This variety and complexity of activity combine to put pressure on what ought to be a relatively straight forward set of business processes. Orders are received by phone, email, fax, catalogue or directly via the web, with the Sales Team determining whether each is a standard or special order. If the former, the relevant works orders are generated and these are released to production. If the latter, the order is passed to the Technical/Design team which then determines the extent of any custom work. Once everything is confirmed with the customer, the relevant works orders are generated and then released to production. Production itself is a complex balancing act between 28 specialist machine resources – some of which are single use only while others can handle a number of different functions. Depending on the type of order, individual components may need multiple visits to different machines, all of which may require an operator of a specific skill level, of which there are four. Again, depending on the order and customer, different levels of testing may be required which in some cases may even necessitate third party, off-site specialist control testing. What each product does have in common is a unique, laser etched serial number from which the entire production history of each component can be traced, even down to the provenance of raw materials if required.
Andy Higgs is Sales Director at Ondrives and outlines the many and varied challenges the company has to overcome in order to be successful, beginning with the sheer range and scale of products involved. “We have materials issues, machine resource issues and human skill issues,” he says, “on top of which we have to get the sequence right for every component of every order to ensure everything comes together in the right place so the customer gets their order on time.” When it comes to materials issues, the biggest problem lies in the specialist and exotic nature of some of the materials required. “The lead times for the more exotic materials can comfortably outstrip the lead times our customers require which means we have to keep these in stock. However, sourcing these can be difficult because often different suppliers will sell at different prices and in different amounts.” Bought-in components also present a challenge as somehow the company needs to keep accurate track of over 40,000 live line items at any time. As Higgs states, “It’s not acceptable to promise a part to a customer only to find someone else has already used it and not accurately recorded having done so.”
The need to provide complete traceability as well as demonstrate an ongoing commitment to working with only the latest levels of technology are vital considerations for Ondrives’ more demanding customers. “When dealing with Aerospace industry customers, you have to be able to provide levels of traceability that most other companies simply can’t – including who worked on what, when, right down to the origins of any component/materials.” He continues, “And not only do our customers expect us to be using the latest technology, they also expect this to enable us to work with lower lead times. The past decade has also seen a much greater emphasis on the need to ensure you hit these deadlines, every time.” Another challenge lay in the need to manage vast amounts of paper-based drawings, with timely visibility of the correct version of documentation a key ingredient for success.
Ondrives had historically sought to manage and overcome these challenges through a variety of disparate IT systems, all designed to assist a different area of the business. As Higgs recalls, “We had separate systems for Accounts, Sales/Purchase Orders, Works Orders, Design, as well as Stock Control and Despatch. Despite this, we still couldn’t cope with complex manufacturing.” In addition to the time spent duplicating data in all these systems and the subsequent data variance issues that arose, the main problem was a complete lack of up-to-date visibility not just in different areas of the business but across the company as a whole. As the systems aged, they also became more reliant on the human/spreadsheet based workarounds that were put in place to keep everything functioning, which Higgs refers to as “the human glue that kept everything together.” Inevitably, in-depth knowledge of each system became the preserve of the few and if these people were ill or not available, everything would potentially grind to a halt.
As trust in the system naturally decreased, people’s commitment to using it correctly understandably followed which added to the levels of wasted time as people would double-check physically if goods were available because they distrusted the system so much. Higgs cites one example which shows the impact of this. “Somebody out of administration or management manually and routinely needed to make sure we had enough parts available for a week’s manufacturing, up front, before we even began making anything.” Understandably, as the business continued to grow and customer requirements became more demanding, the systems inevitably began to reach breaking point with Higgs explaining that, “eventually, instead of helping us, these systems were actually holding us back as a company.”