By Steve Zurier. A pilot e-commerce system WCI Communities ran from Sept. 2002, to Feb. 2003, at three communities in southwest Florida slashed three to 27 days off its production cycle, increasing productivity some 15 percent to 18 percent. The savings stem from improved scheduling and freeing up construction superintendents from manually issuing purchase orders and signing invoices.

"Once a week, we used to have four or five guys in a trailer signing invoices until midnight," says Charlie Maffett, vice president of home building systems and operations for the $1.2 billion Bonita Springs, Fla., builder. "I can't say all the paperwork goes away, but it's a lot easier to manage."

The system is based on Hyphen-Solutions BuildPro scheduling software and J.D. Edwards Homebuilder purchasing module. Roughly 20 WCI superintendents and back-office people use the system.

WCI also got 60 of the 100 subcontractors on the project to sign up for Hyphen-Solutions Supply, which lets suppliers and subs check the status of orders and electronically receive and send purchase orders and invoices. The fee for subs to sign on the Hyphen-Solutions Supply is about $70 a month.

Maffett says sending out purchase orders was a paper-intensive process. Now, superintendents send purchase orders electronically via a handheld device. When the work is done, the superintendent signs off on his handheld and that information is posted on the Hyphen-Solutions Web site for suppliers. When the sub checks to see that the work has been approved, he sends a paper invoice and the bill can be paid.

Maffett also points out that storing order information on handheld devices helps superintendents keep jobs on schedule. For example, when a delivery arrives, a super can look at his handheld and point out that he ordered 10 cases instead of the five cases he received. That problem can be fixed before the next sub shows up.

"If you manage the supply chain better you can manage your subs better," says Maffett. "And if our scheduling is more efficient, then our subs' lead times are reduced and dry runs where the sub arrives and the right products are not there or the builder is running behind are reduced."

Maffett says all of WCI will be running the new system by the early part of the second quarter of this year. Roughly 100 WCI superintendents and office people and 400 subs will use the system.