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Preactor Production Scheduling Provides Firm Foundations for Growth at GRP Structures
March 2007

GRP Structures LtdGRP Structures is a manufacturer of GRP products, specialising in the realm of architectural components, and is preferred supplier to a number of national building companies. Originally formed over 35 years ago, the company was essentially reborn in 2003 when an external SME mentor along with a number of employees decided to seriously address the problems which had troubled the firm in the past. 4 years on, and the company’s 30+ workforce generates a solid turnover of £1.2m, and has earned a leading reputation within the industry. A key cornerstone of the company’s transformation has been the introduction of a production scheduling system from Preactor International.

In addition to tackling the endemic management difficulties, the very nature of GRP Structures’ industry itself provides a very challenging production environment. To begin with, the variety of products made is substantial, from small canopies less than 3 feet across to complex tower or clock tower structures which constitute a wide load when delivered. In manufacturing terms, a small product may require only 1-2 man-hours, whereas a large dormer can require 24 man-hours. Each product requires a plug which has to be made from scratch if one does not already exist, from which a mould is made, which then enables the manufacture of the final product. GRP Structures currently has over 200 moulds, stored on and off site, and is making new moulds all the time. While the company’s current product is split 60% bespoke/ 40% regular, each product is 100% Make To Order (MTO), with the company shipping an approximate combination of between 20 dormers and 50 canopies per week.

David Goyder joined the company in 2003 as an external SME Mentor, bringing with him a vast range of wider industry experience at a multitude of different levels. He describes the heart of the company’s issues. “To put it simply, we don’t have any machinery. Our people, especially our laminators, are our key resource; everything else is a support to this. Whilst mould availability and delivery of final products can be constraints, it is the availability of our laminators and support staff that determines what we can make, and how much, and ultimately therefore whether the customer gets the right product at the right time.”

GRP Structures LtdThis is vital because different customers require different delivery strategies as Goyder continues. “A builder on a large development may order 100 canopies but only need them delivered in batches of 20 at the beginning of specific weeks in order to fit in the projected build rate of the properties in question. Another developer may order 20 dormers but because these require the use of specialist, and costly, lifting equipment, absolutely must have the entire batch delivered together so they can all be mounted in one day while the crane is on site.”

Consequently, in addition to finding and retaining quality laminators, production planning and scheduling is the greatest single challenge that GRP faces.

And it is precisely here that it gets even more complex, because human resource is much harder to schedule than plant machinery for a variety of reasons, which Goyder makes clear. “In a typical plant, your order has a number of process steps applied to it, in sequence, and by set pieces of equipment. Our business plays hell with traditional scheduling because each of our resources, people, can work on more than one order at a time, and in a very fluid way. For example, a laminator may work on 2 canopy pillars whilst working on a canopy, with the pillars only requiring 1 man hr while the canopy requires more. After the pillars are complete, he may then begin another job, whilst still completing the canopy. Traditional scheduling simply can’t have one machine doing 3 things at once, and often varied tasks with different completion times.”

That’s not all, as Goyder is quick to point out. “We also have the scenario where we can have multiple resources, people, working on one large job, all at the same time. We may have several laminators working along with a number of finishers in order to get a job complete in time. A large dormer takes 24 man hours to complete, but this can either be done in 6 hours with 4 people working on it or 8 hours with 3 people working on it.”  He saves the ultimate headache until last.

“Now suppose we have a mixture of those 2 scenarios where each person is working on a number of different jobs, in a frequently changing set of teams. It’s a scheduling nightmare with the only constant being that in order to keep the customer happy, the finished product must be ready in time to be delivered.” Almost as an aside Goyder then adds, “You also have to remember that with the size of these finished items, you simply can’t have 15 dormers lying around the factory for a week because you made them too early – there simply isn’t space.”

Prior to GRP Structures investment in Preactor, the company’s scheduling was almost entirely done on a ‘guestimate’ basis. The then Production Works Manager would write out on a sheet of paper split into 5 sections marked Monday to Friday, the jobs that he believed needed to be done during that week. “To this day no-one knows what basis he ever worked any of this out,” reflects Goyder. “It was never structured, never defined, so consequently in addition to often being wrong, production literally revolved around his availability. If a laminator finished one job, he had to wait until the Works Manager came and assigned him the next job to do.” There were other problems too. “Because most products were invariably late, we would often have customers ringing to check where their product was. A really angry customer would result in the Works Manager suddenly changing the entire schedule in order to try and push through that order, which of course then delayed everything else.”

