Office Furniture Dealers Alliance Case Study

OFDAxml

Office Furniture Dealers Alliance leads the creation of a new standard.

Overview

We're often reminded how technology standards benefit individual users. Standards within specialized industries can help businesses operate more efficiently and improve profitability too, and ultimately better serve their customers. The Office Furniture Dealers Alliance (OFDA), with membership of 1,200 office furniture dealers, manufacturers, and industry service providers, is the leading organization promoting business solutions and standards for the office furniture industry, a business segment with over $10 billion in sales in the U.S. alone in 2004.

An individual office furniture dealer typically offers products from as many as 200 suppliers, including large manufacturers such as Herman Miller, Inc., HON, and Steelcase, along with items from many smaller, specialized vendors. Conversely, each manufacturer sells through a wide variety of dealers and resellers. Obviously, both sides would benefit from a standardized communication system for business transactions.

Traditionally, the office furniture industry has been connected by specialized software for office furniture dealers and large buyers. Created by diverse software developers, applications for dealer accounting, space planning, and even dealer catalog publishing all include features for communication with multiple office furniture manufacturers.

"The XMLSpy entry helpers, the validation engine, and the XPath evaluator immediately showed it to be far superior for developing and maintaining XML Schema,"

Kevin VanRiper, Herman Miller, Inc.

The Challenge

For over 25 years EDI-based communication has been common between office furniture dealers and manufacturers, but the system was flawed:

Even after years of EDI development and implementation, the largest manufacturers commonly received no more than 75% of orders through EDI-based communication originating from automated dealer business systems.

An industry issue with EDI was that each manufacturer's implementation of EDI also used a SIF (Standard Interchange Format) file. Despite the name, over time SIF files had become anything but standardized. Instead, as new products were introduced each manufacturer made modifications that resulted in custom SIF files defining unique transaction requirements.

In 1999 several technology leaders among the OFDA became interested in the possibilities of XML-based communication over the internet. Although XML was new technology and unfamiliar to the industry, the expected cost reduction available through elimination of expensive EDI VAN (Value Added Network) telecomm systems was an incentive for change. In fact, the potential savings were so great that several manufacturers considered developing their own XML schema to define their transaction requirements. The alternative of implementing EDI over the Web was daunting.

After discussion among OFDA members, a technology committee was formed consisting of 15 representatives divided between major manufacturers such as Herman Miller, Inc., and industry software developers (Data One, Inc. and Team Systems, among others), and moderated by the OFDA. The committee's goal was to develop an XML-based communication standard to replace EDI as the technology for industry transactions.

The Aeron chair by Herman Miller, Inc.

The Aeron chair by Herman Miller, Inc.

The technology committee immediately identified several problems:

The Solution

The committee set the goal of developing a comprehensive XML Schema to define an order from an office furniture dealer to a manufacturer. Members believed a single, extensible order schema could replace a dozen or more manufacturer-specific EDI order formats. Successful creation of the order schema would serve as a proof of concept to the association and encourage widespread adoption of XML as the industry transaction standard.

Altova XMLSpy quickly emerged as the premiere development tool for the committee's work. "I would have been lost without the XMLSpy graphical schema view," said Diana Gentry, a software developer for Team Systems and committee member. "Although I had years of experience developing software for the office furniture industry, I had not worked with XML prior to this project. XMLSpy got me up to speed very quickly."

"The XMLSpy entry helpers, the validation engine, and the XPath evaluator immediately showed it to be far superior for developing and maintaining XML Schema," said Kevin VanRiper, Herman Miller, Inc.'s representative to the technical committee.

The schema developers explained further that the XMLSpy XPath evaluator was used to test XPath expressions that extract transaction data based on the schema under development. For instance, the XPath expression to retrieve the Description element within the complex CustomOption element is much different from the XPath expression to get a Description that is part of an InventoryLocation complex element.

The committee regularly held presentations at association conferences to explain its work, solicit input, and build support. These meetings frequently became spirited as competing manufacturers, competing software developers, and competing office furniture dealers gathered to comb through the work in progress – examining the purpose of each schema element and calling for new features. The new XML schema would not be accepted if it codified a competitive advantage for any individual manufacturer or software developer.

