Try before you buy

Oxford Magnet Technology is improving productivity with its new IT system. Steve McCormack reports

Companies considering renewing their IT could learn from the experience of Oxford Magnet Technology. At the start of its current £800,000 IT business plan, the company spent two and a half man-years assessing, analysing and proving the technology before a single purchasing decision was taken.

w more than three years into its five-year plan, it is confident this upfront approach was a sound investment.

OMT is the world leader in the design and manufacture of superconducting magnets. These are the key components in medical magnetic resonance imaging systems, the non-invasive alternative to traditional CT X-ray where magnetic resonance is used to produce images of the body.

The company supplies the magnets and support electronics to customers who integrate these components in their imaging products.

OMT was set up in 1982, and since 1989 has been a joint venture between the Oxford Instruments group and Siemens AG, its majority shareholder. It has a turnover of around £70m, with 380 staff, producing around 500 units a year, most of them for export.

When in 1993 it began to reassess its IT systems, there were familiar objectives. Bob Graham, director of production, explains: `We wanted to improve time to market, improve quality of product, reduce unit costs, improve customer service, assist management decision making, reduce inventory and reduce overheads.’

The firm had been using factory management systems for 10 years: it decided on a fresh approach.

`We needed an open strategy that would enable us to mix and match information from manufacturing, engineering, sales and marketing, and financial systems,’ says Graham.

`Our aim is for a fully integrated corporate IT system – the workforce will be linked into the IT system and be capable of contributing to the business via that system.’

Responsibility for the first phase of the IT business plan – the selection and implementation of a new manufacturing production system – was entrusted to a 10-strong team representing different areas of the business, from production and engineering to finance.

Following market evaluation, a shortlist of five firms was invited to tender and perform in simulations. From this shortlist, after just under a year, the team chose the Infoflo manufacturing software, from specialist supplier, Interactive UK.

According to Graham, not only did Infoflo perform best in the selection procedure, but was seen as the most flexible. `This is key, because while the manufacturing production system is a major part of the plan, it is not the plan itself,’ he says.

Within six months, Infoflo went live, in July 1994, with more than 100 users hooked into the new system, which is run on a Unix-based platform from Siemens Nixdorf.

Support from Interactive during the virtually pain-free implementation included operator training, customisation of core software, and transfer of data from the old Manman software to the new system.

Having completed the integrated factory management system, the company moved to the next phase of its plans: ways of linking this with its CAD and word processing systems. As a result, an enterprise-wide network went live last June. It is a collapsed backbone, fibre-optic network with 180 stations, supplied by Siemens Network Services.

Where once there was simply realtime manufacturing information, OMT now enjoys access to realtime sales, financial and manufacturing data, which is essential to its overall aim of a fully integrated corporate system. The firm wants shopfloor workers to be able to access their own workstation, pull up the day’s job specification for the Infoflo software, combine that with drawings from the CAD system, text from the word processing system and, where appropriate, health and safety information from the database, to create the equivalent of an on-line job book.

Data fed into the system will automatically update the logistics systems and, via Infoflo and electronic data interchange links with key suppliers, enable OMT employees to gear-up to just-in-time component delivery.

In line with this, OMT is running a six-month pilot project to eliminate documentation from the factory floor by providing drawings and instructions directly to screen. If this is successful, it will be rolled out across the company.

Despite the inevitable disruption of its IT overhaul, OMT has seen productivity increase in the past 18 months, while unit production is up by 30% in a year. There has been no apparent strain on the new software. Inventory turnover has also improved, thanks to the more integrated IT infrastructure.

The final stage of the IT replacement plan will see the development of applications in response to requests from the workforce.

`Because of the system’s flexibility we can have whatever applications we want and there has been an enormous demand which we are currently evaluating,’ says Graham.

`Introducing IT is the easy bit – achieving your objectives is harder. There is more to it than just choosing the right products – you have to win the commitment of those who will actually use the system.’

Two areas where applications are being developed are document image processing – scanning documents into the system in a move towards a paperless environment – and a system to monitor and control R&D spending by the 50-strong team of development engineers.

Now that the system is embedded in the organisation, says Graham, the next step is to reap the benefits it offers.

{{Factfile

Software: Infoflo manufacturing software from Interactive UKHardware: 180 networked stations running on Unix-based platform from Siemens NixdorfFeatures: lays foundation for a fully integrated corporate IT systemCost: £800,000}}