Visio Case Study

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Key features in Visio


Any sales proposal takes time and thought but when an engineering bid takes a full week to develop, automating the process holds great appeal. Creating a tool that can incorporate all of the steps and absorb all of the knowledge down the line — from a customer's rough sketch to a detailed bill of materials — is a daunting challenge. Apprentice Systems, a Microsoft Visio® solution provider, meets that challenge with tools built on the Visio 2002 platform. Visio 2002 offers a rich object and event model and its SmartShape® technology is the perfect vehicle for building knowledge into Apprentice's sales automation tools.

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Apprentice Systems co-founder Steve Strong has worked for years in the knowledge-based engineering arena, solving complex design and engineering problems with object-oriented tools. A Visio enthusiast, he has been creating tools and solutions in Visio since the release of Visio 4.0. These tools make it possible to rapidly construct customized sales proposal systems and automated engineering and quotation solutions for manufacturers and resellers of complex products or systems.

For example, Apprentice Systems collaborated with a team of sales engineers and system designers at Motorola to develop a Visio-based solution to design the complex radio communication systems used by police and other public safety officials. The system uses "smart" Visio shapes to represent system components such as two-way radio sites, cabling, and dispatch center communication equipment. These smart shapes contain the information needed to size and price an entire system, reducing a complex proposal process into a simple Visio diagram.

With a new version of Visio on the horizon, Strong was eager to have his company participate in the Visio 2002 Rapid Deployment Program. He was underway with a project that would benefit from a migration to the new version of Visio.

Cumbersome proposal process

In 1999, Strong met Ron Wall on the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Wall, CEO of Rosewood Equipment, had just seen an impressive smart wiring solution for home stereo systems that Apprentice Systems had built and integrated with Visio. Could a similar solution be developed for the bidding process at Flowtronex, one of Rosewood's holdings?

Flowtronex PSI makes pre-fabricated modular pumping systems for a variety of industries; applications range from pumps that boost service water in manufacturing plants to systems that circulate hot oil in food processing plants. Although pre-fabricated, every pumping system is tailored to the customer's environment, and each sales proposal requires a custom bid.

When a quote is requested, Flowtronex must respond with a detailed drawing and a comprehensive bill of materials. The quote may well originate from a sales rep's "sketch on a cocktail napkin." Back in the office, an expert using a computer-aided-design program, AutoCAD®, must re-create the sketch as a detailed drawing.

The process continues with a requisitions engineer validating the drawing, sizing the components, and reviewing the selected parts in detail. For example, the engineer needs to determine if operating conditions require valve connections to be welded or threaded. Design validation may take several passes and is subject to human error at every pass. When the drawing is finally accurate, the engineer creates a bill of materials by looking up part numbers and pasting them and associated costs into a spreadsheet which then calculates the cost of the system. Finally, a proposal package is delivered to the customer. The process can take days, and there is no guarantee that the customer will buy.

Unfortunately, every time a new bid is requested, the process must be repeated from scratch. There is no provision for re-bidding an assemblage; this means that the accumulated costs, part numbers, and other intelligence about the components in an assemblage must be entered anew.


Flowtronex wanted a sales automation solution that would be easy enough for field salespeople to use but robust enough to include all of the steps and information required for an accurate—and automatic — bid on its complex pumping systems. Apprentice Systems had just the expertise Flowtronex needed. Its smart, visual sales automation tools, the Apprentice Mentor and the Design Apprentice, are deeply integrated with Visio. These tools would prove effective in enabling Flowtronex to replace a cumbersome manual bidding process with an automatic bidding solution.

Apprentice Mentor

The first of the sales automation tools, the Apprentice Mentor, uses custom Visio 2002 shapes to capture the bidding process visually and document rules bidders should use to size and select engineering components. It associates the captured knowledge with master shapes used during the construction of a proposal. The Mentor then automatically generates a custom Visio application and stores the design and product modeling rules in a database. It works like the other software and database design solutions that are a part of Visio 2002 Professional, and simplifies designing configuration systems to diagramming business rules.

Figure 1 This Apprentice Mentor diagram describes the association between the rules for component selection and Visio master shapes.

