AK Precision Ltd
AK Precision Ltd is a thriving sub-contracting machine shop with a reputation for using the highest quality components to achieve the right product, delivered at the right time, for the right price. Each product, from a 1mm diameter pin through to a complex hydraulic valve body, is 100% Made to Order and has to meet the most exacting quality standards. Serving a wide range of industry sectors including sub-sea, offshore, motor sport, aerospace, oil and gas exploration, the company has grown steadily throughout its 10 year history and now has 14 machine centres and a skilled workforce of 20 employees.
This steady growth has led to an increasingly complex set of production challenges, which is why AK Precision decided to invest in a specialist production planning and scheduling system from Seiki Systems.
At the heart of these challenges is the diverse nature of products that AK Precision manufactures. Not only do these products vary considerably in physical size and complexity, but also orders can range from single items to batches of 10,000 that need to be called off over a period of time. The company also receives multiple line orders comprising many different components, again in varying quantities. With 14 different machine centres, there are approximately 30 live orders in production at any time, with each job requiring anywhere between 4 and 8 operations. Given the flexible nature of production capabilities within the company, each order can physically have many potential routes through production. To complicate matters further, each new order or repeat order with specification changes requires a new optimised route to be developed from scratch.
It’s no wonder that Managing Director Wayne Read describes order routing and smoothness of flow as one of the company’s primary scheduling challenges. “Many machines are capable of working on a wide variety of orders but some orders require specific machines which means we are always having to juggle priorities.” Anthony Taylor is in charge of Operations and Sales and points out some further considerations. “Given that setup times can be anywhere from 2 to over 10 hours, it’s important to run similar products together wherever possible to minimise wasted time and to maintain the smoothness of flow. This needs to extend beyond setup times and into actual operation run times as these can range between 1 and 40 hours.” And, as Read adds, “depending on the complexity of the set up and production of each operation, we also have to ensure that an appropriately skilled engineer is available at the right machine at the right time.”
This flexibility and complexity creates another key scheduling challenge – knowing what is happening where, and being able to monitor the progress of any and every operation. As Production Coordinator Rebecca Dack elaborates, “It’s more than just visibility of what is happening and where, it’s being able to see to what degree the actual schedule is following the projected schedule.” There are a number of reasons why the actual schedule may deviate. For example, different batches of materials may turn or mill at different rates and even different engineers work at different speeds. There can also be difficulties setting up or issues mid-process. And for new jobs requiring new operation timings, these are largely intelligent estimates which by definition carry an inherent sense of variance. Dack again, “It’s therefore vital to be able to see the impact of any changes on every other order and operation on the schedule. In addition to the reasons already mentioned this is essential as customers often amend an order specification or add additional items to an order. “You also need to be able to factor in other short term issues such as illness and longer term considerations such as holidays” adds Read. “All of which impacts the production schedule and all of which needs to be understood so that we can take the best course of action for the company.”
Prior to investing in the Seiki scheduler, AK Precision had historically used a mixture of spreadsheets and tee-cards to try and overcome these production scheduling challenges. Taylor recalls how frustrating and inefficient spreadsheets used to be. “We tried a variety of spreadsheets but they all had too many variables and needed continued updating which often meant you were doing nothing other than working on a spreadsheet which might turn out to be a different version to someone else’s.” Read adds, “Spreadsheets were always prone to human error and at the end of the day still didn’t provide us with the flexibility we needed.” A move to a manual tee-card system brought an initial improvement in visibility but was still completely reliant on being manually updated, accurately, as and when required. It still offered no real visibility on the impact of any changes and left significant room for error. A final attempt to make better use of spreadsheets ultimately failed for the same reasons as before which is when the company began its search for a more intelligent scheduling solution.
Read also points out that the company’s considerable ongoing growth in terms of number of machines and people as well as orders, added significant pressure to move to a specialist solution that could handle the company’s existing challenges but that was also flexible enough to grow with the company. He had previous experience of a number of systems, including Seiki Systems, and commenced an initial review of solutions via the Internet. A number were rejected at this stage because they were either too generic or lacked the power and flexibility to meet the company’s present and future requirements. “Given the specialist nature of our work we needed an equally specialist solution designed to work in a machining and engineering environment. This was the one of key strengths of Seiki Systems for us.”