Clearly a different approach was required and this was an integral part of the company’s rebirth and subsequent redevelopment from 2003. 2003 was set aside as the year to begin re-establishing the company, and building up the workforce. 2004 was the year of marketing and developing new business and saw turnover increased from £1/2m to over £1m. It was 2005 however, that would be the year of production, and moving from current situation which Goyder likens to “driving down the M4 at 80mph, in the fog, with absolutely no visibility.” For Goyder, this would need to begin with a shift to a computerised planning and scheduling too with the search commencing in the last quarter of 2004.

Goyder’s background in larger corporate industry has already brought considerable exposure to the benefits of automated planning and scheduling. It has however also left a prejudice against Preactor due to an associate having once commented in the past that he had spent considerable money on a Preactor solution only for it to then not be implemented by the production team. He is as frank about this as he is about the nature of his search. “I began with a bias against Preactor, and looked at a whole range of other solutions including JobBoss, Catalyst and a number of ERP solutions, all of which claimed to be able to help. What we needed most was something that would help us move our planning horizon from less than a week to a number of months ahead so we could get to grips not just with our short term scheduling but our more strategic planning. We also needed visibility of what was actually currently in process so we could be aware of potential problems before they arose.”

Despite a wide range of potential candidates, GRP’s search for a solution kept finding a recurring problem. Each solution contained varying degrees of scheduling capabilities but in order to work correctly, required the purchase of a substantial amount of other software functionality which GRP didn’t need. Goyder again, “We already had proven in-house systems which worked very efficiently, whilst possibly not being as automated as they could be. Any benefits which might have been achieved with the scheduling would have been massively outweighed by the upheaval and cost of having to implement a huge system and re-engineer all our processes. Moreover, most of our staff were not very computer literate at all and would have not been able to make such a huge change. All we wanted was a standalone scheduling solution that would work the way we needed to work.”

GRP therefore decided to devise a partial computerised system utilising MS project and Excel Spreadsheets but all this did was partly automate flawed processes. The turning point was Goyder re-visiting various candidates, including Preactor, and deciding to sign up for a Preactor production scheduling in Jan 05. As he notes, this was on New Year’s Eve 2004. “I was so frustrated I decided to email Preactor on New Year’s Eve and within 5 minutes had an email back from Mike Novels, Preactor’s Chairman, saying he looked forward to seeing me at the course, and was sure Preactor could help.”

Goyder attended the seminar and in his words, “immediately fell in love with the simplicity and the powerful potential of Preactor”. So much so that he purchased the entry level system the next day before upgrading to the Preactor P100 system within a month. Looking back Goyder comments, “It was just so much more powerful than I ever could have imaged, my only regret wasn’t buying it years earlier.” Goyder’s decades of computer experience combined with Preactor’s intuitive layout enabled GRP to implement the system itself, and very quickly. Goyder’s enthusiasm however was not shared by the existing Production Manager and despite 6 months of teaching and encouragement, still resisted using the system and ultimately left the company as a result.

His replacement was much more open to the potential of Preactor as a computerised production and scheduling system, and within a month the company was generating a number of significant benefits. GRP Structures can now see 8 times further into its planning future because of Preactor which has dramatically helped its medium term planning capabilities, especially concerning large orders requiring multiple call-offs. Using Preactor has also helped the company to completely restructure the way it works, by moving to a more efficient, virtual cell-based manufacturing basis but one which still retains all the flexibility in the use of its key resources, its people. And the workforce too has directly felt the benefits of Preactor, as Goyder is quick to point out. “We now have for the first time, a schedule that is a proper schedule, and not just some intuitive guess that had no discernible basis, and was open to change at any time. Now everyone trusts the schedule, understands how it’s generated, and it’s been a direct contributor to staff fulfilment and morale in the company. They know for example that there will a steady supply of work for them, and as the company has become more profitable, they directly benefit from that. We are now regarded within the industry as one of the best companies to work for, and hence have a high retention rate of our all important laminators.”

In fact, Goyder goes as far as to say that it is the overall transforming impact on GRP Structures as a whole that represents to him the greatest benefit from Preactor. “Preactor has helped drive an entire culture change within GRP. We are now making product more efficiently, have one of the best reputations in the business for reliability and on-time delivery, and have in place the necessary forward visibility for strong and sustained growth.” As for the future, Goyder simply smiles and looks forward to his imminent upgrade to Preactor P200 and says, “Watch this space.”