The Visio 2002 rich automation model, wide selection of shapes, and smart behaviors make it an ideal environment in which to build a knowledge-capturing tool. "I could not imagine building a forms-based interface to collect information that is so visual," Strong says.

Design Apprentice

The second sales automation tool, the Design Apprentice, is used to deploy the collected knowledge while a quote is constructed. It scans the Visio drawing for Apprentice-enabled shapes, pulls the associated rules from the database, and acts on these rules. Design Apprentice assures that illegal connections are prevented; it applies rules to size components and generates a bill of materials. The Design Apprentice is a C++ program that integrates with the Visio 2002 automation model using COM. The COM layer allows the Design Apprentice to plug into any version of Visio, and read the knowledge generated by Apprentice Mentor.

Creating the Configurator

At about the time that Flowtronex asked Apprentice Systems to streamline its bidding process, the company also hired engineer and designer Lewis Solomon as Business Systems Coordinator. Solomon and Strong became fast partners in adapting the Apprentice Mentor and Design Apprentice into a custom sales automation solution that Flowtronex calls the Configurator.

Strong explains, "Apprentice Systems philosophy is, 'If you can draw it, you can solve it.' At Flowtronex, we started with a Knowledge Capture Seminar for the applications engineers where we spent three days using the Mentor to create a Visio document that mapped out the steps required in a bid." Strong collected design knowledge by drawing diagrams instead of writing code. As engineers described design scenarios and the benefits of using relief valves, socket welds, and inline strainers, their rules were recorded using the custom knowledge-capturing shapes provided by Apprentice Mentor. The seminar produced pages of design rules all documented as Visio drawings.

After the seminar, development continued apace. Working through Microsoft® NetMeeting® from offices in Ohio and Texas, Strong and Solomon continued to revise Visio documents and shapes that represented pumping systems components. Over 100 shapes placed on about 10 stencils (most of them taken from the Visio Professional 2002 Piping and Instrumentation Diagramming solution or generated automatically), were associated with the knowledge that had been stored in the database.

Using the Configurator

As the knowledge base grew the Flowtronex Configurator became smarter and smarter. Solomon built test cases to teach it to become expert. When a food processing company requested a bid from Flowtronex for a Clean-in-Place (CIP) system to wash its potato processing plant, Solomon used the Configurator for the quote. He had collected enough rules to compress hundreds of design steps into a single drag and drop operation; steps that previously took hours now only took seconds. Rules linked the shapes in the Visio 2002 drawing to data in an Access database. The output was automatically sent to an Excel spreadsheet. The entire bid was completed in less than a day, one-tenth the time it had taken previously.

In 2000, Solomon launched the Configurator in the requisitions area at Flowtronex. The next step is use the Configurator in the field. "Sales people do not have time learn to use AutoCAD, it is too complex, but they already have multiple Microsoft products on their laptops, so it will be easy for them to use Visio 2002."

Figure 2 The Design Apprentice checks the drawing and manages the engineering details; it works somewhat like a spell checker for designs and quotations.

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Key features in Visio

  • Rich object and event model: Visio 2002 offers a rich automation model so developers are better equipped to build solutions that reflect the real world of their clients. The automation (or object) model represents the objects, properties, methods, and events that the Visio engine exposes to other applications; more important, it describes how the objects are related to each other. In the Apprentice solution, a C++ engine "grabs" a shape through the object model and causes an event to be triggered. For example, when a user drops a particular shape on the page the Apprentice solution "knows" what was dropped and can "ask" Visio what other shapes is glued to in the drawing.

  • SmartShape technology: SmartShape symbols behave intelligently—they resize without distortion and automatically recalculate orientation and length each time they are repositioned or resized. The Flowtronex Configurator uses smart shapes extensively, and even has some custom shapes in its stencil libraries. When needed, Strong would modify the formula in the shape ShapeSheet. Each shape was linked to the company's knowledgebase. This kept the information associated with the shapes, like part numbers, prices, or dimensions accurate.

  • Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams: Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams (P & ID) are an important capability of Visio Professional 2002. Engineering equipment, smart pipelines, components such as valves and instruments are available in existing stencils. Intelligent tags can be added to a P & ID to identify components. Strong appreciates the improved P & ID feature in Visio 2002, saying, "I take advantage of all the work Visio did, and it saved us a lot of time." He starts with many of the P & ID shapes and customizes them as needed. The P&ID stencils have many of the components that Flowtronex's pumping systems require.

