With over thirty years experience in monomer casting and extrusion, Global EPP, previously named Nylacast Materials is synonymous with innovation, quality and technical excellence in relation to cast nylon and extruded semi-finished engineering plastics stock shapes. With three UK sites employing approximately 70 people, Global EPP has a worldwide presence with more than 70% of the product manufactured destined for export. When the company needed to improve its planning accuracy, it found the perfect blend of flexibility and visibility in Preactor.
Global EPP’s three sites comprise casting, extrusion and semi-finishing, each with very different types of machinery and processes and thus their own planning and scheduling challenges. In terms of variety of products and production processes as well as a high share of Make To Order (MTO) business, the casting facility is the most complex. Raw materials are melted down and combined with appropriate colours and additives to give the characteristics required by the customer. This ‘melt’ is then poured via Melt Processing Units (MPUs) into the correct mould and then spun in the case of producing tubes. The material is then left to cool, de-moulded and then annealed where required before moving onto finishing and despatch. The process is highly sequence dependent with considerable set-up, changeover and cleaning times, all of which necessitate meticulous and thorough planning in order to optimise use of the physical resources such as the MPUs, tools, moulds and ovens.
The extrusion plant has a much higher share of Make to Stock (MTS) production. The key requirements for planning here lie in optimizing a highly automated and capital intensive production capacity which processes a large range of polymer resins and different product sizes. One of the challenges here is to be found at the outset of the process with the drying of the raw material. Depending on the grade of material amongst other things, this is highly variable and can take anywhere between four and eight hours. Once dried, this material is then fed to an extruder where it is heated before being released into the appropriate die and extruded at the correct thickness. As with the casting process, setup and adjustment times which can take up to eight hours are critical, as is sequence dependency concerning colour and size.
After being cut to size, the extruded products are taken to the annealing ovens, which are partly shared with the casting site. Production Planner Richard Lyon explains why batch optimisation is once again a key priority. “Different materials of different sizes need different lengths of time in the oven. We may have a batch of 100 rods of a certain material type and size but to get the most efficient use of an oven, we may need 1500 rods.” He continues, “We also have to stagger the loading and unloading times of the ovens as having them all complete at the same time would be unmanageable. This requires a degree of versatility as each identical batch may have slightly different characteristics depending on a range of factors which may be out of our control.”
The semi-finishing site is theoretically the least complicated area but some products can require multiple operations in the finishing area and this necessitates planning the flow of product through each resource in the right order. Depending on the destination market, different levels of tolerances may be required, all of which can impact the actual time physically spent on any particular order. This in turn can have a knock on effect on any subsequent orders.
Due to the number of process steps involved and the long throughput times in production, Global EPP has to be able to maintain visibility and control of vast amounts of Work in Progress that can move between its three sites. It also needs to maintain an optimum stock holding in order to meet increasing customer demands for product ex-stock. Lyon states that availability and timeliness of product is the customer’s key consideration in addition to quality of product. Accuracy of delivery dates however depends on visibility and control of the planning process not just at an individual plant level but also at a strategic level where the impact of decisions in one plant can affect those in another.
Resource bottlenecks are therefore a major source of disruption and as Lyon acknowledges, the production processes can be very hard on equipment so managing maintenance is critical. “In addition to damage to tools and moulds which can take several weeks to repair, any unplanned shut down of equipment can sometimes have a dramatic effect on the planning. Even though all key equipment is calibrated and checked on a monthly basis we do have to be able to deal with some shut down and related plan changes.” He continues, “If something unexpected happens we have to be quickly able to assess alternative production routes and possible impacts on delivery dates for the customer orders.”
Whilst only joining the company as it was actively looking to source a computerised planning and scheduling solution resolve to its difficulties, Lyon recalls that there wasn’t an effectual planning in place from a company perspective with each area operating according to its own criteria. Planning aids were in the form of an aging T-Card system and a series of complex Excel spreadsheets. “It was an island mentality where no-one really knew what anyone else was doing or what impact any decision taken had on the rest of the company. This general lack of visibility could result in duplicated or missed orders and all too often a delivery date that wasn’t met.”
