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Software makes short work of multiple manufacturing tasks

When Factura switched over to its new software system in January, managers at the Rochester manufacturer figured they wouldn’t reap anticipated rewards from the state-of-the-art system for at least a year.
They were wrong.
“It saved us,” says William Graham, director of operations.
“It’s my honest belief that we’d be dead in the water without this system,” Graham maintains. “We’d probably be performing, but we’d be performing badly.”
Software has been used by manufacturers for decades to handle low-level processes, machinery control like opening and closing valves, or managing the flow of materials through the production line.
Since the early 1990s, however, software programs have tackled more complicated tasks. At a relatively low cost, programs now integrate all aspects of manufacturing, from production scheduling and job tracking to inventory management and quality control.
Richard Salisbury, MES program manager for ABB Industrial Systems Inc.’s manufacturing-execution-systems business unit in Rochester, says today’s software is used by managers to make better decisions regarding their production processes.
When making millions of rolls of film, a company like Eastman Kodak Co. can use software programs to measure the thickness of the film on each roll, for example. If a quality-control engineer catches a defect in one of these rolls, she could call up the data to get a precise profile of the film to evaluate exactly where and how the flaw developed.
Manufacturers can “look at this information to see how to make a better product,” Salisbury says.
Douglas Charlton, who leads the consultancy D.H. Charlton Associates, has set up nearly 50 such software systems for manufacturers large and small.
Last year, Charlton installed the integrated-business-software system at Factura, a division of MicroTouch Systems Inc. that makes cabinets for computerized vending and information kiosks.
The system–several software modules knitted together–takes information about customer orders, inventory, personnel and other components of the manufacturing process to help managers run their business.
“It’s only as good as the information you give it, but it does a very good job of roughing it out,” Charlton says.
When an order is scheduled for production, Factura managers tell the system how many of its 95 workers are on the job. The system checks available inventory and spits out an estimate of when the order might be completed and what parts need to be ordered.
Workers can tap a data base to get information on the order, rather than getting it through a “vast amount of e-mail flitting back and forth,” Graham says. And the system ensures that all materials are used, down to the last screw.
Previously, only the larger components were tracked for each job, Graham says. “But if you don’t have the screw you need, you still don’t ship.”
The software also tells managers order-by-order what their margins are, Charlton says. As materials and labor are consumed, the software reports what your company is really spending vs. what price you quoted to your customer.
“It tells you what product lines are dogs that you should probably get rid of,” Charlton says.
Finally, when a customer order is shipped the system automatically generates an invoice–no more lost-in-the- shuffle paperwork.
Beyond simply streamlining the manufacturing process, Factura’s software has allowed it to handle heart-stopping growth this year.
The firm planned for a 50 percent growth rate, Graham says. What it got is a whopping 250 percent increase in orders over last year. The software is “the only thing that’s allowed us to handle that.”
Slick software alone was not the only key.
“If you put in a system but don’t change your business processes, you gain nothing,” Charlton warns.
In Charlton’s estimation–a view backed by national statistics and his own experience–only 10 percent to 20 percent of these systems are successfully implemented.
“But if you ask people if they’re successful, 90 percent will say yes,” he adds. “Nobody wants to look like they spent money but didn’t get payback.”
As for Factura, “they’re on their way,” Charlton says.
In conjunction with its new software system, the firm completely revamped its business structure, Graham reports.
Rather than operating on a job-by-job basis, Factura now runs three groups: one for prototype manufacturing; one for production of small post-prototype orders; and a third for repetitive manufacturing, setting up temporary production lines for larger orders over a two- or three-week period.
To make its transition, Factura spent roughly $40,000 for the software and networked computers needed to run the system. The firm also invested in training, making sure at least two employees know how to run the system and that everyone else knows how to use it for their specific job.
In the past, such sophisticated systems could cost millions of dollars–a prohibitive price for most small and midsize manufacturers. But costs for these software systems have dropped dramatically over the past few years as computing costs in general have fallen.
In some cases, manufacturers are using an even more cost-effective approach via the Internet.
PSC Inc. of Webster has used automation software for years in building its bar-code scanning systems. Just recently, however, the firm has turned to the Internet to help streamline its overall manufacturing process, everything from order entry to shipping.
It all started when a technician suggested building an intranet–an Internet site accessible only to PSC workers–to handle documentation, explains Andrew Lacy, a manufacturing engineer at PSC.
PSC loaded all the documentation for its manufacturing processes–detailed procedures of everything from conducting circuit-board tests to labeling the finished product–onto its intranet site.
The cost was minimal. Lacy estimates between 40 and 80 hours of engineering power was needed to set up the Web pages and transfer the documentation. In addition to labor, PSC invested in several computer terminals to put on the floor, making sure all manufacturing employees have easy access.
Although PSC has not formally measured productivity gains, Lacy says the 10 hours a week he used to spend writing and updating the procedure books has been shaved to one or two hours.
Quality assurance gets a boost, too. Variability is virtually eliminated because everyone has access to the most up-to-date information.
“I see immediate paybacks with regards to that,” Lacy says. “There’s never a question of whether I have the latest procedure, or is this procedure right.”
Although the intranet started out as a way to get rid of cumbersome procedure books, managers quickly realized its potential for other applications.
PSC has designed a job-tracking system that is in the pilot stage, Lacy says. Each job order is given a number that is entered into the system. When the job moves from one station to the next, that information is entered as well.
“At any time, anyone can enter the job number and what comes up is a trail of where it’s been, how long it was there and where it is now,” Lacy explains.
The paper trail previously used to track orders through the manufacturing process is being eliminated. And several expediters who spent their days keeping tabs on each job are being freed to do more “meaningful” work, Lacy says.
The job-tracking system took only an hour or so to create. Says Lacy: “You put in an hour’s worth of work and you get immense payback.”
The manufacturer now is figuring out what other ways it can use its intranet.
“It’s a simple way of sharing information across platforms,” Lacy says. “It enhances the production process.”

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