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Wall Colmonoy gets Tough on Production Planning with Preactor
October 2007

WallC01.jpgWall Colmonoy Ltd is a world leader in the fields of high temperature brazing and surface engineering providing solutions to complex metal joining and wear problems. The company’s technology is based around nickel and cobalt alloy systems and used in products across demanding engineering industries including glass container manufacture, automotive, heat recovery and recycling (heat exchangers), packaging equipment, food processing equipment, energy including steam, gas and water turbine equipment, railway, aerospace (civil and military) and plastics.

Sales have grown strongly over recent years with 80% of production supplied to customers outside the UK, and has been based on product performance, quality and delivery - the latter becoming critical over recent years. Wall Colmonoy therefore selected Preactor International to provide a production planning, scheduling and costing system as a key tool to success in this key area.

There are three manufacturing businesses under one roof at Wall Colmonoy Ltd. The Alloy Products Division comprises atomized powders, continuous cast rods and high temperature brazing products while the Components Division covers cobalt & nickel base castings, investment castings, centrifugal castings, sand castings, machining, and a range of comprehensive machine shops including CAD-CAM, CNC, EDM, CMM Inspection. The final business is the Process Division which contains vacuum & protective atmosphere furnaces for brazing, heat treatment, and coating in addition to welded overlays and thermal and HVOF spraying.

WallC02.jpgKey Challenges
Each of these divisions requires efficient accurate planning and scheduling but the Components Division presents by far the greatest challenges. Within this division, achieving reliable, short and on time delivery from machining is key to successfully improving results. The nature of the product (wear resistant alloys) compounds the problem of scheduling because of inherent difficulty in machining. Add to this a range of possible process steps from 2 through to 15, a myriad of potential sequence dependent process routings with some of the larger products requiring a number of weeks work on a single machine and the scale of planning challenge becomes clearer.

Machine changeover times can be considerable, ranging from 30 minutes through to 2 hours, and complicated by certain products being susceptible to possible cross contamination from other products which can add an extra cleaning time consideration. In addition to the 57 machining centres, there is a large collection of individual tools which can be used on a range of individual machines resulting in a machine potentially being free but with the tool required for the next process step being used elsewhere. Another level of complexity comes from taking human skill levels into consideration as only certain workers have experience with certain machines and certain products. 

Wall Colmonoy’s Planning Supervisor Scott Powell explains that even this doesn’t give the true extent of the difficulties. “We also have ever increasing pressure from customers to decrease lead times and work with an average of 6-8 weeks. Yet our Processing division also makes use of our machining resources yet they are often working to lead times of only 3 weeks. Moreover, because of the interlinked nature of the areas within the company, any problems further upstream – for example in the casting area which has its own planning and scheduling constraints – have a direct impact on the flow of raw material we have to work with.”

Rhodri John, Systems Analyst, describes how the company used to try and manage such a huge amount of variables. “In short we did our best with a range of different systems We had a Micross order management system, a range of custom Access databases, a variety of Excel spreadsheets, a vast manual T Card system and an awful lot of paperwork.” He describes the inevitable consequences, “because all the systems were separate, they all had the potential to retain different data and therefore say different things. Updating was inconsistent with some areas being overlooked leading to many decisions being taken based upon someone’s opinion as opposed to accurate knowledge of what had to be done, when, and at what stage things actually were in the process.”

WallC03.jpgThe result was a planning culture based largely on fire fighting, with orders being processed sequentially from a list of late running orders which extended to over 6 A4 pages. A contributing factor to the number of late orders lay in the fact that T Cards were processed very simplistically by due date, with no consideration of the actual job time involved. As Scott comments, “In addition to no real planning, there was no real visibility of what was happening which meant we had Work In Progress (WIP) all over the machining area. We had 21 racks of WIP simply to try and ensure we had enough part finished product for people to work on at any time.”

The practical unmanageability of the system became exacerbated by the rapid growth of the business - an increase in turnover within the machining area itself of 50% within 15 months. At this stage Wall Colmonoy’s management tasked Rhodri to specify a range of business objectives for a replacement system to achieve. These were to provide more accurate delivery dates, increased real time visibility across the entire area in order to generate business intelligence to improve customer and sales service levels, and to streamline the entire planning process thereby reducing WIP and maximising resource utilisation.

