How to Know What You’re Looking at in Fenestration Configuration Software

Welcome back to my series of articles on what to look for when perusing the market for fenestration software! As we’ve discussed in our last article, it’s vitally important to dive deep and get a clear picture of what your potential relationship with your chosen vendor will be like, from the people you interact with to the range of professional services they can offer. As software does not have the clairvoyance to anticipate and solve your business’s challenges on its own (at least, not until The Singularity), the human factor may be what ultimately makes or breaks your success.

In fact, it is a human factor that can increase the risk of failure the most: The Law of the instrument – commonly known by the pithy saying, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

ERP systems are notorious for this; attempts to implement them have bludgeoned businesses to extinction as swiftly and mercilessly as a hammer to fine porcelain. It may seem that “fenestration software” – or even “fenestration ERP software” – is the solution to this conundrum; surely software written for our industry must be the right tool for the job?

Getting from Point ‘A’ to Point ‘B’

This journey can be more traumatic than you think; getting from Point ‘A’ to Point ‘B’ isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Let me tell you a story. When I was in elementary school, and we started moving from straight arithmetic to those dreaded word problems, I ended up in an argument with my teacher, Mrs. C, on this very subject.

She gave us a quiz with a set of word problems about a family vacationing in their station wagon, and we had to figure out how to calculate the distance, time, and rate based on the numbers given in the problems. But the real problem – for me, the perfectionist student – was that she marked my answer to one of the questions as wrong!

Now mind you, this was in third grade – about 17 years before the turn of the century, so please forgive this old man’s faltering memory. I don’t recall the exact details, but I do remember this: the question I got “wrong”, I got “wrong” because I used the answers from previous questions about the trip to calculate the answer. Apparently, I was supposed to answer the question as if it were totally different trip, because the “right” answer would have been impossible for the A-to-B vacation used in the three previous questions!

I convinced Mrs. C to give me the points. And I’ve had a soft spot for those who suffer from poorly-specified requirements ever since.

Requirements: Needs vs. Wants

Before you get into the driver’s seat, it’s imperative that you have a clear idea of your requirements, and how well your chosen vendor’s product(s) will meet them. You can’t just assume software has what you need, nor whether it can handle A, B, and everything in between. You don’t want a Formula One race car to haul hay bales across Montana any more than you’d want to experience the thrill of the Autobahn driving a triple-trailer tractor. Maybe you just want a hatchback. But do you want a Yugo? A Chevy Volt, or Bolt? How would you decide what’s best for your objectives?

Just as you have a broad range of types and features to choose from when considering a new vehicle, you’ll find a multitude of fenestration software providers vying for your business. Each offers unique products, some suited well for a wide range of functions, and some optimized for specific core needs. Before you go gung-ho over the shiniest hammer in the hardware store, you need to clearly identify the problems you want software to help you solve.

Got all nails? Great! You can use a hammer. But does that mean you need a golden hammer? Or is a hammer even the best tool for the job? Should you go with the classic True Temper® Rocket A-20 framing hammer or a BOSTITCH® N89C1 Air Nailer? Ask a collector or a framing carpenter and you’ll likely get a different answer.

The long-and-short of all these mechanical metaphors is this: never select your tools first. Instead, clearly define what functions of your business you want software to handle, and how fully and/or efficiently you want the software to perform these functions. You may already have a good idea of what kinds of tools are available, so be sure to guard against the temptation to find problems that justify the shiny tool that you really want, instead of the practical tool you really need. Do you really need a Mercedes AMG G 63 to go back-and-forth to the grocery store across the street?

Defining Needs

To make sure you have a clear vision before evaluating the software choices available to you, define your business operations in terms of processes, roles, and interaction points, and then target specific opportunities for improvements.

