Synchronising your assets – The challenges of human planning and scheduling

Posted on 16 Nov 2009 by The Manufacturer

The phrase “our most important asset is our people” has become something of a worn cliché, a sign hung on walls in offices and production facilities to remind staff of their ‘value’ in increasingly automated manufacturing businesses. For some manufacturing companies, however, human operator skills are not only appreciated but are vital to the successful creation of a specific product or task and the overall success of the business. Chris Pope reports.

However, the very skills and flexibility which enables an experienced machine setter to analyse the precise set of conditions to correctly set up a complex machine operation also creates an operating window of considerable variability in time — that task may take a range of times to complete. Then add the fact that employees don’t work a 24/7 week and they fall ill, go to college and take holidays, and it is easy to see why people can be a difficult asset for many manufacturing IT systems to deal with, especially for planning and scheduling.

Planning headache
A case in point would be Mode Lighting, makers of lighting control systems, transformers and LED systems and part of the TCL Group. Here, according to general manager Ian Hodgson, success relies “very much on the dedication, accuracy and skill of our people due to the labour intensive nature of much of our production.” With offices and manufacturing facilities in the UK and associated companies in Asia, Mode Lighting manufacture is split 80/20 between in-house manufacture of Mode product and subcontracted product and prides itself on its service and design capabilities as well as quality. Achieving the high quality is complicated by production, which begins in many different locations, but more than anything by a variety of products that require different skillsets at different stages. Mode Lighting’s personnel have a diversity of skillsets as well as a wide variety of working practices, all of which create a substantial planning and scheduling challenge. So much so that the monthly production generated by complex, manually completed spreadsheets was described as “educated guesswork” by Craig Hastings, the company’s planning manager.

The resulting lack of visibility had a direct bearing on the quality of customer service levels due to manufacturing’s inability to keep to its customer delivery dates. While noting that the means to properly monitor ‘On Time and In Full’ delivery statistics didn’t even exist, Hastings guesses that complete and ontime deliveries were as low as 50%. The company had already begun looking at computerised planning and scheduling solutions, as well as ERP replacements for the company’s existing Fourth Shift ERP system.

The search had been less than positive as solutions were inevitably too expensive, would create significant disruption to the business and still not deliver the powerful planning and scheduling functionality required.

Scheduling by human resource
After seeing a working proof of concept of the Preactor production planning and scheduling system using live data by Preactor reseller Adrian Birt of Planning Board, Mode Lighting decided that this was the way ahead. Following a decision to invest in Preactor in February 2008, Hastings spent a month working with the planning team distilling all his unique planning and routing information into a comprehensive spreadsheet.

A key aspect here was programming in the 15 different calendar permutations that cover every worker in the company and adding this to the other planning information. Hastings says: “Much of our potential to optimise our human resources rests on the accuracy of the data we use, concerning how long every action takes. Because we schedule by human resource, this meant accurately measuring how long each person takes on every task and basing routing times from this.”

The system successfully went live in July 2008. The new found visibility delivered had what Hodgson describes as a profound transformational effect on the company, especially in its use of its all-important human resources. As a result, staff utilisation levels have increased from a guestimate of 60% to over 82% which in turn has enabled the company to cope with the fluctuating levels of demand in today’s economic climate. The ultimate beneficiary is the customer.

Hodgson is rightfully proud that that the quality of customer service has improved, with On Time and In Full delivery dates now being 85% and with plans in place to drive this even further.

Matching skills with machine resources
It is a similar situation at Preformtools, a leading solutions provider for companies requiring very high quality tools and components in the medical, high pressure fuel and hydraulics sectors. While technically a low volume engineering company, being 100% Make to Order means that Preformtools has to deal with anything from single process jobs, one-off design and manufacture projects, as well as batches in excess of 15,000 which may form part of an ongoing order spread over several years.

In terms of machine resources, the specialist nature of Preformtools’ processes can often result in set-up times in excess of a day for an operation that may only last ten minutes. The greatest challenge lies in matching the required level of skill with the process and machine resource. Some machine resources require different skill levels depending on the nature of the work and often a resource requires one skill level to set up and a different one to operate. Before investing in Preactor, the company had relied on a manufacturing IT solution called Paragon (Job Shop) which had little ability to deal with the availability of the appropriately skilled personnel.

After attending a Preactor workshop, production controller Alan Roden was put in touch with Preactor Reseller Kudos Solutions which started working with Preformtools on the implementation in late 2007.

After a brief period of parallel running, Preformtools went fully live with Preactor in January 2008. From the outset the new system consistently delivered reliable and accurate plans which made it possible to identify the true identity of where many of the company’s problems actually stemmed from. Preactor also now provides much improved visibility about the state of production on any job, which allows for important fine-tuning and optimising of the company’s human resources. Instead of a highly skilled operative waiting unnecessarily for a process to be completed in order for them to begin the next task that requires their skill level, they can be deployed on a different process during this time. Consequently tasks that might literally have taken an entire day to schedule given the complexity of processes involved can be scheduled in under 15 minutes.

These examples suggest that if people really are your greatest asset, it pays to have in place the right manufacturing IT to help get the best out of them.