PUBLIX LEARNING TO TIE OBJECT-ORIENTED ROPES

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Early testing of object-oriented programming, an applications design approach that allows for reuse of computer code, has yielded some important lessons for Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla.The 496-store retailer began testing a new application using object-oriented technology as part of a comprehensive client-server project under way at two dairy production facilities. A third

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Early testing of object-oriented programming, an applications design approach that allows for reuse of computer code, has yielded some important lessons for Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla.

The 496-store retailer began testing a new application using object-oriented technology as part of a comprehensive client-server project under way at two dairy production facilities. A third facility will go on-line with the system later this year.

In discussing the chain's experiences with object-oriented programming, Marc Solnet, Publix' information systems business system analyst, urged retailers to prepare well and be advised the payoff won't necessarily come the first time "at bat."

"You won't get reuse [of computer code] in the first project because you're building everything from scratch. You might not get reuse in your second project. With a third project, you start reusing stuff you developed with the first and second projects," he said. "I think that's very realistic."

Solnet discussed client-server and object-oriented technology during the Food Marketing Institute's Information Systems Conference here Sept. 10 to 13.

He cautioned retailers against tackling too large a project the first time out. "Pick a small, nonmission-critical project. A small project helps keep the complexity down. You shouldn't try to do too many things at once."

Publix started out with a well-defined goal of developing a client-server application for managing raw materials inventory, purchase orders, production scheduling and recipe management at its Lakeland and Atlanta dairy facilities.

"The system is used by all levels of employees at the dairy plant

-- production supervisors, warehouse personnel, inventory specialists, buyers and plant managers," Solnet said.

Later this year, the program will be expanded to the company's bakery facility, a key move that will shed light on the viability of object-oriented programming and opportunities for reusing pieces of code.

Reuse of code, and the system design flexibility and speed that can be attained, are among the benefits frequently attributed to object-oriented technology. The programming approach has been used rarely in the supermarket industry, experts told SN.

Prior to introducing the application, Publix dairy plant employees used manual tracking of inventory levels and production activity.

"It was totally manual. At no point did they feel like they knew precisely what was in their warehouse," Solnet told SN after the seminar, noting that the company's previous purchase order system was not designed for a manufacturing environment.

Among the features of the new inventory management system is a spreadsheet application that tracks the status of raw materials needed for making dairy products. Using a color-coded graphical user interface, supervisors can determine if ingredients are on hand or scheduled to arrive in time for the next production cycle or if needed materials will not be available in time, a scenario flagged by red-colored boxes.

"Our users wanted graphical PC applications," Solnet said. "Many people had home computers with Windows on them and they'd come to work and still be working on character-based screens that aren't as easy to use."

Publix' next move into client-server computing with object-oriented technology will come later this year, when a similar system will be introduced to the company's bakery plant.

"The bakery plant requirements are different. They have different raw materials needs, but we're going to really try to reuse what we have," Solnet said.

Drawing on development experience from the dairy plant program and reusing code written for it at the bakery facility will be key to reaping the benefits of object-oriented technology, Solnet said.

"In order to do that you have to have a consistent programming interface that other components can understand," he said.

The application developed for the dairy plants should be adaptable to the bakery plant, he said. "We should be able to snap it in there, make a few changes and be off and running."

Solnet pointed out that the learning curve for client-server and object-oriented technology is a steep one, and stressed the importance of training and mentoring programs at all levels.

He also noted that the concept of "downsizing to client-server technology" via personal computers is often misunderstood.

"It is not cheap," he said, noting the company purchased 40 or 50 personal computers equipped with Pentium microprocessor chips running at 66 megahertz or 90 megahertz and at least 16 megabytes of random access memory.

"Don't skimp on your PCs," he added. "Buy something that is powerful now and will last you a number of years. The initial purchase price [of PCs] only makes up about 15% to 25% of the overall project cost."