Here again, the graphical schema view of XMLSpy proved indispensable. "There were times when we would bounce from a PowerPoint presentation right into XMLSpy to open the schema in graphical view," said Mark Duros, Director of Research and Technology for the OFDA. "The graphical view let non-technical users quickly understand the purpose and function of each element and the relationship to other elements in the schema. Our openness with the new XML technology was critical to gaining executive buy-in at many of our member companies."

As part of its open communication strategy, the technical committee created an OFDAxml best practices document that was derived from the recommendations of XML authorities such as the W3C and OASIS, and tempered by experiences reported in other vertical industries. The best practices document is published on the OFDA Web site and is intended to be continuously updated, defining naming conventions, rules for creation of elements vs. attributes, extensibility policies, and schema versioning guidelines.

The technical committee treated the best practices document as their development manifesto, promoting consistency within the schema and helping ensure cross-industry interoperation.

A complex type defined in the OFDAxml Order schema

A complex type defined in the OFDAxml Order schema. Note the annotation of each element, including modification dates. The UserDefinedType element allows new features to be implemented immediately. Later on, the new feature can be proposed to the technical committee for inclusion in a new version of the OFDAxml schema.

The Results

In June 2002 the committee posted the first version of its OFDAxml Purchase Order schema on the OFDA Web site for review and comment. Incorporating feedback and suggestions, work has continued through version 3.0 of the OFDAxml Order Schema, which was released on November 1, 2005 with support for new features and functions including Proposal, Invoice, Inventory, Credit/Debit Memo, and A/R Statement transactions.

The OFDAxml format is already supported as a standard for communication between office furniture dealers and manufacturers in application packages from DataOne, Team-Design, and other industry software developers.

Deployment is a process, not an event

Since the OFDA has no enforcement authority over its members, adoption of the OFDAxml standard requires voluntary operational changes by many interacting parties. As with most new technologies, there have been early adopters, a cautious majority, and even a few laggards.

Dealers must install new office automation software or upgrade existing versions to gain OFDAxml capabilities. Office Furniture manufacturers must adapt internal systems to receive OFDAxml-based messages as well. For some manufacturers, adoption of OFDAxml will have to wait for life-cycle replacement of current ERP systems that represented major IT investments.

One of the technical committee best practices tenets requires each release of the OFDAxml schema to be backward-compatible with earlier versions. This means industry end-users are not forced to adopt the new schema on a mandated timetable and software providers are free to follow their own development schedules. The high level of compatibility between schema versions also makes it easier for large manufacturers to accept XML-based transactions from multiple customers who use different versions, so long as each transaction declares its version identity.

As the industry moves forward asynchronously during the transition phase, EDI and custom SIF files remain in use for some transactions as implementation of OFDAxml grows. Today, an individual office furniture dealer might communicate with Herman Miller, Inc. via OFDAxml, but use EDI and a proprietary SIF profile to send an order to another manufacturer. Additionally, a manufacturer wishing to implement a phased transition approach could ask dealers to send orders over the internet in the OFDAxml format, thereby avoiding NAM telecom expenses, then convert the data into the proprietary EDI format used by its ERP system using Altova MapForce.

Those who embrace OFDAxml are experiencing cost savings from reduced dependence on EDI networks and greater order integrity as well. Software vendors report OFDAxml eliminates chances for data loss and delivery errors inherent in EDI.

Bruce Allum, Sales Director for Manufacturer Data Solutions at DataOne, is not discouraged by the long adoption cycle for OFDAxml. "When we started this project, we didn't just want to replace EDI. That was part of it, but we also looked at all the problems and issues in the industry today and developed solutions for them," Allum said.

"As a result, we've built something that should work well for the next eight to ten years. And with designed-in extensibility, OFDAxml will adjust to new requirements as well,"Allum added.

Beyond improved efficiency and reduced costs, members of the OFDA technical committee discovered additional opportunities to apply XML to improve industry productivity. XSL transformations now permit automated publication of dealer catalogs by drawing from a repository of manufacturer product descriptions structured according to the OFDAxml catalog schema.

Image of an office system a dealer might propose, created using software from DataOne, Inc.

Image of an office system a dealer might propose, created using software from DataOne, Inc.

But the unanticipated bonuses go even further. Bruce Allum explained, "Representing a software developer, the biggest benefit to me was the opportunity to sit down with all our system users – not just customers – and hear them describe exactly what they were doing and what they needed."

For more information on the OFDA, OFDAxml, and the companies mentioned above, check out these resources:

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