There were a number of other key considerations, all of which were met by the Seiki Systems Scheduler. These included the need to be able to schedule ‘on the fly’, to carry our quick and complex ‘what-if’ scenarios, and to provide a high level of visibility across every element of the schedule. Furthermore, Seiki Systems had experience of integrating the solution with AK Precision’s primary PROGRESS business system. Read explains, “From the outset we all had a sense that Seiki understood our business and our account manager Neil Saunders and the wider Seiki team felt like people we could work with well.” Dack adds, “From the initial rapport through to the system being implemented and ongoing this has proved to be the case.”
A decision was therefore taken to implement the Seiki Scheduler, and the installation was completed by Seiki in less than a week with no impact on the day-to-day running of the business. Taylor comments, “They came in and did everything, including the interface with PROGRESS. Our only input was for training which they also came and did on-site.” Reflecting on going live immediately after system was implemented Read remarks, “There’s only one way to really stress test a system and that’s to start using it in the real world, which is what we did.” This achieved the company’s aim of identifying any areas which needed further refining. These were all collated into a list and taken with an image of AK Precision’s data to Seiki Systems where they worked directly with Seiki’s Scheduler experts to configure and fine tune the system to match the company’s exact working requirements. These changes were then applied remotely via the Internet and it wasn’t long before the first major benefits started to appear.
Production Coordinator Dack describes the impact of the improved visibility provided by the Seiki Scheduler as “massive.” She continues, “Now we could see not just every order on the schedule but how they all interacted with each other. Previously we might have made changes to the schedule to address an issue only to find out later that these were detrimental. Now we can make much better informed decisions, and with increased confidence.” She highlights the specific example of batching or grouping products. “As mentioned, we try to group products wherever possible to minimise setup and changeover times and maintain a smoothness of flow. There are however times where other considerations mean it is commercially better not to group products. The new system lets us evaluate this on a case by case basis.” Read adds, “In a very real way, the Seiki Scheduler has actually made Becks’ job possible. Production meetings which used to take forever and a day now take 30 minutes tops.”
The ability to generate the best possible schedule maximising the company’s human and machine resources has brought a number of direct time and cost savings including an increase in turnover and a 50% reduction in Work in Progress. It has also brought a number of additional benefits, including highlighting where manual routings for new or existing products are wrong or inefficient. And, because each machine now has an accurate work-to list (impossible before), operators can now see not just what job needs to be done and when, but what work is coming down the line. As Taylor notes, “Not only does this make the transition from one job to another smoother, it also gives the production staff a real opportunity to input positive suggestions into the schedule. These can then be tested and evaluated and when appropriate, acted on.” Read adds, “This has been a positive way of generating the buy-in from the production staff and has helped create an even stronger team spirit within the company.”
Another key benefit is that AK Precision is now able to compare projected and actual schedules in real time. Because the start and stop times of every operation are automatically logged on the system, the schedule is continually updated which means that any delays can be flagged up as soon as they occur. This also helps identify time savings where operations finish quicker than scheduled which combined with ability to then investigate ‘what-if’ scenarios, enables the company to see which orders can be moved forward. The ‘what-if’ capabilities of the Seiki Scheduler are already being used with a view to assisting strategic capital purchase decisions.
Looking to the future, AK Precision is aware that there is much more to come from its investment and partnership with Seiki Systems. The company has just installed a large screen monitor in the planning office which is used in production meetings to show all those involved the current schedule. The next stage is to install several screens on the production floor so that all personnel can not only see the current jobs and forthcoming jobs, but also whether a given job is above or behind schedule. This will enable the company to do away with the paperwork and potential human error associated with ‘work to’ lists. As Read explains, “By enabling everyone to see the visibility of the schedule, they can see the impact of what they do not just on the job they are working on, but the schedule and therefore the company as a whole.”
The final word belongs equally to Read, Taylor and Dack – each of which has a different perspective on the benefits of the Seiki Scheduler on the company. From the production floor, Dack comments, “It has simplified the work load and made it much more efficient.” Taylor adds, “We now have greater overall visibility, not just from one point of view, but from everybody’s.” Read concludes with a strategic reflection. “Personally speaking it has freed my time up which can then be used elsewhere. From a company perspective, it’s enabled us to move on and is providing the basis for future growth.”
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