He explains why this was the case. “Both Sales and Planners knew that a product might take a certain time to make, so invariably this was the time quoted to the customers. However, this was with no visibility of what other orders were also needing to be actioned.” And, because of the lack of transparency, this standard time took no consideration of the benefits of batch optimisation so even if an order was produced on time, it may well have been done so in a less than efficient manner. Even more worrying was the inability to accurately confirm where any particular order was, which would have been helpful for the instances when a customer called wanting to know where there particular order was.
A search for a more effective and efficient planning solution began in late 2004 with some extensive research that resulted in an on-site interview with a number of shortlisted companies. Global EPP’s key requirements were the ability for any solution to provide the necessary control and visibility to plan effectively, for any solution to work tightly and seamlessly with its XKO Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system and to be flexible enough to handle the company’s unique production processes. Preactor was selected as it not only met all of the system specifications; it was also very competitively priced. As Lyon remarks, there was a further consideration. “The fact that Kudos Solutions, our local Preactor reseller, was in the same city meant that we knew we would also have the best service right on our own doorstep.”
A decision was made invest in a Preactor Advanced Planning and Scheduling (APS) system in early 2005 with Kudos’ deep understanding of Global EPP’s business being put to good use from the outset. Global EPP had already accurately measured all the relevant time and routing information prior to its selection process and Kudos used this to configure Preactor while also developing the seamless link with the company’s XKO ERP system.
Within weeks, and with minimal disruption to the running of the company, Lyon was using a working version of Preactor in the casting plant and already seeing a marked improvement in planning visibility and control. While noting that the shop floor practices remained the same, he explains that the operators very quickly developed confidence in the work-to lists generated by Preactor. “Historically they knew that they had at times duplicated jobs because of the old Excel-based system – now they knew they could trust the information they were given.”
The Preactor system underwent a series of refinements and modifications over the early months as feedback was gathered and actioned and continued to improve in the benefits it was delivering. So much so that Global EPP decided it was the natural choice for extending this new found planning visibility into the Extrusion plant. Kudos again was responsible for the successful implementation of a Preactor P300 system which added to the benefits already being generated. In order to close the planning loop between planning and the shopfloor, Global EPP integrated Shop Floor Data Capture (SFDC) via bar code scanners so that the start and end time of every process can be accurately captured and fed back in the daily plan.
At the heart of this is the delivery of complete visibility across each plant and across the company as a whole. This in turn has led to much more efficient resource utilisation with a minimal amount of tool changes. All of which had directly benefited the customer as Lyon explains. “When I joined the company, our On Time and In Full (OTIF) delivery rate was 42%, last week it was over 90%. Moreover, we now have complete confidence to give a customer an accurate delivery date and should there be an unforeseen problem, for example a machine breakdown or another issue out of our hands, we can go back and update them right away with an accurate revised date.” In addition to helping with planned and unplanned maintenance issues, this visibility can also help with other strategic and tactical decision making, such as whether to invest in new plant, change shift patterns, or amend stock order levels.
It has also saved a considerable amount of time as a brief review of Lyon’s daily planning activities reveals. Prior to Preactor there were several planners and chasers with planning literally being an all day, every day task. Now Lyon imports all the live MTO job card information from XKO into Preactor every morning, including the previous day’s updated SFDC data. After Preactor automatically sequences the data, this can be fine tuned according to any local information known to Lyon, the Sales team or the production supervisors. Once this is done, the plan is finalised and issued to the supervisors. All together Lyon says this takes a maximum of 3 hours a day with most of that time taken up by the ERP system.
Despite its successes to date, Global EPP believes there is a lot more to come from its Preactor solutions and is working with Kudos Solutions to make some further refinements as well as extending more controlled planning to secondary operations. With this in mind, Lyon’s positive conclusion ought not to come as a surprise. “Through better visibility and better planning, Preactor has made our customers happy which in turn keeps us happy.”