of open conversations, and we went back and forth about everything. We would pitch an idea to Armanino, and they would come back with revisions or suggestions. If we didn't like one of their proposals, we were never uncomfortable about saying that we should try something else.
We also felt free to change our minds. A couple of times, Armanino came to us and said that we no longer needed a function or process specified early on in the project because the scope had changed. And so, we dropped or changed those requirements and moved on. Those are the types of exchanges I want to have with partners—where they bring their ideas to the table—and I told Armanino that from the start.
A Phased Deployment
Once we began planning our ERP, I insisted on a phased deployment. I did not want a monolithic install that would take two years to roll out and only then provide a return on investment. I wanted to start using our solution right away to solve some of our more pressing issues.
We needed visibility into our cash flow because we didn't know what we were buying versus what we were invoicing. It was almost impossible to get any information out of our original setup, whether we were looking at IT expenditures or the procurement of the chemicals we use to manufacture our microbiome therapies. We couldn’t wait to solve that problem.
Phase 1 included the finance components of our ERP: accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger, purchasing, and invoice approval. We defined our processes, configured Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Finance and Operations (D365 F&O), and Armanino deployed it in May, less than two months after we started. Overall, the deployment was uneventful. We went live on a Monday morning, and nobody blinked. Just like that, we could track where our money was coming from and where it was going. And that was just the beginning.
Phase 2 added material requirements planning (MRP) and inventory tracking. The MRP system tells us what to order and when. It predicts usage and triggers alerts based on minimum and maximum quantities we set. This is especially important right now because masks and other types of protective equipment are in short supply worldwide, and we have to place orders early to prevent running out.
A Fresh Start for Our Purchasing Process
The entire purchasing process is more efficient now. Previously, we would fill out requisitions on paper and send them to the purchasing department, but now everything is filled in and filed electronically and resides in the system. I can set up a purchase order with the appropriate code and route it to purchasing for approval. When the requested material arrives at our loading dock, a warehouse worker checks off a box in D365 F&O, and our inventory system can then track it. When an invoice is due, we automatically pay it. We are no longer calling or emailing each other to ensure that somebody's taken care of the bills, and that shipments are actually delivered.
Now that we have the basics down, while there isn't officially a Phase 3, we are exploring the possibilities offered by Microsoft Dynamics as a full-fledged ERP. We're looking at the platform's manufacturing and quality components, including the project operations module for resource scheduling. We also hope to adopt other apps in the Microsoft ecosystem, including Power BI to run reports and Power Automate to eliminate time-consuming and repetitive tasks that can better be performed by bots.
Hitting the Ground Running During the Pandemic
Armanino helped us implement fast and effective technologies to streamline our ERP. Their Rapid Implementation program helped us achieve results in a couple of months instead of a couple of years. We didn't have to build a customized MRP, which would have taken an extensive period of time and left concerns for compatibility issues and software conflicts down the line, especially when integrating third-party apps.
Instead, we analyzed our processes and aligned our workflows to function within the constraints of Microsoft Dynamics. Setting these limits forced us to look at what we wanted to do and why we wanted to do it. The result is a lean ERP implementation that simplifies our workloads and gives us visibility into our operations.
I was also amazed at how well we collaborated remotely. Eliminating travel helped hone our focus. Instead of flying everyone to another city and locking them up in a conference room for a week, we asked people to take three or four hours out of their day to work on the Microsoft Dynamics deployment. They could spend the rest of their time working on their regularly scheduled work. They could also keep a Zoom window open in the background while doing other work and pop in only when they needed to ask or answer a question.
We went live with Phase 1 just 77 days after signing the contract. The pandemic forced us to collaborate not only remotely but more efficiently, and this proved to be a better approach than meeting face to face. I honestly don’t know that I’d go back to the old in-person ways.
Partnering to Improve People's Lives
Our accelerated ERP deployment is only part of the story. Arranta Bio has begun a real partnership with Armanino, and working together to roll out Microsoft Dynamics is the beginning of what I expect will become a long-term collaboration.
In the end, this isn’t about an ERP. It isn’t even about Arranta Bio or Armanino. It all comes down to our customers and patient lives. Finding and creating solutions to support our employees and clients, to make our processes more streamlined and functional, creates a more effective team driving our work. And the end result of our work is the biotherapeutic products that are transforming the lives of people with microbiome-related diseases.