How Knack brought much-needed traceability
to a complex manufacturing process.
The team at Blueshift Materials has come to rely on Knack throughout their company — everywhere except the explosion-proof rooms.
As a pioneer in the advanced materials industry they work with a lot of solvents, so electronics are prohibited in certain areas. Outside of those rooms, Knack is on hand for just about everything else.
Prior to finding Knack, it was getting increasingly difficult for the team to follow an asset from its resourcing to creation to testing to shipment. With an operations process as complex as the product itself, that sort of workflow and accountability is essential.
Now Blueshift Materials is covered with a robust and flexible system that touches almost every area of the manufacturing process — every one that isn’t prone to explosions, that is.
Enterprise Resource Planning
Centralized data tracking
Accountability throughout production process
“I wanted to make something complex, but I didn’t want to spend a year doing it. When I saw what Knack could do, it was a huge deal.”
Blueshift Materials makes a highly specialized product made of polymer aerogels. Despite the name, aerogels are strong, dry materials that excel at thermal insulation. Since aerogels are so lightweight, they’re especially useful for insulating aeronautics, oil and gas pipelines, and radars.
As a Supply Chain Engineer, Bobby Pescatore handles the product from birth to shipment. That includes sourcing all raw materials and making sure they get into the plant on time, scheduling the production of aerogels, and finally finishing and shipping to customers.
When Bobby joined Blueshift Materials three years ago, there was very little traceability in place. In the resource planning world, traceability is crucial — it’s the ability your documentation gives you to verify the history, location, or application of your critical resources.
“It was all laboratory notebooks and experiments being run,” he explained. “Everything was semi-traceable, but it would take a while.” One of his first tasks was to help usher in more standardization.
Bobby’s first step in the journey to better data management was a familiar one: spreadsheets. He put some together and came up with naming conventions for the various lots. When he began to stretch the limits of what those spreadsheets could handle, he moved on to interconnected Google Sheets and Forms.
Before long, those too proved insufficient. His team had gotten to the point where they were using the system heavily and starting to put queries together. “People were starting to say, ‘I want to look this up and then also see all of this related information.’ We were starting to move far beyond what a spreadsheet could do.”
While it wasn’t immediately clear what their next step would be, Bobby knew he would need something much more robust than a spreadsheet.
Blueshift Materials's app has grown to incorporate new functionality, such as barcode scanning.
Bobby was certain that he didn’t want to code his own solution, but had no clear idea on where he should turn.“I didn’t even know what I was looking for,” Bobby admitted. Fortunately, a Google search for SQL alternatives led him to Knack.
What stuck out to him most was how easy it was to start inputting data to get the system up and running. “I wanted to make something complex, but I didn’t want to spend a year doing it. When I saw what it could do, it was a huge deal.”
Thanks to text formulas and equations, he didn’t have to manipulate his data much for it to fit into the system he was creating. “Knack was flexible enough to take our data and output it the same way we were storing it on paper,” he explained.
Zapier integrations and workflow features also stood out as especially valuable. “Being able to press one button and have many things happen” made streamlining a complex process far more achievable. “It was super helpful right off the bat.”
Bobby describes Blueshift Materials’ Knack app as a “lightweight ERP system,” handling inventory, production, sales, and shipping. “It’s all in there,” he said simply.
Since Knack tracks the company’s inventory levels, he knows when he need to order more materials. As products are followed throughout the production pipeline, he can keep track of each step and schedule accordingly.
When Bobby schedules a task in Knack, his Operators receive it, complete production and input all relevant data into Knack. That then feeds the finished goods inventory, making clear what materials are on hand and what’s available for shipment to clients.
The salespeople also use Knack to input and track demand, so the entire team can know what the clients are requesting. They’ve also been able to accomplish sales analyses on some of that data, giving them a higher level view of who they’re shipping to, what they’re shipping, and how often.
“Knack helped us transition from spreadsheets to a robust, company-wide system. We were able to set up and maintain a lean system with minimal prior knowledge of enterprise resource planning.”
The traceability and accountability that Knack provides has brought benefits the team never anticipated.
Blueshift Materials’ cycle time for products is a long one, meaning that after they decide to make something, a good deal of time can pass before they can fully test it. Sometimes these are newer iterations that deviate quite a bit from the usual ones.
One experimental shape they tried turned out to behave much differently than expected. Knack enabled them to gather the raw materials that were used and track down the exact processes that they underwent. They then used that data to come up with several theories and experiments to diagnose the problem, and eventually succeeded in figuring out what the issue was.
The team at Blueshift Materials can now trace each step of their production process, as changes are made and tasks are completed.
Thanks to that organized and accessible data, they were able to improve their yields moving forward and prevent that problem from happening again.
During product development, not every iteration comes out well. But being able to look back at the history of a single part and bring that data to a meeting with the R&D team means they can rely on the history of each part, trace each step of the process, find out what went wrong, and correct it. “The accountability Knack allows for is what makes it so valuable,” Bobby said.
“Can't we just Knack that?”
Thanks to Knack, Bobby said, “Traceability has been taken off the table as an issue.” Knack helped them “transition from spreadsheets to a robust, company-wide system. We were able to successfully set up and maintain a lean system with minimal prior knowledge of enterprise resource planning."
Yet having found a solution to their initial problem doesn’t mean their journey with Knack is over.
After attending a Knack Meetup in Austin, Bobby was inspired to begin incorporating barcode scanning into his app. And there are many other areas in which he plans to expand his use. Customer communication, for example, will eventually be incorporated into the app, allowing the team to streamline client emails and order updates.
Bobby Pescatore chats with Nic at a Knack Meetup in Austin.
Knack has assisted in Blueshift Materials’ growth process as well. “It’s allowed us to implement a structure where if we grew, it wasn’t going to be so uncomfortable,” Bobby explained.
Now the team turns to Knack for any sort of data collection. “Whenever we decide a new parameter needs to be tracked, Knack lets us set up a system to collect that data and store it. We don’t have to make a sweeping change across our entire software suite just to add another datapoint.”
Bobby also hopes to one day use Knack to plan production based on demand. “The sort of decision-making I’m doing in my head is what I want Knack to do for me.”
Letting Knack take over decision-making thought processes may sound ambitious, but for Blueshift Materials, it’s more of the usual. After all, whenever a new issue arises, a common suggestion tends to pop up immediately: “Can't we just Knack that?"