  • Interaction points: Who are your customers? How do you get bid opportunities from them? What do they buy from you? Who do they interact with? Will replacing human-contact (e.g. a phone call to an account manager) with software-contact (e.g. self-serve quotation on a website) improve your working relationships, or will it act as a barrier?
  • Roles: What are the roles you’re seeking to enhance, and how broadly or narrowly are those roles defined? Does the same employee handle quoting, order entry, engineering and invoicing, or are these roles separate? Could they be separate? Can software help bridge the gaps in communication and information accuracy between estimate and order? Do you understand these roles in enough detail to know what the job fully requires?
  • Processes: Most people in the industry are familiar with the general Quote-Order-Manufacture-Deliver process, but is it really that simple? How does a customer get an estimate? How many steps does it take from customer to estimator to quote proposal? How many times does that cycle repeat before the estimate becomes an order? Do you currently have the capability to assess kill ratios at a detailed level, to understand why sales succeed or fail? Does your current process capture sales data accurately? How do you ensure orders are correct in every detail? How do you handle generating BOMs, purchase orders, shop paperwork, fabrication drawings, bills of lading, etc? How do you manage hardware lead times and production scheduling? Are you losing or making money on shipping? How do you handle backorders?

The mere effort of reading through all the above examples should convince you that you really need to understand your current business, as well as where you want to take it, before you set out to select your software tool set.

Urgency Versus Investment

Finally, now that you’ve assessed your business’ needs, it’s time to “kick the tires” on the software products on the market. Having evaluated potential vendors, as discussed in our previous article, it’s likely that you’ve narrowed down your list of viable software partners at this point. If you’ve done your due diligence in understanding your business and what you truly need, you will have already identified several significant “pain points” in your process, and you want to address those as quickly as possible.

Be cautious – do not let urgency alone set your priorities. Fenestration software, just like a vehicle or a tool, is an investment. Sure, you need to get back on the road from ‘A’ to ‘B’ as soon as possible, but a poor choice based on immediate need can harm you in the long run. You need to be sure you select a product that will enhance your business for many years to come – not one that brings a short-term ROI but can’t increase in value in the long run. Your immediate requirements will likely differ from your requirements in a few years. In these cases, where growth or diversification is on your agenda, investing in more capable software with the intention to unlock that capability as and when required, may well pay off. In these days of ‘digital transformation’, don’t underestimate the ability of software to help steer your business in new directions.

For example, you might find a software package which handles product catalogs and quotations, but little else. Others will be good at handling glass and glazing, optimizing cuts from stoce, specifying edge treatment, coatings, and glass fabrication, racking and routing through tempering ovens, autoclaving laminates, assembling IGUs, and so forth, but on the other hand are weak in diversity of products – able to handle 4-sided windows with limited hardware and color options, but not able to effectively handle specialized architectural demands, or products like storefront, unitized curtainwall, installation accessories, and true-divided lights. Or perhaps the software can handle all of that, but your business always buys glass from other suppliers, and has no intention to vertically integrate glass manufacturing, so you’d be paying for something you don’t need. You may not be able to find a software product that gives you only what you need, but knowing what you don’t need may help you narrow down your choice between otherwise identical offerings.

Feature-specific vs. Feature-rich: Capabilities to Consider

Here are just a few of the features commonly offered in part or in full by various fenestration software providers. In your evaluation, assess which are important to you in fulfilling both immediate and future needs – and then gauge how well each of the products from your shortlist of vendors can meet them:

