Western States Caterpillar – fusion teams use Microsoft Power Platform to build mobile apps for field staff

Banner image for Western States Caterpillar story. Includes team photo, mobile app screenshot and information - company size: 1000+ employees, Industry: Manufacturing, Country: United States

Western States Caterpillar Equipment Company (‘Western States CAT’ for short) is an authorized Caterpillar dealer for five mountain states in the United States, with seventeen branches located across Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. With over sixty-five years of experience in the heavy equipment industry, Western States CAT has a rich tradition of service, innovation, and leadership. They employ over a thousand employees to provide machine parts, service, rentals, new and used equipment sales and power generation for many industries, including construction, forestry, dairy, railroad, mining, and health care. As the premier heavy equipment dealer for the northwest, they are a go-to resource for technology, machines, and ideas to help customers get more done, more accurately, in less time.

With a thriving rental business across several stores, the company looked at how Microsoft Power Platform can improve several core business processes and accelerate the service provided to their customers. Their journey started in 2018 after coming away inspired from an exclusive Microsoft event for Caterpillar dealers. In this episode we look at how they digitized, modernized, and transformed two business processes fundamental to their growth:

  1. Reducing the turnaround timeframe of rental returns, and
  2. Enabling their sales team out in the field to better understand their prospects and customer spend.

They accomplished this by working as a fusion team using a combination of low-code technologies (Power Apps, Power Automate, Power BI) along with “pro-dev” or code-first technologies (ASP.NET Core, Custom connectors, Azure Blob storage, Azure SQL).

Thumbnail image for video - shows aerial photo of store with equipment

Meet the Strategy & BI Solutions Team

The Western States CAT Strategy & BI Solutions team, led by Justin Bailey, Director of Strategy & BI, is tasked with enabling innovation and insight within the business by providing data and application solutions. The team utilizes an agile approach and a variety of Microsoft applications to deliver products and data solutions in alignment with Western States CAT’s corporate strategy. The past year has been a particularly busy and successful year for the team. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, they collectively delivered 284 products or product feature releases and 884 individual work items for the business.

Photo of the team: From left: Chris Jaques, Shayne Ephraim, Justin Bailey, Michael King, Saif Al Mahmud

From left: Chris Jaques, Shayne Ephraim, Justin Bailey, Michael King, Saif Al Mahmud

The Power Platform journey for Western States CAT started in 2017 when Justin attended a meeting of North American CAT dealerships hosted by Microsoft in Redmond, WA. Here, James Phillips and his team presented their vision and plans for the Power Platform. Justin was hooked. He went back, and as a citizen developer with no formal programming background started to build simple Power Apps solutions. He then shared his excitement with Chris Jaques, a code-first developer on their IT team with over twenty years of experience building software solutions using tools such as Visual Studio and .NET. Chris was hesitant at first, but after seeing firsthand what the platform could do and how “whatever they threw at it, they managed to get it working”, he was sold on the idea of expanding his code-first toolbelt to include low-code technologies offered by the Power Platform.

Photos of the BI Solutions & Strategy team testing their solutions in the field

BI Strategy & Solutions team working hand in hand with business teams in the field to test and improve apps

Justin provided input from a low-code perspective on behalf of the business while Chris elevated the apps using code-first approaches. They worked hand in hand with business teams across the stores to get direct feedback on the Power Apps solutions and ensure what they created would be of value and assist the users in their daily operations. As a result, the Strategy & BI team has developed an underlying architecture that all theirs apps follow for a cohesive ‘low code + code-first’ solution design pattern with Microsoft Power Platform.

As a result, with the combination of a strong agile culture, code-first experience, and a drive to deliver results, the Strategy & BI team members have exceeded expectations and have helped changed the digital culture of the organization. This year, the team delivered several critical Power Apps solutions for the business – Store Observation, Return to Ready, and Client Connect. Utilizing APIs, Power Apps and Power BI, the team is working to scale their app and reporting strategy, utilizing the same data connections, reducing redundancy, and streamlining business processes.

The following sections will deep dive into two solutions and the supporting architecture.

Power Platform Solution – Return to Ready

Business scenario

For customer equipment rentals, it is business critical to ensure rental inventory is safe and ready to rent out as soon as possible. This process was called ‘Return to Ready’. To maximize revenue generation, it is important to minimize this turnaround time and have their fleet rented at maximum capacity. Once a machine is returned it must be inspected and serviced, and the rental contract closed to invoice the customer.

The Strategy & BI team was also tasked with measuring and tracking the time intervals from rental call to contract close, as this information was not captured in their ERP system.

