IT and the science of manufacturing

2 mins read

Engineering projects to order can be expensive. Brian Tinham talks to Bede about its solution

Visibility of the whole business, with sales, engineering, production, service and finance all in touch and synchronised – that's the picture at analytical X-ray equipment maker Bede Scientific following implementation of its ERP system two years ago – and it's now getting even better. But it hasn't always been like that. Bede, based in Durham, designs and manufactures X-ray metrology equipment for the semiconductor industry, and thus has to operate on the margins of engineer- and make-to-order. Three years ago, it was reliant on non-integrated departmental Excel spreadsheets and Access databases to manage everything from quotations, to sales order processing, BoMs (bills of materials) and shipments. Hardly efficient and, with the prospect of considerable growth, things had to change. Making the change meant rethinking, and not just the IT but its product ranges, the scale of allowed permutations and how engineering development dovetails with that and production for customer developments. Indeed, Bernd Schalks, manufacturing manager, says moving the company forward has been a top-to-bottom exercise, leaning on the structure and modern business process integration provided by a new IFS ERP system. Integrated configurator Following product rationalisation, for example, Bede now uses its configurator software to manage product options at the sales end. "As sales people and customers select options, below that the system configures manufacturing options with components, routings and operation times," explains Schalks. The system can generate an instant quotation, backed by real cost and margin data – and following order confirmation, it also provides manufacturing and procurement instructions. That allows make-to-order management, with engineering focused back mostly on new product development. And even that remains flexible: "If necessary, changes can be made to a product for whatever reason, and again we can use the system to create specials, with all customer-specific changes logged," says Schalks. It's all about visibility, integration and automation. Now, sales engineering and quoting is structured, with data from production engineering and job costing feeding in, and even new product introduction and service linked into a unified database. And that's reflected across people and departments, with project builds and changes managed by a planning co-ordinator whose team includes sales, application scientists, engineering, production, service and so on. To get an idea of scale, Schalks says: "Every build is a project: even if it's a relatively standard product, it's about a four to eight week cycle of build and test. For the more complex specials, that can be 12 weeks or more." And in terms of operations, that results in typically 700 shop orders at any one time on a mix of subassembly cells and flow lines, representing between 10 and 20 projects, as well as concurrent engineering development. Nevertheless, scheduling is not done within IFS. "That's still on spreadsheets," admits Schalks. "We're not using the scheduling software." And Bede hasn't introduced shopfloor data collection (SFDC) beyond time recording. In production, everything is driven by the works order instructions, derived from the configurator output, and managed by the project team. For Schalks, the key to getting this business under control and gearing it for growth has been the unified database and the associated automation, alongside the modern, team-orientated business processes it has enabled. He notes several improvements in key standard measures. "Stock integrity, for example, is now within 0.8%: that's a significant improvement. Having that degree of accuracy means it's easier to commit delivery dates without inventory costs."