Search for a solution: Preactor from The Scheduling Business
Rhodri was further tasked to determine how best to achieve these goals. He began with a thorough familiarisation of the way the machining area worked and identifying the key processes involved. As he recalls, “It was immediately obvious that what we needed was a powerful and versatile production planning and scheduling solution, one we could integrate with our existing sales system.” The decision to invest in Preactor was influenced by positive recommendations from within the industry and from contacts associated with Cardiff University. Rhodri therefore approached Alan Keene of The Scheduling Business after evaluating a Preactor demo CD.

Within the first meeting held in August 06, any concerns Rhodri had about the integration capabilities of Preactor with Micross had been assuaged by Alan and by virtue that The Scheduling Business could provide some bespoke functionality that would allow integration with a database backend. Rhodri again, “It was clear that Alan had a solid grasp not just of the challenges to be overcome, but also the nature of the business as a whole. We were therefore able to discuss and explore the potential of Preactor beyond our initial expectations.” So productive was that meeting that a decision was taken that day to invest in a Preactor P200 system complete with Alan’s bespoke work.

Implementation and Go-Live
WallC04.jpgImplementation began almost as quickly with Rhodri, Scott and Wall Colmonoy’s estimator attending a Preactor course less than 2 weeks later. Rhodri and Alan then set about the actual work required to configure Preactor and link it with the Micross sales systems; once this was complete Rhodri undertook the task of developing several bespoke front end systems for the shop floor and planning department. The result of this was to create in effect a Master Production System which would take sales order information from Micross and generate Machine Instruction lists per order, taking into account preferred routes and driven accurately by delivery date. Preactor would be updated 3-4 times daily with revised order information from Micross with Preactor then being used to feed back actual production data provided by the shop floor and planners to various reports.

An element of flexibility and manual control was retained in the system due to a number of the steps having significant levels of potential variance which could be fine tuned depending on the operator using a specific resource. After several weeks of parallel running to familiarise people with the new system in a semi-live environment, Wall Colmonoy went completely live with Preactor in January 07. As Rhodri explains, “We ripped down the T Card boards and got rid of all redundant systems – sometimes you just have to jump in and put your trust fully in a system.”

A wide range of benefits
This trust was very quickly repaid with a comprehensive range of significant benefits, the first of which was an almost instantaneous increase from zero to complete visibility of what was happening on the shop floor. Whereas previously there was simply no way to know what order was on which machine and at what stage in any process route, now Wall Colmonoy could trace every order and where it was in the plan. It could also compare actual progress with predicted progress and make informed decisions on the basis of this.

WallC05.jpgScott notes an interesting side effect of this increased visibility. “We knew it was working and that people trusted the system because they began to ask questions about how they could get more out of the system. This became the driving force behind generating management reports that provided meaningful information that impacted the entire business.”

Rhodri continues, “An example of this would be Preactor being able to show us where we might need to invest in a new machine in order to capitalise on a run of a particular type of product. Since Preactor went live it has directly contributed to the decision to successfully invest in 3 different machine centres which in turn has contributed to a significant increase in sales.”

This is related to another wider business benefit. The accuracy of current and projected capacity utilisation provided valuable information for production to feedback to the Sales team. For example, production can now identify a specific window when it knows it can comfortably beat the industry average for a certain product, and for how long. This then gives the Sales team a very definite sales strategy about which customers to target in order to bring in extra business, which again has directly contributed to business turnover.

Other key quantifiable benefits include an improvement in on time delivery performance up from 80% to 95% while machine utilisation has been increased from 75 to 92%. These gains result from better allocation and utilisation of the workforce including how and when to use differing shift patterns, optimised product routings, and a removal of machining bottlenecks.

WIP has been reduced sevenfold while late deliveries have been reduced to a handful only arising from technical (manufacturing) or other reasons outside of Wall Colmonoy’s control.

Future plans
So impressive have been the benefits achieved within the machining area that Wall Colmonoy is imminently looking to complete the roll out of Preactor into the casting area. As with machining, Preactor will handle all the routing information through casting, including furnace and machine centre use and sequencing. This will be interconnected with the machining area streamlining the supply of materials from casting into the machining area which itself will provide further cumulative time and cost savings. “Perhaps the greatest thing about Preactor”, concludes Rhodri “is that it isn’t an end in itself. It’s a terrific means to the end of Wall Colmonoy ultimately moving towards a Leaner, Just in Time (JIT) manufacturing environment.”