Martin Aerospace has steadily developed its aerospace business to the extent that this now comprises 80% of the company’s entire workload. A walk-through of the company’s business processes shows the challenges it faces in ensuring consistent quality delivered on time to the most demanding of customers.
Orders are received complete with a set of drawings and can range from a batch as small as 5-10 up to as large as 3000. A typical batch however is approximately 200. The drawings are quickly reviewed and validated for manufacturing capabilities and once approved, the order is passed to materials purchasing/stores. A simple MRP run is made to determine the materials required and whether these are available from stock or whether unique materials need to be purchased for the order.
Given the high value and rarity of some of the materials used, materials handling is a crucial component of the company’s ability to be successful.
At this stage, all other information relating to the job is added to a job card. This includes a full Bill of Materials (BoM) breakdown, work to lists, routing information and other subcontracting processes. A simple job can comprise of one process and be completed in under two hours, whereas a complex job may have 10 distinct process operations, including a range of subcontracting operations and take up to six weeks to finish. Once this information is assembled, raw materials are uniquely stamped for traceability purposes and issued from the stores along with the job card. From here the order progresses and is monitored by shop floor data collection across the production floor from turning, to milling and through to grinding before being dispatched for any subcontracting work. Following extensive quality checks, the product is then dispatched to the customer.
Andrew Wallace is IT Manager for Martin Aerospace and he outlines the major challenges the company faces. “Quality control and traceability is central to our business. Not just at a batch or individual product level, but right down to every process on every raw material item. One faulty bolt is enough to potentially bring down a plane – so there can be no margin for error.” Because of this, not only is every process recorded once it is completed, the product is quality checked at each stage at a sample/batch level. Each individual product is then rigorously tested across every required parameter before being dispatched.
Wallace is quick to point out another reason why orders are checked at each stage – cost. “We deal with exotic and very expensive materials which is why we aim to maximise our yield for every batch produced.” The exotic nature of the raw materials leaves it open to significant fluctuations in terms of price and availability, all of which can affect not just the time taken to deliver the finished product, but also the costs involved in producing the order.
Another challenge lies in managing the flow of work to and from the company’s list of approved subcontractors. As Wallace remarks, “the best laid production schedule can be ruined by unforeseen delays at a subcontractor level, leading to failed delivery dates and less than happy customers.” Other challenges are those traditionally associated with managing production lines – namely maximising capacity while avoiding capacity constraints which in turn necessitates minimising changeovers and optimising sequencing of product through the company’s varied machine resources. While keen to point out that given the company’s inherent flexibility, the vast majority of components can be made across a wide variety of resources, there is a significant time difference between using the optimum machines and not.
Prior to investing in EFACS from Exel Computer Systems, the company had relied on a mixture of complex Excel spreadsheets, 5 disparate IT systems and “good old pen and paper”. This meant that it was simply impossible for anyone to accurately identify where any particular job was, at any time on the production floor without physically going onto the floor and finding it. Not only was this very time intensive, it meant pulling staff off an existing job to do so which further added to the time cost involved. They would then have to manually forward plan from there to determine an approximate completion time.
The company also had zero visibility of the true costing of each process and ultimately it was only at the end of a production run that costs could be accurately identified and therefore any profit determined.
Another problem lay in the specialisation of knowledge within the company or as Wallace puts it, “everything tended to be in the head of the Production Manager which was fine as long as he wasn’t ill or on holiday.” This extended to all the other disparate systems which tended to have a very select group of people who used them and therefore understood how to access the information within. This lack of visibility extended to managing stock levels and availability, especially if deliveries arrived mid production run or were later than scheduled. “We’d also have problems with different people having different means of trying to keep track of the same information” adds Wallace. “Our Production Manager and Stock Manager would each keep a record of the same information which was not only wasteful but could lead to problems when variances occurred.” Finally, the confusion surrounding data added to a general tendency to only really trust on a gut feeling level and often not what the IT system generated report said.