Before Power Platform

For years the business had used a manual ticket workflow to manage the return to ready process.  Each of the seventeen stores had a physical notebook at the front desk that was used to organize and prioritize the day. Drivers, service attendants, coordinators, and yard attendants all had to continuously check the notebook for their next priority. This posed several challenges:

  • No visibility across the business
  • Tracking rental return timeline and accuracy was not possible
  • There were rental contract delays when dealing with damaged rentals
  • No real dispatch solution for drivers
  • No reporting

Solution details

After several weeks of shadowing users in the field and beta testing, their first Power Apps solution was developed using low code and code-first approaches to address the issues previously encountered from their manual ticket workflow. This app became what is known today as the “Return to Ready” app. It allows employees to update the events originally created in their ERP system (Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012) and automatically captures timestamps, which are critical to the business in measuring their turnaround across the stores.

The team applied their code-first knowledge to surface the rental data from their ERP system by creating custom web APIs using ASP.NET Core. Information about the transactions, rental contracts and equipment movement records are all accessible through the custom connector which enables all users across the stores and yards to view their outstanding work items based on their individual role, with Power Apps as the front-end user interface. In larger stores there might be several employees in the same role that share the workflow tasks. They can all easily switch from one role to another within the app itself.

The app provided visibility on the different role-based tasks which improved communication across the team, and reduced redundancy and confusion when returning a rental. Now the rental return team can manage their return tasks with ease thanks to the key features of the app, such as:

  • Role level task assignment across their stores
  • Damage handling procedure and alerts for returned rental equipment
  • Equipment coordinators and drivers have visibility on equipment location status updates
  • Drivers use built-in maps to navigate to rental locations
  • Yard attendants capture photos of rental equipment before and after a contract – pictures as proof of any damages are captured directly within the app and stored in Azure Blob storage
  • Equipment coordinators use an inspection checklist to confirm equipment is compliant before being rented
  • Operators can track equipment stats such as odometer readings, fuel consumption, etc.
  • Equipment coordinators are notified within the same day the rental is returned

Screenshots of the Return to Ready mobile app

Return to Ready mobile app for employees in the field to action the events required for rental equipment and take pictures of any damages

Summary of impact

The Return to Ready solution has resulted in total visibility of the rental return process and allows dealers to optimize rental availability for a $140M fleet of equipment.  Utilizing this app, along with the reporting created in Power BI, the business is better able to ensure each location has the appropriate staff and resources to maximize rental asset availability.  Employees are better enabled to do their daily job and visibly see if they have accomplished their daily, targets, something they were never able to do before.

Western State CAT is about ensuring the equipment is ready and available to rent. The entire process of return to ready was reduced to a single day, which is critical in the peak period of summer where 75% of their fleet can now be rented within a day due to the quick turnaround enabled by the Return to Ready app. Since the app also provided the capability to take photos of damages immediately when a rental is returned, their reimbursement for damages increased by 7%.

Paired with an embedded Power BI report, management now have visibility on the time it takes for a machine to be ready for the next rental. Considering the average daily rental rate of the entire fleet, this change is significant and enables sales teams with more opportunities to win business.

The usage of the app continues to grow with no major changes for almost 9 months, which is a testament to the effectiveness of the Strategy & BI Solutions team’s partnership with the different users to ensure what they’ve developed is fit for purpose across the company.

“It takes less than a minute for them to do a turnaround and the app captures all the timestamps.”

– Chris Jaques, Senior Application Developer, Western States CAT

Power Platform Solution – Client Connect

Business scenario

For sales it is important for the Western States CAT employees out in the field to view their interactions with both existing customers and potential prospects, view opportunities and leads to upsell to, and view customer spend to help better manage their pipeline of equipment rentals across all stores. Following up on the success and learnings from the Return to Ready app, it was the next logical business process to improve since rental sales is a key contributor to their growth in revenue.

Before Power Platform

Western State CAT was using the basic built-in CRM capabilities of Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012. As an on-premise system, it was not mobile friendly and accessing it remotely was a hassle – it required jumping through hoops to connect into the company’s network and access the data. This was inconvenient and time consuming for the sales team. They needed an effective mobile solution that was tailored to their activities and helped them with their management of sales across the yards.

Solution details

The Strategy & BI team applied the same development approach from their Return to Ready app to create their own purpose-built sales app known as Client Connect where again, Power Apps was used as the front-end mobile interface. The app enables their sales teams across stores and yards to view and record information on leads, prospects, opportunities, activities, history of rental equipment by customers and so forth, which is directly updated in their Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012 system. Using the built in AI Builder business card scanner capabilities in Power Apps allowed them to quickly scan in customer contact information from the app. Having the data accessible in the hands of their sales team enabled them to do a pre-call plan and understand the prospect or customer they’re working with, often while out in the field and with the customer standing right next to them.

