While the company only deals with an average of 30-40 orders per day, a product range of 2500+ items and over 6000 SKUs presents a considerable challenge. This challenge is increased given that orders may range from a 10ml bottle to a 1000l batch with raw materials being supplied in sizes from 0.01gm to Tonnage Quantities. The hazardous nature of many of these chemicals means that different products need to be stored in specific ways to comply with ever changing regulations. Varying shelf lives add to the complexity, as do lead times for certain chemicals where there may only be one or two suppliers in the entire world.
This complexity extends to what would otherwise be a very straightforward manufacturing process. With the exception of the product(s) supplied to the contact lens industry, manufacturing is literally mixing the required chemicals in the appropriate way in any of the different sized mixing vessels after which the end product is tested, and adjusted accordingly where necessary. Once complete, the finished goods are then packed to customer specifications and sent to dispatch. 70% of all products are Make to Stock but given the nature of the finished goods, most products are actually dispatched within a week of manufacture.
IS Manager Rob Brown explains why the reality is far from straightforward. “Whilst we have 14 mixing vessels ranging from 25l to 7000l, and in theory any order can go into any vessel as long as it physically fits, finding optimal use of this capacity is a real challenge. This is because we have to balance specific order requirements against Economic Batch Quantity considerations which vary depending on the shelf life of the raw materials involved as well as the finished product.” He continues, “Certain products also vary in strength or composition over time while in the mixing vessels which means we have to accurately and regularly test to get it within specification. However, this requires having well trained employee’s available as well as free space in the Analytical Laboratory. Any delay can have an effect on the product still in the mixing vessel.”
Senior Developer Mike Grimshaw picks up the story. “Add to this the fact that certain tests require specialist equipment and can take a considerable time, and you can see why the Analytical Laboratory can become a significant bottleneck.” He returns to the sequencing challenges. “We also have to factor in that different products require different cleaning and set-up times, with certain products actually requiring an interim test stage to check that the vessel is free from contamination.” Some products, such as reagents used in the utility sector, add another layer of complexity altogether as Rob explains. “In this case we have to make ‘matched sets’ which means that all 4 products have to be manufactured and tested against each other as well as the required specification. This requires four suitable vessels as well as increased analytical staff and packaging capacity.” Add to this the fact that every aspect of the business is heavily regulated, from raw materials/finished goods storage, the provision of up-to-date product information sheets/packing information, as well as keeping staff safe and the scope of the challenges faced on a daily basis becomes even more apparent.
It goes without saying that rigorous processes have to be in place in such an environment and any IT system has to be highly customised to deliver value. For Vickers, this was an off the shelf COBOL-based system that had been implemented in the 1970s but after the vendor went bust had been extensively and continually modified in-house over the years. Mike himself had overseen this since the early 1990s and therefore had a unique knowledge of its strengths and weaknesses. “Whilst the system served its purpose well and could even handle EDI orders, its MRP functionality was crude, the accounts were weak and various other areas could have been improved.” However, it was the recognition of just how much the system relied on Mike, especially when the then owner was contemplating selling the business, which prompted the decision to look for a replacement.