Goodbye to guesswork

Software designed for small-batch manufacturers aims to cut the guesswork involved in tracing the progress of jobs, reports Diane Palframan

UK job shops – companies that make one-offs or small batches of products for a variety of customers – are being targeted with a growing number of software products developed to help them manage their businesses without resorting to fire-fighting.

Job shops tend to be small or medium-sized companies that need to be able to schedule multiple jobs through their factories and ensure each meets the costs and delivery date quoted to the customer.

Many UK manufacturers fall into this make-to-order category but few have invested in a fully integrated shop management package to help with quoting, scheduling, purchasing, materials management, shopfloor data capture and accounting.

This is not because they are unfamiliar with computer systems. Many are already using spreadsheets for job estimates and production planning, some have developed their own software while others have opted for manufacturing resources planning packages.

For some of these companies, therefore, further investment in integrated software may appear to be too expensive, too complex or time consuming to contemplate.

Developers of job shop software claim it is affordable, quick to implement, easy to use and can deliver a return on investment in less than a year. Epicor (the US-owned software developer formed from the merger of Platinum Software and DataWorks) estimates that a six-user system, incorporating its Vista software which is aimed at job shops with a single-level bill of materials, will cost about £12,000 plus £3,000 for implementation. A similar system using its Vantage software for companies with multi-level bill of materials will cost a total of £25,000.

`Some job shops buy cheap software and then find that it costs triple that amount to implement, which many companies can’t afford,’ warns Ian Walker, Epicor’s UK sales manager. `Our systems don’t need IT specialists to install or run. Training graphics are built in, making them easy to learn and use.’

Epicor is a relative newcomer to the UK job shop software market, but says it has sold 68 Vista systems and 30 Vantage systems in the UK.

Data loading

The time taken to implement job shop software depends on the size of the system and the resources available to transfer data which is held either on other systems or on paper. The amount of data loading involved is often a big concern of potential software purchasers and vendors tend to recommend that the task is carried out in phases.

`We suggest companies start by entering data about the customers and suppliers they’ve done business with and the materials and work centres they’ve used for the past few months,’ says Philip Huckin, general manager of JobBoss Software, a US firm that opened a UK office at the end of last year, and was acquired by the UK’s Kewill Systems. `Then they can add new jobs as they come in.’ Huckin forecasts that JobBoss will have sold about 60 systems in the UK by the end of the year.

Using this phased approach, a complete system implementation will take a few months. However, some companies keen to get business benefits as soon as possible can reduce this time to a few weeks.

Western Tooling, a Poole-based job shop with 14 employees, invested £10,000 in a Vista system in late 1997 to replace a custom-built system developed by a local firm.

`Once I’d spent the money, I wanted something back from it,’ says Paul Wareham, Western Tooling’s managing director and part owner. `I spent a week working from seven to eleven to get the data about our repeat jobs into the system so that we could start using it. Within three weeks, most of the data was in and within six weeks we were working relatively comfortably with the system.’

Once shop management systems are up and running, much of the guess-work is removed about the status of work in progress, job costing and delivery dates, the productivity and utilisation of work centres, and which jobs have made a profit.

`A small shop may have 20 projects under way at the same time, a larger one possibly 200. It is virtually impossible to hold in your head the status of all these contracts and how late they might be going,’ says Peter Whelerton, Merryweather’s product manager.

`This is why you need a system to give you an overall picture of where you are and what will happen when you take on another job. Once you’ve got this visibility, you can start to do things better.’

Merryweather’s MC2000 software, developed in the UK, is aimed at small and medium-sized manufacturers of one-offs. It is based on a bill of materials that defines the materials and operations needed for each contract.

This is in contrast to traditional manufacturing resources planning packages, which are driven by part numbers and generally regarded as unsuitable for job shops.

For example, Cobble Blackburn, a manufacturer of carpet-making machines, swapped its manufacturing resources planning system for a Jobscope package from Timegate last year. The company wanted a system that would relate each component, whether purchased or made in-house, to a specific contract.

This would allow components to go directly to the machine assembly area without passing through a stores area, and help contract costing analysis.

Whelerton explains how an integrated shop management system might work. Starting with the preparation of a new quote, a sales person is able to access previous similar jobs and build up all the materials, labour and machine centres needed for the new job. The cost of the job and the time it will take are then automatically calculated.

If the order is confirmed, the materials that need to be ordered and the production plan are again automatically generated.

Increased efficiency

One of the advantages of using such a system is increased efficiency because data is entered only once; the system then processes the data and the results are immediately visible. Having access to this information can have a big impact on a job shop’s lead times, stock control, productivity and delivery performance.

David Bailey, sales and marketing manager of Quality Manufacturing Systems, the UK developer of JobShop software, cites one of its users, Pyramid Precision of Telford, which, since installing the software, has increased on-time deliveries from 40% to 90%.

Western Tooling reduced its stock of finished and semi-finished goods by 30% in the first three months of installing its Vista system. It has also increased revenues, which the company partly puts down to the software because it introduces a more disciplined way of working.

`The bottom line in using these systems is increasing customer confidence in your ability to do a job at the right price and within the time quoted,’ says Bailey.

`They allow you to identify problems, perform “what-if” analyses – for example, what if we change priorities or split batches – and then take the appropriate actions before you reach the crisis management stage.’