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UAV Engines

UAV Engines Limited (UEL) is dedicated to the design, development and production of Wankel-type engines for the propulsion of small and medium sized Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs).

The Client

The £10m turnover, Lichfield based company gained exclusive world-wide rights to use this patented technology based on R&D work carried out by Norton Motors Ltd between 1969 and 1992, for application to the unmanned air vehicle market. Since 1992 UEL has continued to develop the technology and supplies approximately 450 units per year in addition to a growing number of spare parts. As with any supplier to the military, quality is of paramount importance, as is ready availability of supply. When UEL needed to upgrade its ageing ERP systems, it put its trust in EFACS E/8 from Exel Computer Systems.

From an original product range of 3 basic engine types, UEL has seen spectacular growth resulting from an increasing requirement for surveillance UAVs. The company now has 5 major product lines, but each of these is highly customisable and configurable depending on customer specification. Fuel delivery mechanisms, casings, exhaust housings and electronics are often made to individual customer specifications, with UEL designing to order where required. While a typical order may be approximately 10 engines, the company has had orders in excess of 700 as well as one-off development models. The ongoing success of the company and the growing number of its products being used in the marketplace has given rise to a secondary business stream of supplying spare parts. Whereas the engine/spares ratio used to be 85/15 it is now 50/50 and has been a major contribution to the range of challenges now facing the company.

Requirements

UEL’s Operations Manager, Nathan Bailey, identifies the growth in the company as the single greatest business challenge. “In 1991 we had 11 people, a £1m turnover, and focussed on R&D projects. Our rapid growth has directly led to a huge expansion in our part numbers, the need for complete product and part traceability, and also some sophisticated configuration control. For example, our smallest engine has 180 unique top line components but our BOM structure is 14 levels deep. A top level component in product “A” may also be a level 12 component in product “B”. We have customers who will come back 6 years after buying an engine asking for the same engine – we clearly need to be able to record all the components and also any potential upgrades to such components. Any component that is upgraded for one engine has potential knock-on-effects for every further use of that component. However the upgrade might not be suitable for every other use of the part which then necessitates the creation of a brand new part number. We already have in excess of 13,000 unique part numbers!”

This becomes more complex as UEL could potentially be working on up to 11 projects simultaneously, with 2 design teams working on the same problem for different customers, duplicating resources and coming up with different solutions. At one stage, UEL employed an engineering clerk solely to create and update part numbers on the company’s AutoCad system in order to try and keep some level of configuration and version control.

The changing nature of UEL’s market, from speculative R&D to active service equipment has also dramatically affected expected delivery and project times. In a hypothetical R&D setting, a customer is happy with 16 week lead times and a project life of a number of years. In a current real world conflict context, products are expected within 2-3 weeks, often much less, with spares being required almost ex-stock. This can be a considerable problem with many parts being costly and time-consuming to make. As Bailey notes, “You either have to bring lead times down on individual parts or build in buffer stocks. Given that we only work with suppliers of the highest quality, which tend therefore to be in considerable demand, we have had to build in buffer stocks based on a market in which it is difficult to accurately predict forecast demand.” For non EU markets, the need to obtain export licences can also add considerably and variably to the time taken for a customer to finally receive a product.

The high quality of components required from suppliers presents its own challenges because supplier quality can be variable, even within the same batch. UEL’s tolerances are much more exacting, so every individual component must be rigorously QA checked to ensure that it matches the required standards. Bailey again, “UAVs may have over a million dollars worth of camera equipment attached in addition to highly sensitive electronic equipment, so customers are much more interested in multiple use UAVs and maximum reliability.” The underlying driver in UEL’s component selection is therefore quality, and not price.

A related area of challenge arises from the fact that much of the actual machining is subcontracted out to specialists. A subcontractor may quote a certain time in order to win a job, yet not actually be able to deliver, or may in turn be waiting on components from elsewhere in the Supply Chain. In a similar way, if UEL receive 95% of the required components to assemble and test an engine on time, the ability to supply to the customer on time is determined by the remaining 5%. Visibility is therefore paramount here in order to monitor and trace the progress of multiple orders across suppliers and keep customers informed. As Bailey dryly remarks, “Customers in military uniforms do not take kindly to being let down,” which is why Supplier Relationship Management is crucial to UEL.

Solution

In order to try and overcome such challenges, UEL had relied heavily on an in-house, bespoke system written by a former employee in 1991. While it initially did everything, it was completely reliant on the expert knowledge of its creator for upkeep and development, so when the employee left the company UEL found itself exposed. While able to keep the system running after a fashion, it became clear that it was getting old and had no forward development potential. UEL approached a variety of programmers with a view to updating the system but none were prepared to undertake the task. As Bailey comments, “We knew then that we needed an ‘off the shelf’ system.”

UEL was currently evaluating a US system for another aspect of the company. This required a certain type of cost accounting, so any ERP package would have to be compatible with this. Only Sage Line 100 proved to be so and was therefore initially selected. It soon became clear however that whilst the accounts elements were solid, the manufacturing areas within the system were weak. Bailey again, “We had Sage for 18 months during which it helped us realise we needed a true, specialist manufacturing system.” Several suppliers were evaluated including BAAN, Exel, K3, Kewill, QMS and Micross. Ultimately EFACS E/8 from Exel Computer Systems was deemed the best fit for UEL’s requirements.

