JORI Looks to the Future by Investing in Data Analysis
The Belgian design house conquers today's business challenges with IBM i.
Image by JORI
By Adam Oxford11/30/2020
AI and data-driven decision making used to be a luxury reserved for the likes of the Fortune 500. And with the perceived barrier to entry of infrastructure and experts, few people would put forward luxury furniture manufacturing as the place to look to for pioneering examples of digital transformation.
And yet by blending traditional craftsmanship with an appetite for data and analytics, Belgian design house JORI is exactly that. Its digital toolkit is as innovative and sophisticated as its ever growing range of handmade armchairs and sofas. That arsenal has helped JORI stand apart from its competitors in a year that brought unprecedented business challenges.
A Deep History With IBM i
Few manufacturers can genuinely boast that their output is timeless, but JORI’s emphasis on comfort, practicality and the very best materials means that much of its classic collection is instantly recognizable. Its reclining chair has been in production for more than 50 years, and its Shiva sofa just celebrated three decades in production.
From the outside, then, JORI’s business may appear simple. But its team of world-class designers are constantly creating new styles for every room in the home, and the company prides itself on being able to customize an order to meet a customer’s exact preferences. The result is a range of more than 100 base designs, with 151 different types and colors of leather finish and a further 160 fabrics options.
Many of the models are configurable to taste, whether it’s seating height, the type of armrest or position of the back and headrest. That means that thousands of combinations are available to choose from, and JORI produces enough furniture to seat 20,000 people a year. Throw in a dealer network of 230 stores across Europe to service and, JORI has a complex supply chain and stock levels to stay on top of.
Helping Dealers Succeed
JORI has relied on IBM for managing its resources for nearly four decades and works closely with IBM Business Partner CD Invest to get the most out of its IBM i environment. Four years ago, it introduced a 3-D configurator tool designed to simplify the ordering process and provide dealers with a visual tool for managing the many potential product combinations.
“A configurator has always existed,” says Koen Decorte, CEO of CD Invest and an IBM Champion for Power Systems™, “but at any given moment it was still very complex.”
Previously, dealers would need to complete a form with the specific requirements for each piece of furniture sold. But lots of options can lead to human error, either in terms of products that are incorrect or impossible to manufacturer. Because the new configurator uses simplified versions of the same 3-D models the firm’s design team uses, the ordering process is now largely automated. “The main goal was to help dealers,” Decorte says, “but the tool has also proved popular with customers. Often they will come into a store with a printout they have created online.”
“We started a journey of better informing and involving all of the employees with more openness and access to the data and we see very positive results from these actions.”
Responding to customer demand, the configurator is constantly being improved and simplified. It’s now available in a native app for mobile devices and features an optional virtual reality interface so that customers can “try before they buy” and place furniture in virtual versions of their homes. It also draws on IBM Watson® to help users navigate choices such as color suggestions for a particular room.
While the backend and data are pure IBM, the visual component itself is built in Unity, a tool developed for creating videogames which is capable of creating photo-realistic virtual environments.
“Unity allows us to run the same code on any platform and ensure consistency in the rendering,” Decorte says. The tool is also embedded on the websites of more than 230 JORI dealers.
“The configurator also makes it easy for in-store sales advisors to create the perfect item for a customer,” says Wim Vantomme, executive commercial manager at JORI, “without needing to have weeks of training in all of our options. And because the solution uses the business rules from our design and manufacturing systems, it will not permit incorrect combinations of options.”
“We went to market with the configurator much faster than we expected and ahead of the competition,” says Michael Follens, marketing director at JORI. “It also allows us to be unambiguously transparent about what the customer can expect in terms of product and pricing.”
As the tool has matured, however, it has opened up new opportunities for JORI to deliver value to customers and streamline its business. “It gives us great insight into what customers are really interested in,” Decorte says. “Sometimes we see a lot of attention on a particular model online, but not many sales. We can also track the designs to see which ones trigger purchases.”
As a result, Decorte says, JORI has been able to improve its stock level management, based on expected demand for certain items and materials. It can predict demand from different regions and outlets, and ensure that it has supplies on hand to meet it. JORI also uses the data to guide its research and development efforts, reducing the need for traditional customer panels and user group research.
Dealing With Unexpected Challenges
Follens describes how the configurator tool has helped drive digital transformation throughout the company.
“Employees are more engaged with data and also more involved in the whole process,” Follens says. “They realize more the importance of certain tasks. We started a journey of better informing and involving all of the employees with more openness and access to the data and we see very positive results from these actions.”
By embarking on its modernization journey early, JORI was also well-placed to deal with new health and safety regulations. Even though the company had to almost entirely close for a month, its year-on-year results are already improved over 2019.
Partly, Follens explains, that’s a result of customers investing money that they would have spent on holidays and travel on home improvements, and the configurator tool has proved its worth in helping clients reach a buying decision. But it’s also because the company was able to adapt quickly.
JORI faces similar challenges to many businesses in the current crisis. It has had to implement strict rules around hygiene and social distancing on the factory floor, for example. But it also has very specific problems to overcome. For example, says Decorte, leather can’t be treated with disinfectant. When a new supply arrives, it has to be kept in specific conditions for 48 hours before it can be handled safely. Similar precautions have to be taken as items are moved around inside the factory.
Prior to 2020, JORI and CD Invest had already been working on a new production system to streamline operations, incorporating data from the configurator and other sources into its traditional ERP. It was able to bring forward development and tailor the new tools for new rules, using data insights to position workers at optimal distances, for example.
Not only did this mean the factory could get up and running quickly and safely, it has also reduced the time it takes to deliver an order by over half, says Decorte. Typically, the lead time on a piece of furniture last year would have been around 10-12 weeks. Now it’s four to five weeks, and in some cases as little as two.
It’s a remarkable achievement, and an object lesson in how putting the groundwork in early around data and digital transformation can help overcome unprecedented challenges.
Adam Oxford is a freelance writer based in South Africa. He’s covered technology-related issues for more than 20 years.