Stainless Steel Fasteners - Improving connectivity and visibility with EFACS E/8

Stainless Steel Fasteners Ltd (SSF) is worldwide market leader in the field of special fastener manufacturing with a unique blend of traditional manufacturing machinery and the very latest CNC and computer technology. With a heritage spanning over 40 years, the £9m turnover company employs 82 skilled personnel and supplies high integrity, high quality products and services primarily to the oil, gas and associated industries. Full traceability is an absolute prerequisite as many of its products are used in mission critical applications so when SSF needed to replace its aging disconnected business systems, it knew it needed a fully integrated solution and a supplier that was totally dependable. It found the exact fit in EFACS E/8 from Exel Computer Systems.

In addition to exacting quality standards, flexibility lies at the heart of success for SSF. A 100% Make to Order (MTO) manufacturer, SSF has a potential range of product permutations in excess of 20 million, taking diameter, length, materials and finishes into account. Orders extend from oneoffs through to batches of 10,000 with multiple calloffs with a number of products being able to be manufactured in a variety of ways depending on urgency and cost. Typical lead times for the 20 orders processed on average each day are 2-3 weeks although this can be as low as 24 hours for extremely urgent orders that can physically be manufactured in this time.

In terms of business flow, much of the value-add is done before the order is dispatched to the production floor and its collection of 50+ production resources. When a Sales Order is received it is checked against customer enquiries before undergoing a product configuration process which generates the required part number. A Works Order is then raised, stock availability checked with the Works Order then checked by SSF's Quality Manager for material certification conformity etc. The order is then released to the shop floor where it can undergo a wide range of operations that begin with a further quality check on the raw materials allocated for the order. After this, the product undergoes intermediate product forming before a variety of finishing processes, final inspection, final marking and then packing and despatch. Subcontracting can also occur at any stage of the process depending on the nature of the product.

Stephen Wilkinson, Managing Director of SSF, has been with the company for 26 years and explains the key business challenges his company has to deal with. "Let's begin with the customer as ultimately everything revolves around the customer and their requirements. It is essential that we maintain excellent customer relations by delivering product and service of the highest quality." He continues, "Because our customers may make annual purchases, it is also paramount that we keep just the right balance between continually being in our customer's mind for when it comes to them making a purchase and not being a nuisance. This is especially the case where specific customers require very exotic materials which may have long lead times that we might need to pre-order."

Another key challenge is the need for absolute accuracy at every stage of the business, especially at the early order processing stage. A single typing error may render an entire order unusable which can not only be costly given the nature of materials used, but also result in a customer not getting their order as expected. This is held in tension with the need to process orders and have them on the shop floor as quickly as possible in order to meet the tight lead times that are involved.

Visibility is also a major challenge and not just as expected on the shop floor as Wilkinson explains. "Having access to historical information, at a customer, order and stock level, is important to be able to make the best strategic and tactical decisions." He cites the ability to review the price and availability of stock as an example. "We deal with materials with varying degrees of availability and fluctuating prices. By having a historical record of who tends to buy what, and when, we can time our buying to take advantage of particularly favourable conditions."

As mentioned, flexibility is central to successfully making those all important delivery dates which is why SSF has a wide range of what Wilkinson refers to as "flexible routes of product realisation." Quite often however, this is highly specialised information known only to key personnel in the company who can then make the decision as to which production route to use and in what circumstances. It is imperative that resources are utilised efficiently although as Wilkinson adds, "always with a strong sense of the cost/benefit involved." Finally, traceability is essential with different products requiring different degrees of testing in order to conform to customer requirements.

Prior to investing in EFACS E/8, SSF had relied on an aging Sage Line 100 system, a separate Customer Relationship Management (CRM) program, and a range of spreadsheets for production control. Despite various Visual Basic (VB) tie-ins, there was no sense of integration with data duplication being rife, along with the potential for data variance in each system. Given the bespoke nature of every order, each order increased the risk of data duplication due to the lack of internal consistency. Wilkinson explains why this was a problem. "Every order on our Sage system had to be manually entered in 4 lines of generic text and with no internal consistency, operators could process the same product twice but use different order descriptions on different days. This was also subject to operator experience and different people would make different assumptions and use a variety of abbreviations to say the same thing."

In terms of stock control, the system at best was able to keep limited stock availability information but even here, the information was difficult to get to. Data issues hit the critical area of CRM hard with typing mistakes leading to several entries for the same customer with vital buying information spread across different records, all of which could be potentially missed or which took significant time to double check. In addition to looming obsolescence of its Sage system, it was becoming increasingly clear that the company's all important flexibility was being compromised by rigid and complex systems which were heavily reliant on the expert knowledge of its users to get meaningful information out.