Bailey explains why: “Norton itself had actually used a UNIX version of EFACS and some of our employees remembered it being a solid system. I was most impressed by the combination of technology and functionality. The SQL backend, the familiarity of a web browser, the ease of configuration, the ease of using the ADAPT programming language to modify the system yourself, all combined to make EFACS the clear choice for us.” UEL was also keen to work directly with Exel given previous experiences working with resellers. Bailey again, “We didn’t like the reseller experience – they’re ultimately always trying to sell you something, hence the name. Dealing direct with the software author is a much more positive experience as it gives us access to people with the best possible knowledge about the system in case you need it.”

After the decision to invest in EFACS E/8 in Q4 2004, UEL embarked upon a co-ordinated implementation strategy. From its earlier Sage implementation UEL had already decided on the need to either have a centralised data repository, or failing that to link and synchronise its systems in order to keep all data up-to-date. However, due to the database structure within Sage and various encryption difficulties, this had not been possible. The technology base behind EFACS made this much more possible, and the company’s original plan was to use EFACS as the main data source within the company. After working with Exel to import all possible data into EFACS, it soon became clear there was a problem once testing began. Bailey admits candidly, “Basically we thought our data from Sage was very good, but we soon found out that it wasn’t.”

At this stage UEL took the strategic decision to re-evaluate its entire implementation plans. Consequently it was decided that only the data required to go-live would be imported into EFACS, which turned out to be surprisingly little. The problem lay in consolidating the 3 existing data sources of UEL’s redundant bespoke system, its outgoing Sage system, and its current live PDM system, DB Works. Bailey explains what happened next: “The BOM information from our bespoke system was very good, but the sales/customer information was obviously out-of-date. The BOM data from Sage was poor, but the accounts and customer data was good, while DB Works had valuable supporting BOM data. We therefore did a 3 tier implementation taking the strong data from each system.”

It was whilst writing the communication script between DB Works and EFACS that UEL realised that virtually the same script could also perform all the synchronisation duties, thereby achieving the company’s aim of a singularly updated database entity. Bailey also attributes a key element of success to having a system based on live data that everyone could access and experiment with prior to the launch. “Everyone had an icon and login details to the system based on the original data, and we found that people were accessing the system in their own time to get familiar with it and to practice using it. It massively helped reduce any sense of nervousness and fear of the system when we actually went live with the second implementation.”

UEL successfully went live with EFACS E/8 in March 2005 after a week of completing the final data transfers. From the outset UEL has been using the system for a wide range of activities – some planned, others not. Quotations, Sales Orders, Purchase Orders, Supply Chain Management, Stock Control, Work Flow, Traceability, Sub-contractor management and Roll Up costs are all handled by EFACS as per expectations. However, as Bailey describes, one of the most useful features UEL now relies on was only discovered by chance. “Because we’d had a working version of EFACS in place before we went live, we’d all got used to seeing a Document Management icon and never thought to ask what it meant. One day we clicked on it and it was a complete eye-opener. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of functionality. Now we use it to link all scanned paperwork in PDF format to the progress of an order through the system. Whenever anyone is talking to a customer or supplier now they have immediate access to the entire product history, which is ideal when you are dealing with the nature of customers we have that expect instant information and answers.”

Results

This system-wide instant access to information is just one of many benefits UEL has achieved through using EFACS. Certain suppliers and customers even contact the company to check information because UEL can get it quicker than they can from their own systems. A key enabler to people making use of this instant access is the intuitive, ease of use nature of the web browser interface. As Bailey notes, “Everyone’s familiar with the layout and being point and click with multiple levels of drill down people can get to the required information quickly and easily from many different logical places elsewhere in the data.”

The ease with which EFACS manages and controls the data completely eradicates the need for engineering data clerks within the company to continually monitor and update the data. When it comes to real-time, the power of EFACS enables UEL to run MRP each time a new order is entered. Bailey comments that a full MRP run takes less than 15 minutes and “doesn’t kill the rest of the system.” The open access nature of the data also provides visibility across the company from within other systems, meaning that information flow is not kept in disconnected islands. The ability to display targeted data is also something UEL benefits from. According to Bailey, “Even the general manager has his EFACS window open so he can instantly see when an order comes in.”

In a project based business like UEL with natural peaks and troughs it is hard to quantify specific benefits. This is why the company sees a direct correlation between success and turnover/profit. “In this sense EFACS has clearly had a huge impact on the company” admits Bailey. He continues, “Our product lines have quadrupled and our turnover has doubled – which simply could not have happened with our previous system which was struggling with only half the current turnover. We simply couldn’t have got this far without EFACS, and what’s more, the system is coping very comfortably with where we are as a company, so we know it will facilitate considerable further growth.”

As for the future, UEL has ambitious plans to continue exploiting the interconnectivity potential within EFACS, to the extent that the company now has a policy that all other systems must have an SQL backend. This includes Computerised Measuring and Monitoring systems (CMM), automated monitoring of test cells etc. EFACS is also being used to feed information into new bespoke systems currently being developed by UEL. One such system will enable information to be fed back directly from customers about work done “in the field” to products, in order to form a complete product lifecycle history, right down to every process affecting every part. As Bailey concludes, “EFACS is already at the heart of what we do – it’s now a case of building further and more extensively upon this.”

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