Vickers Laboratories Ltd - EFACS E/8 adapts to the world of hazardous chemicals

Established by the Vickers family in 1969, Vickers Laboratories based in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, is a successful manufacturer and supplier of a wide range of chemicals. The £3m turnover company with a workforce of 30 has a diverse number of markets including primary and secondary education, pharmaceuticals as well as specialist niches such as monitoring and measuring, and contact lenses. Due to some products being classified as Dangerous Goods means that Vickers has to work in a highly regulated environment which any IT system also has to conform to. When the company therefore needed to replace its highly bespoke business management system, the unanimous choice was EFACS E/8 from Exel Computer Systems plc.

The nature of business at Vickers essentially falls into two key areas. Goods are either purchased in bulk then broken down and repackaged into smaller amounts and sold on, either as own brand or third party, or goods are purchased, mixed to form new products and then packaged into required sizes. 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.

The then owner's wife was a Project Manager and together with Mike and Rob, they began researching alternative systems. After visiting various trade shows they drew up a wish-list which was sent to 12 vendors. As Rob recalls, "Most came back and said they couldn't do anything as complex as we required so we were left with four vendors who we then invited to come and do a half day demo." All areas of the business were involved in this process and after one obviously weak candidate was dropped it came down to a choice between three. Mike explains the straightforward reason why at an overall business level the decision was made to go for EFACS E/8. "We got everyone together and asked them and everyone said EFACS E/8. It was as simple as that." He continues, "From a personal perspective, I was impressed by the underlying technology level, that it was browser/java-based. It was also very customisable, especially with the ADAPT toolkit, and offered areas of functionality such as workflow that I could see would be advantageous." Rob adds, "We also had the confidence that EFACS E/8 was the system that could most readily be adapted to the world of hazardous chemicals."

After a positive decision to invest in EFACS E/8 in 2007, there then follows what Mike jokingly refers to as the ‘longest EFACS E/8 implementation ever." This however was not due to the customisation required, but to a significant change in regulations that occurred mid-way through implementation. "We had to decide whether we could make EFACS E/8 compatible with the new classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures (CLP) regulations but there was huge uncertainty about what the finalised versions of these would be." The company therefore decided as an interim step to suspend the implementation and amend its existing system because this was simpler to do in the time scales required. During this time the company also embarked on a management buyout which for a number of reasons lasted two years. The EFACS E/8 implementation was picked up when the company was finally sold in 2010 and at this stage Rob was brought in to oversee the implementation because of the strength of his understanding of the processes and people involved in the company.

The implementation then proceeded with the team focussing on individual "chunks" of the company at a time, e.g. goods in, manufacturing, dispatch, etc. "This gave us much more chance to really focus not just on how we currently did things but to review how we might do them better using EFACS E/8" explains Mike. "It soon became clear that whilst some areas needed EFACS E/8 to be customised to follow our existing processes, there were others, workflow for example, that would work better if we did things the way EFACS E/8 wanted." Rob adds, "It also gave us an opportunity to do things in a more logical way and to get the necessary acceptance from the company which would have been difficult if we had tried to make the same changes with the old system." Mike's experience of having made the old system CLP compliant also proved of benefit in working with Exel to ensure that EFACS E/8 was compliant, and as he says, "all of this of course had to be done as much as possible without impacting the day to day running of the company."

Vickers achieved the same minimal disruption to daily business when EFACS E/8 finally went live in March 2013 with Rob recalling, "While we had lots of teething problems relating to things we hadn't foreseen, we were able to trade from day one with no issues." Benefits were felt from the outset due to the inherent workflow built into EFACS E/8 which significantly tightened up what could and couldn't be done at each process step. "Take pick notes for example," says Mike, "before it would have been possible to generate a pick note with no link to stock availability and the first anyone would know would be when someone found an empty shelf. Now with EFACS E/8, a pick note can only be generated if there is confirmed availability." This has been repeated across the company in many different ways which means that everyone has become more focussed and trusts what the system is telling them. Goods in and goods out are areas where EFACS E/8 has added significant benefits for Vickers. For example, when goods are delivered to Vickers, there are regulatory considerations about how and where these must be stored. These rules are built into EFACS E/8 which means the operative is only shown the physical stock locations available for each specific incoming product as determined by the rules. It is the same for goods out where finished products for immediate dispatch as well as stock are located in the same physical space. EFACS E/8 now informs the operative exactly where each finished product is to be stored and provides real-time visibility of where everything is.

Real-time visibility and availability of information within EFACS E/8 benefits every department. Data is now exported directly from EFACS E/8 to appropriate spreadsheets which are then delivered to each department. Previously, this information took a lot longer to generate and was supplied on paper which could easily get lost or be ignored. As Mike notes, "People now have no alternative but to work the way EFACS E/8 says using the information that EFACS E/8 provides. And, because production staff have to enter start and stop times for each process step as well as outcome, we have real-time visibility of what is happening and where." This visibility and availability of information as well as a structured workflow has empowered those with responsibility for planning and sequencing the use of vessels and testing to reduce bottlenecks in these areas. Another area where working the EFACS E/8 way has benefited Vickers is that it is now possible to categorise products, which not only provides better information but also helps with making more informed decisions such as optimising any EBQ considerations. Likewise, because the MRP in EFACS E/8 now includes raw materials, more informed ‘end to end' business decisions can be taken, such as what to make and when.

It's not just availability of information but the ease with which this information can also be communicated that benefits Vickers. Take for example its dedicated printing area which comprises a number of printing machines which have to deal with a large variety of label shapes and sizes. All relevant labelling information is generated by and stored within EFACS E/8 but seamlessly communicated to the company's new specialist label management system. Another example is in the dispatch area where upon hitting the ‘dispatch' icon in EFACS E/8, all essential data such as service level, product description, hazardous warning information, Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) is automatically generated, and where necessary, transmitted direct to the courier/transport company.

Mike sees the core functionality within EFACS E/8 as providing a "whole new toolset" which lets the company do things that it previously couldn't. "Take Document Management for example. This is something which makes getting to the relevant information so much easier and something we wouldn't have even considered before." It's a toolkit which Vickers intends using considerably over the coming years to develop key areas within the business, the number one priority according to Rob being extending the company's use of EFACS E/8's CRM capabilities. "This offers some very powerful marketing tools which ties in with a concerted marketing drive we are having as a business." There are plans also to extend the use of EFACS E/8's Shop Floor Data Capture (SFDC) capabilities combined with touchscreens to different areas of the company to streamline and further automate the flow of goods and information through the company.

With this in mind Mike offers his concluding thoughts on what EFACS E/8 has brought to Vickers. "With EFACS E/8, we have the ability to tailor our system to meet the requirements of our customers while maintaining the benefits of a commercially developed and supported integrated package." To this Rob adds, "It's a toolkit which has already helped us improve a number of ways we work as a company and offers us the potential to keep making improvements as the business grows."