As two companies within the group were already successfully using EFACS E/8, Wilkinson and SSF naturally were drawn to this. The implementation route they chose however was quite different and reflected the need for any replacement system to be a success from day one. As Wilkinson recalls, "We'd heard horror stories of companies putting in systems and then being unable to do business for weeks if not months. Nothing could be allowed to negatively impact on our quality of product and service to our customers."

SSF therefore bought two EFACS E/8 licences and began a high level mapping of the company's business processes with EFACS' capabilities. Wilkinson brought in key personnel within the company to add their expert insight into what EFACS E/8 would need to do in order to replicate their existing processes. A fundamental issue for SSF was the need to quickly and accurately allocate product numbers from the 20 million possible permutations. As working these out and entering them beforehand was completely impractical, the only alternative was to be able to do this dynamically. Even a skilled operator might take half a day to do this manually for 10 items so this was clearly an area that could be improved on.

The solution lay in Wilkinson and others spending 9 months distilling their expert knowledge into an inhouse configuration program which now enables a skilled operator to generate a part number in twenty seconds by answering 8 questions with 9 mouse clicks. As Wilkinson is quick to point out, the technological infrastructure of EFACS E/8 makes linking this data very straightforward. "One of the strengths of EFACS E/8 is its centralised SQL database which allows very open access to the data outside of EFACS E/8 as well as a great deal of flexibility within EFACS E/8."

Once this was in place, the company invested another year testing and developing every aspect of its EFACS E/8 system. At this stage, all potential users of the systems were consulted and shown how the system worked and following healthy interactions, any system customising that was required was actioned. Only one external customisation was required from Exel and that was to enable SSF to dynamically re-route a works order once it had been issued which reflected the potential and often used flexibility within the company. An intense month of testing in December 07 including parallel running with Sage proved the viability of the system and following final data imports, SSF went live with EFACS E/8, as planned, in January 2008.

Most importantly for SSF, there was no impact on its existing business and by the end of the first day there was no backlog of work on the system at all. Matthew Tongue is SSF's Resource Manager and he comments on where the benefits were felt first in the company. "From the outset we found all the material control data to be totally accurate and providing the variable route flexibility we needed in order to deliver the quality and flexibility required by our customers. Other benefits however were gradual and reflect the reality of change within any company, as Wilkinson explains. "Purchasing took approximately 6 months of using and trusting the system before they began to see additional ways that EFACS E/8 could help them do their job better. This was largely as the system gradually accumulated historic data which could then be easily accessed and mined to provide genuine business intelligence benefits." It is estimated that EFACS E/8 has on the whole led to increased efficiency resulting in an increased focus on purchasing strategy. By using the workflow capabilities within EFACS E/8, it is now quick and easy to access and review all relevant testing certification per order which in turn helps ensure that the most accurate and cost effective price can be given.

The same was true concerning the company's customer focus with the integrated CRM capabilities of EFACS E/8 having proved to be one of the most significant areas of benefit. Now the Sales team is able to monitor and analyse to great depths, all the company's customer facing activity. This has brought visibility on buying patterns and trends and allowed much more strategic purchasing as well as ensuring that the company is best placed to meet the demands of its customers. This is especially the case when responding to customer queries concerning existing orders where Wilkinson says there has been a spectacular 90% reduction in time taken to be able to get the customer the information he or she wants.

By incorporating the expert knowledge previously held in different individuals throughout the company within EFACS E/8, SSF is now able to train replacement and additional staff much, much quicker. Tongue remarks that whereas previously it could take six months for a new employee to be proficient in knowing the complexities of how the company works, now with EFACS E/8 they can make a valid contribution within a very short timescale. Moreover, the system ensures complete consistency of information irrespective of who is using it, which has eradicated data duplication errors at a stroke.

Looking to the future Wilkinson and Tongue see further benefits to be had from a deeper use of EFACS' existing functionality, especially in the area of CRM. Machine timings and routings may well be added into wider MRP/ERP considerations in addition to further streamlining of Export documentation where EFACS E/8 has already saved one week per month. For Tongue, the greatest benefit of EFACS E/8 so far is its flexibility and dependability which has provided greater consistency in quality and service and only serves to make things better for the customer. The final word however belongs to Wilkinson. "The added value that EFACS E/8 has brought matches the development aspirations of the company. I couldn't imagine going back to what we had before."