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Seal of Approval for Preactor 400 APS from TRP
March 2009

TRP Sealing Systems Ltd has grown from humble origins in 1981 to become the second largest Gasket Plate Heat Exchanger (PHE) manufacturer in the world. Twice awarded the Queens Award for Enterprise, the £20m company headquartered in Hereford has manufacturing partnerships with Dubai and India in addition to finishing sites in Romania and now produces approximately five million gaskets each year.

With 99% of these destined to leading PHE manufacturers overseas, TRP has a global reputation to uphold during continuing growth in the midst of a changing market. When its existing production planning and scheduling approach began to jeopardise this, TRP gave its seal of approval to Preactor International.

At first glance the processes involved at TRP appear to be relatively straight forward. The company buys in its required raw materials which are then extruded before being laid out by hand into the appropriate tool or mould which is then placed into a heating press. Once this is complete, the gasket is removed from the tool, cured, finished, quality assessed and then despatched to the customer.

As is often the case however, appearances can be deceptive and according to TRP’s IT Administrator Mike Evans, this is very much the case at TRP. To begin with there is the number of individual resources involved:- 8 extruders, 24 presses and over 700 tools. Then there are the permutations, beginning with the extruders, 2 of which are material specific while the remaining 6 can handle multiple material types. Out of the 24 presses, 4 can accommodate up to 4 tools at a time, 6 can accommodate 2 tools at a time with the remainder handling only one tool. Within this is the further consideration that the type of tool accommodated is determined by the type and size of the individual press.   Evans explains that it is therefore the tools that cause the biggest challenge. “Each tool we use is essentially bespoke to a specific customer but may contain up to 7 possible design variations depending on the final product. The tools are also large and heavy, the largest measuring 3.9m x 1.7 m and weighing up to 2 tonnes, which makes storage and moving them a real issue. Certain tools only work in certain presses and with certain materials and can require either one or two people to operate them. To complicate things further, certain tools may also be located in Dubai.”

For TRP therefore, success depends on having the right tool at the right press at the right time along with the right raw material and the right number of required workers.

But as Evans continues, changes in the business have exacerbated this further. “Our customers are increasingly demanding shorter lead times and quicker, more accurate delivery dates. We now have to keep buffer stock levels of certain products because customers expect these ‘ex-stock’ while others continue to be made-to-order.” This would be easier if orders came regularly and for consistent batch sizes but order sizes can vary from a handful of gaskets up to three to four thousand. Even customers with regular monthly call-offs can move orders forward at short notice. Given that setup times for the larger tools can take 10 hours, achieving a smooth flow with minimum changeovers is also essential to TRP operating efficiently.


 

Prior to its investment in Preactor, TRP had relied on its Lakeview Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system combined with a huge T-Card system, supplemented by hand written schedules and Excel spreadsheets. Works Orders were entered into Lakeview and these would be updated at the end of each day with that day’s production data. Lakeview would then simply select the next orders to work on based entirely on due date. As Evans recalls, “There was no consideration for batch optimisation, tool and press availability – it was just a first come, first served basis.”

When it came to actually generating the production schedule, at the end of each week an entire wall of T-Cards covering 12 weeks was manually updated based on information from Lakeview. Alan Lewis, Planning Manager was responsible for manually correlating each order against the required tool based on calculations and information he held in his head. He would then handwrite the entire schedule for the following week by machine before cross-referencing this information onto a complex operator’s timesheet that relied on general time approximations. This schedule was then manually copied and distributed to the shop floor.

Evans recalls the problems associated with this, some obvious, others not so. “It’s less of a case of what was wrong with it, more what was right with it! The planning process essentially took an entire week after which it was time to start it all over again. And the minute any change happened in the schedule for example as a result of a machine failure, tool damage, a customer bringing forward an order etc, the schedule would be out and needing to be reworked all over again. The system relied very much on the planner’s intimate knowledge of what tool was required for which order which caused problems if the planner wasn’t here. We’d also run the risk of having different versions of the schedule being used by different people and because of the approximations in the timings etc, orders were taking much longer than they needed to be completed.”