Key features of the app include:

  • Ability to create prospects and contacts powered by the in-built capability of AI Builder Business Card scanner.
  • Embedded Power BI reporting within the app for visibility on the customer’s total year-to-date spend and breakdown of sales by department
  • Ability to create and update sales pipeline through prospects, leads and opportunities
  • Ability to create and log customer interactions instantly via activities
  • Impersonation for supervisors to view the business through their direct reports’ eyes

“AI Builder and other tools help us create plug-and-play solutions that we can deliver quickly to the field.”

– Justin Bailey, Director of Strategy & BI, Western States CAT

The team has also used custom connectors to directly integrate the app with a third-party auction platform API. This enables them to provide real-time auction valuation of machines to customers. They’re also adding GPS mapping of equipment so staff can easily find machines that are out in the field. These are great examples of capabilities that Justin and Chris simply did not imagine would be possible to build with a low-code platform when they started their Power Platform journey.

Screenshots of the Client Connect mobile app

Client Connect mobile app for sales employees to view opportunities, agreements and historical information of customer spend

Summary of impact

The Client Connect app is Western States CAT’s go to sales system and is used daily throughout all their stores. Since the app went live, there’s been a 135% increase in usage over the previous solution. They are no longer desk bound to capture sales, view the total spend of a customer or manage their pipeline, as they now can do this and much more through the Client Connect app when out and about in the field.

Solution Architecture Pattern

The Strategy & BI Solutions team followed a ‘low-code plus code-first’ development pattern for both their Return to Ready and Client Connect apps. Both apps read equipment and customer spend data from a SQL Server database which is a replication of their Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012 ERP data. The retrieve and write of data and events are performed through a Power Platform custom connector which interacts with custom web APIs developed in ASP. NET Core. The two apps have been developed with Power Apps. All pictures taken from the Return to Ready app is handled by an Azure hosted web API that leverages Azure Blob storage. The AI Builder Business Card scanner is used by the Client Connect app to create prospects and contacts easily across all their stores. All information of their rentals and sales created and updated in the apps are surfaced into Power BI reports.

Screenshot of Swagger definition for custom connector

Screenshot of swagger definition file for the customer connector

The benefits of capitalizing on the same development pattern ensures that the underlying framework will continue to work when Western States CAT eventually upgrades their ERP system to Dynamics 365 Finance and Operations since the custom web APIs will adapt accordingly based on the data source. It also enables other Power Apps to be developed that are dependent on their ERP data thanks to their custom web APIs developed in ASP. NET Core that can be reused for different purposes.

High level solution architecture diagram

High level solution architecture that combines low-code and code-first development patterns

Looking ahead

Western States CAT have seen a 632% total growth in Power BI and 273% growth in Power Apps over the last two years. Almost half the company uses Power Apps each month and 80% have used an app at least once in the past two years. The BI solutions team vision is to further improve and develop their Return to Ready and Client Connect apps as premier mobile applications for Western States CAT. In the next year the Return to Ready app will be converted to a total company equipment inventory management solution that will serve multiple departments and divisions. Planned features include introducing a new sales role to view equipment configuration, marketing photos, and availability status; inventory audit capabilities, expand damage logging for all inventory, heavy haul dispatch integration, checklists for inspections and servicing, and much more. The team will continue to work closely with the business across the different states to ensure what they develop is in tight alignment to their operations and strategy.

With the innovative apps Western States CAT has developed, other CAT dealers are now interested in Microsoft Power Platform. Justin Bailey will be presenting their Power Platform journey and apps in the Annual 2021 North America CAT dealer conference – to inspire other CAT dealers to use low-code and work as fusion teams to digitize their processes.

Infographic with impact stats - 338 Power BI monthly active users, 451 Power Apps monthly active users, 160+ Power BI reports, 632% Power BI growth, 20+ Power Apps, 273% Power Apps growth

Justin Bailey, who leads the Strategy and BI Solutions team, and has seen his own career and the charter of his team continue to grow over the past three years, sums up his enthusiasm for Microsoft Power Platform as follows:

“We love where Microsoft is going with ‘low code meets pro dev’. As we look to the future, we’re excited to see how it will help drive our digital innovation journey at Western States. The imagination and determination of our employees coupled with the power of Dynamics 365, Azure, and Power Platform will challenge us to reach farther and enable us to achieve more.”

– Justin Bailey, Director of Strategy & BI, Western States CAT

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