  • Configure, Price, Quote (CPQ):
    • This is a core function for most fenestration software packages. Look for Rules-based CPQ, CAD-Design based CPQ, and the ability to handle hybrid requirements.
      • For example, if your business supplies to both retail and architectural markets, can the software provide both a stripped-down, quick entry, price book approach to quoting for the retail markets, but also the complexity and detail necessary for the broad range of hardware, finish, and customization that is common to large architectural window or historic replication projects?
    • Does the software give you the ability to maintain the products, rules, costs and prices on your own, or do some or all of these require support from the vendor to implement them? Does the software’s design require you to pay the vendor for every change you need to make, or can you maintain products and pricing on your own, given experience and training?
  • Manufacturing:
    • Once the CPQ is done, does the software feed through to and control manufacturing?
    • Does it generate a Bill of Materials, Reports/Work Orders, and integrate with factory tooling including CNC?
    • Advanced systems provide Shop Drawings, Thermal Analysis, Structural Analysis, Bar and Glass Optimization, and Extrusion and Glass Fabrication Setup. Are these features you need, or will need? Or is your goal to stay the course with your core business, and not branch out into a market or scale up to an operation which demands these features?
  • Supply Chain, Inventory and Scheduling:
    • To what extent does your business demand the ability to project inventory needs, and coordinate the arrival of third-party materials with in-house production?
    • Is the bulk of your business standard products and small orders, such that maintaining inventory via Min-Max/Kanban effectively meets your demand? Will that approach scale up if you want to grow your business, or do you need to invest in tools that can take you where you want to go, rather than just meet your current needs?
    • Does the software offer any of these features as additional modules that you can purchase at a later time, when your business is ready for it, rather than requiring you to pay for functionality you can’t use yet?
    • Can the software integrate into a third-party ERP system that you currently use or plan to implement in the future? Is there a separate ERP system capable of effectively handling custom manufacturing and non-discrete Bills of Material, or will you benefit more from a turnkey, fenestration-specific solution?
  • Financials:
    • Some systems might provide General Ledger, Accounts Receivable and Payable, and so on. Is the software compliant with accounting standards and relevant laws and regulations?
    • Other systems might retain their focus on fenestration, but have the ability to integrate with more capable financial packages. Some may not be easily integrated. Make sure you know exactly what you’re getting when it comes to financials, as this can make or break your business.
  • Self-Serve/Dealer Capabilities:
    • Does the software you’re considering provide a baked-in or add-on capability for your customers to “self-serve” – i.e., enter their own quotes and/or orders?
    • Is your core business as a “System House” that provides material and engineered designs that a network of your dealer-customers purchases from you, and then handle their own estimating, ordering, assembly and installation for their customers? Would providing your dealers a web- or app- front-end that enables them to work more efficiently, and more likely to continue buying from you? Or is your core business custom engineered orders, making self-serve too complex, irrelevant or unnecessary?

One essential thing to keep in mind is that a software product which is limited in its functionality, and doesn’t deliver everything on the list above, is not the same thing as “bad” software. The question is whether the vendor and its product offerings best fit your current purpose and future needs. If all you need is cataloguing and quoting, and a package meets that requirement, go for it. It’s no use paying for a highly advanced, flexible and capable solution if 90% of that functionality sits on the shelf, and will never be utilized.

Planning Your Journey

As we’ve discussed throughout this article, the single most important task that you must do before selecting the right software toolset is to clearly define your requirements. Your journey to get from A to B needs to be thoroughly understood and planned accordingly. Specify your requirements now, and your requirements for the future of your business, and then begin evaluating software packages to make that journey happen. This is non-negotiable. Assumptions can do more damage than just making a you-know-what out of you and me; worry less about losing face and more about losing your business, and you’ll give requirements specification the primary pedestal it deserves.

While we can’t get into the details of how exactly to write a good requirements specification in this series, the internet fortunately provides many avenues that can get you moving in the right direction. Here are just a few articles to get you started:

Requirements Management Made Easy

Nailing Your Software Requirements Documentation

Writing a Winning Six Sigma Project Business Requirements Document

You might also consider some online training, relatively inexpensive and widely available at sites like and LinkedIn Learning.

That’s plenty for you to occupy your time until our next article, where we will get into the nitty-gritty of evaluating software design. Once you’ve sorted through and ranked potential software candidates based on product and feature offerings, you’ll need to evaluate how well the software is built, from both a technical- and fenestration-specific perspective. Can it handle the long haul on the highway, or will it leave you limping along the shoulder? Don’t unbuckle your seatbelt just yet!

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