In short, there was very little control and even less visibility of what was happening, where and when. As the business continued to grow, this understandably impacted on lead times and delivery dates, so much so that one of TRP’s main customers felt the need to inform the company it would be sending in one of its own consultants to assess TRP’s planning process. TRP knew it was struggling in this area but this very much provided a catalyst for change. One of TRP’s Directors knew someone who had heard of a production planning and scheduling solution called Preactor so in early 2007, TRP contacted Preactor and was referred to Alan Keene at The Scheduling Business Ltd, a Preactor Solution Provider, whom they had already contacted independently the year before, and who had the depth of experience to handle their demanding scheduling problems. After a general demonstration of Preactor, Evans and Keene discussed TRP’s specific challenges which led to Keene recommending a bespoke interface to TRP’s ERP system as well as other key databases. Keene then did a proof of concept demonstration based on a similar set of challenges which led Evans to conclude, “We could see it would do what we needed to do and we knew we needed to do it.”

The decision to invest in Preactor was taken in April 2007 after which followed an intensive 2 month project to identify all the manufacturing metrics involved across the entire product range and systematise these into appropriate databases that could be used by Preactor and Lakeview. The end result was a database for product types, tools, materials, actual products, and presses. The relational links then had to be constructed making use of the expert knowledge contained within key employees in the company, most notably the planner, in order to derive the required planning and scheduling rules. TRP originally looked to use a Preactor P200 system but very quickly upgraded to a Preactor P400 system in order to fully deal with the complexity of its secondary constraint requirements and has been using this ever since in conjunction with a number of remote viewers. The scalability of the system has proved very helpful to TRP with the upgrade being successfully completed with minimal disruption.

Evans describes the very different planning and scheduling regime at TRP since implementing Preactor. “When orders are received they are checked against stock and if required to manufacture, this is passed to planning via its TSB interface. This allows the planner to allocate the required tool against the order according to when the tool is free. This is then passed to Preactor as unallocated tool time which can then either be actioned as an automatic or manual schedule update depending on the nature of the order. This is then passed back via the TSB interface where the delivery date can be reviewed in conjunction with TRP’s Master Production System (MPS) which determines whether the product is to be trimmed and finished in Romania or on-site. Once the delivery dates have been harmonised, the final Works Order is generated.

What this means in practice is that TRP now has a rolling 15 day schedule that provides instant visibility across the entire production process and which can be extended to a two and a half year planning horizon. This real-time visibility is accessible across the company via the remote viewers meaning that any customer interaction can always be based on completely accurate information. In fact, TRP proactively informed its entire customer base that it had implemented Preactor to assist with its planning and scheduling requirements and received wide ranging and very positive feedback from many customers. So much so that customers began to have the confidence to move away from booking orders to reserving production capacity, secure and confident in the knowledge that with Preactor, TRP would be able to deliver this increased flexibility of service.

And Preactor has certainly helped TRP to deliver. Evans says that On Time Deliveries are now 60% improved with a growing number of customers enjoying rates of 100%. At the heart of this has been the ability to streamline the planning process as a whole and optimise the combination of tools, presses and raw materials while minimising costly changeovers. So flexible and powerful has Preactor proved to be that even the addition of a further 3 presses in 2008 did not impact on its ability to consistently deliver schedules that are both realistic and accurate. Maintenance, planned and unplanned, is now no longer an issue, nor is customer orders unexpectedly pulled forward as Evans explains. “The beauty of Preactor is you can rearrange the schedule in a matter of seconds to take into account the reality of what you have to deal with.”

This has been increasingly put to the test in 2008 with the nature of TRP’s business having to become much more agile in response to changing customer requirements. “We now have to juggle much more detail than we ever had to – smaller orders and with quicker lead times. It’s more vital than ever to know exactly what is happening and when and not rely on approximations. We simply could not have done this before we had Preactor – it’s at the very heart of our production planning and scheduling.”