  • Save as Web: Strong finds the Web publishing feature in Visio 2002 to be a great boon to his applications. "It lets us turn the quote around," he says. "A user can mouse over a component published as a Web page and get its part number. This will enable sales people to discuss jobs with applications engineers or customers with a live product model in front of them both."

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  • Bids in a tenth of the time: The old bidding process consisted of four steps that required much human interaction and reiteration: concept sketch, AutoCAD drawing, engineering validation, and bill of materials. Now, says Solomon, "The Configurator does it all in a matter of hours not weeks, and so much human error is eliminated. My engineers can focus on engineering instead of remembering esoteric specifications like, 'use a unflanged manual ball valve if the connecting pipe is less than two inches, but use flanged motor driven valve if the pipe is larger.' Now, all this knowledge is built into the Configurator."

  • Ease of use: As a developer, Steve Strong appreciates the fact that there's no programming required to create a custom configuration solution on the part of his users; Lewis Solomon uses the application right out of the box. Solomon knows that company-wide, the Visio 2002 interface in the Configurator will be a boon; users appreciate the integration with other Microsoft tools as well as the ease of use and consistency.

  • Agility: Flowtronex likes the flexibility that Apprentice Systems' Visio 2002 solutions give them. After adapting the Apprentice Mentor and Design Apprentice to create the Flowtronex Configurator, Apprentice Systems is now only consulting to the company when needed. "Lewis is in charge of the whole process. When new rules are needed, he can add them. The basic product model is there; he can change the intelligence as needed. This gives the company incredible agility. If Visio 2002 were not so open and easy to use, this wouldn't be the case."

  • Maximum use of proposals: Solomon sees advantages even beyond the automation of sales proposals. He states, "We get not only a complete and accurate bill of materials but also output that provides full routing for our accounting system and gives us direction for a production plan. For example, the painting department can look at the Visio 2002 drawing in a bid and begin to plan the resources needed when the job is given the go-ahead. The routing tells us the departments that need to be involved, and gives us an estimate of labor as well as a description of the sequence of steps needed. Visio 2002 not only gives us a bid but a comprehensive work flow document."

  • Knowledge capture: Apprentice Systems looks forward to continuing as a provider of more custom solutions with Visio 2002. Strong is convinced that no matter how complex the engineering product, with Visio 2002 in his pocket he can develop a sales automation tool to meet the client's need. Visio 2002 offers him a rich object model from which to work and the SmartShapes to reflect whatever real world scenario is needed.

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Hospital & Healthcare|25000+ Employees|Non Profit


“I find Gliffy to be a worthwhile and feature-packed alternative to Visio, especially for those on the go. The price point is stepped appropriately for different needs and results are impressive.”

— Dana Mikkelsen, Lead IT Analyst

About the company

Sanford Health is a not-for-profit health care company committed to improving the human condition through exceptional care, innovation and discovery. With an active IT team that supports over 360 applications, Sanford Health found that their original diagramming software was no longer working for them. This meant finding a diagram platform that was easy-to-use and more accessible on the go.


Find an easy-to-use diagram platform that helped streamline internal communication from the IT team to leadership.

For years Sanford Health used Visio to illustrate their network connections. While this platform helped in some ways, it fell flat when it came to usability. As a result, leadership was less aware of high-level system connections. After trying Visio and finding it to be overly complicated they found the answer to their problems: Gliffy.


Today, Sanford Health’s IT team consistently uses Gliffy to map out and communicate all networking activities in the form of network diagrams, data structure diagrams and system maps.

With professional templates specific to their team’s needs, and convenient access to all their diagrams, Sanford Health has set a standard that makes it both easy and effective to get everyone on the same page.


Gliffy helps Sanford Health’s IT team communicate high-level information quickly and effectively. With Gliffy, Sanford Health was able to improve support and easily share potential points of failure with leadership.

“I do not believe there was a standard process [before Gliffy]”, says team lead, Dana Mikkelsen. “Because we now have standardization on our team, support has improved.”


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