CFV Solar Test Laboratory, Inc., is a small, accredited, highly sophisticated laboratory that performs multistep, long-term testing and certification of photovoltaic assemblies, using the latest equipment.
“The nature of our business is such that our projects can be complicated, last months, and have complex dependencies,” says Chase Henson, operations manager for the company based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Good project management is critical; CFV works on 20 to 30 certification projects at any given time, and since typical projects consist of dozens or hundreds of interdependent tests and procedures performed over several months, project management is one of CFV’s core competencies—without excellent attention to project details and timelines, the company’s whole business model fails.
Since this is 100-percent laboratory work performed by engineers and scientists, most of whom are good coders, industry outsiders might assume that critical management tasks are handled either by one of the many available laboratory information management systems (LIMS) or by a heavily customized homegrown solution. However, that assumption would be wrong; since 2017, CFV has relied on LiquidPlanner, a versatile, cloud-served project management solution that implements an industry-leading predictive scheduling engine to manage and successfully complete the multistep, long-lifecycle, testing and certification projects that the firm and its clients depend on.
“We have a good reputation for being on time and for being transparent,” says general manager Jim Crimmins. “It’s an important differentiator for us; having more project information available, more quickly, is important to everything we do, including marketing. LiquidPlanner is absolutely helping us with this; it’s proved itself over a year and a half of full implementation, and its importance to us is not up for debate.”
Henson agrees, “The major thing that sets us apart is our proficiency at complex projects. Every lab has finite resources, and the only way to beat out our competitors is to prioritize those resources more efficiently. LiquidPlanner immediately helped us to do that better than other labs. That, in turn, enabled us to set more aggressive project completion dates and to hit those targets more consistently. LiquidPlanner also provides better project reporting and feedback, and we can make that information more visible to clients—that reassures them, and makes us more accountable.”
The major thing that sets us apart is our proficiency at complex projects. Every lab has finite resources, and the only way to beat out our competitors is to prioritize those resources more efficiently. LiquidPlanner immediately helped us to do that better than other labs.
CFV Solar is mainly composed of careful, methodical engineers, and they took a methodical approach to select new enterprise software, first listing all the features and qualities they needed in a project management solution and then comparing everything available to that list. They weren’t in a hurry. “We tried out everything we could get a trial for,” says Henson. “When LiquidPlanner showed up in search engine results, it looked good right away.”
Three main criteria emerged during the review and selection process.
- Lightweight, Easy to Use and Cost Effective. Reasonably, CFV Solar expected to find uncomplicated data entry and a simple interface in a modern project management solution; however, actually finding a solution with those two features proved to be frustrating, especially in the world of specialized lab management software. “Our experience is that most LIMS/ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems are designed for laboratories with drastically different workflows to ours—usually biological or chemical test labs—and they’re inflexible, requiring absurd levels of customization,” says Henson. “Additionally, most of the systems we looked at were well outside the range of what we wanted to spend on project management.”
- Minimal Customization and Easy Implementation. “We wanted a PM solution that worked right out of the box and fit our workflows as closely as possible, with no customization,” Henson adds. “Ideally, my technical staff should be able to be up and running in 15 minutes for basic tasks and have decent proficiency within a week.”LiquidPlanner easily satisfied this reasonable requirement. Henson estimates that the solution met “90 to 95 percent” of CFV’s needs without any adaptation on CFV’s part for workflows or reporting procedures. Put another way, LiquidPlanner worked for CFV Solar, not vice-versa.
- OS Agnosticism and API Access. CFV’s engineers knew they wanted a PM solution that was not dependent on any particular operating system and that required no locally installed software. LiquidPlanner gave them internal flexibility in a business that routinely requires the application of a great deal of skillfully implemented computing power, and it also let them avoid all the tedious hassles of installing, maintaining, and updating locally installed enterprise software.
They also wanted easy and rational access to the solution’s application program interface. Not for customization— but for connection; CFV is stocked full of good coders, and they’re particularly handy with Python, the scripting language that many labs use to tie together lab equipment and specialized software. In particular, CFV wanted to integrate LiquidPlanner with three web-based systems the team was already using: Citrix Sharefile (document control and secure report sharing), Pipedrive (customer relationship and sales leads management), and LIMSey (lab management). “Access to LiquidPlanner’s API allowed us to leverage our Python scripting skills to further automate and improve our business,” says Henson, “and implementing those connections was a breeze.”
Right Out of the Box
Within a day or two of implementation, CFV Solar was able to use LiquidPlanner to automate one of the company’s most difficult management tasks: the creation of detailed, customized project schedules. The certification of a particular photovoltaic panel, for example, might require more than 150 different procedures, performed in five interdependent sequences. Manually scheduling all this work and prioritizing equipment time had typically been an extremely tedious task, but one that had to be done well for efficient project completion.
LiquidPlanner’s emphasis on resource scheduling and prioritization was critical to this automated scheduling. At many firms, ‘resources’ are mainly people, people with particular skill sets, such as graphic designers or structural engineers, who have a limited number of hours to divvy out to projects. The ten or so engineers at CFV are valuable resources in this sense, but so are the various testing chambers and pieces of lab equipment used to do actual project work. These resource hours should be viewed as precious—in some cases, the equipment being used is so specialized that it’s not available anywhere else in North America. If the firm wants to serve clients well and prosper economically, prioritizing and scheduling these hours efficiently and cost-effectively is mandatory.
LiquidPlanner improved resource utilization right out of the gate, and the improvement was measurable.
“Before LiquidPlanner implementation, we occasionally missed deadlines due to misallocated resources or bottlenecks that we didn’t anticipate,” Henson says. “After implementation, we have been able to increase throughput in the lab while meeting tight deadlines and providing clients with real-time scheduling updates. It’s made a big difference for us.”
All of this speaks to LiquidPlanner’s versatility as a project management solution. It’s an extremely powerful enterprise resource planning solution that’s simple to use and fast to implement, and it’s not overfocused on particular types or sizes of enterprises. It’s been a smashing success for semiconductor manufacturers, web designers, accountants, and many other diverse firms. And, as CFV Solar has proven, it absolutely kills when applied in the specialized, highly technical, and extremely complex arena of certification laboratories.