For the majority of manufacturing businesses, getting information from the shop floor to the boardroom is still an issue that needs resolving, before you even mention the Internet or supply chains. And even industry analysts agree that getting your own house in order first, before embarking on ambitious e-business or supply chain strategies, is the way to go. So, using IT to get information from the factory floor up to the management level quickly (i.e. in real time) seems a sensible starting point for manufacturing. This then allows managers to plan more effectively and make better business decisions based on the information they receive from the heart of the factory floor. And Whitman Labs is heeding this advice. As David Hunt, head of site at Whitman (and formerly production manager at Gillette UK) advises: “You’ve got to get your engine room right first, then begin to think in terms of supply chain visibility or e-business.” The company is based in Petersfield, UK and is wholly owned by Estee Lauder. The site produces cosmetics only for Estee Lauder, and is its sole production plant in the UK. Whitman’s annual turnover is £120 million – so this is big business with big profits to be made (mark-ups on cosmetics are pretty large to say the least!), especially if you can manage and control your production costs. The plant floor assembly area at Petersfield has 17 individual production and assembly lines, some highly automated, but most very labour intensive. There’s about 100 assembly workers on each shift, and thousands of products per hour - from lotions and hand creams, to bottles of perfume and after-shave – pass through these production lines. As you’d expect, there’s a mixture of automated equipment along each line including motorised conveyors, automatic filling devices and capping machines. And this means production downtime (i.e. stoppages of the line due to human or machine error) is critical and must be minimised so as to maximise production throughput at all times. And reducing production downtime (Hunt reckons a third of each working day is lost to set-ups for short production runs!) is partly why the company decided, about one year ago, to implement a real-time shop floor data capture (SFDC) system. Hunt explains further: “We wanted a data capture system that would reconcile the number of labour hours worked on a specific production line and against a specific batch of products going through the line… the system is now helping us to identify where these downtime constraints are so that we can eliminate them in the future. “We’ve been working and thinking like a corner-shop rather than a hypermarket!” quips Hunt. “Estee Lauder is a family-owned company which traditionally isn’t results-driven and the company has been sitting comfortably for too long. We need to get more disciplined, consistent and globalised in order to compete in the marketplace. “We also offer a huge variety of brands to customers these days, so we often find ourselves running out of capacity down on the shop floor,” continues Hunt. “And at present, we’re probably only achieving about a third of the potential throughput we could be doing.” This is where the MCS’ CATS (computer automation tracking system) solution comes in. Whitman chose MCS Industrial Software from a shortlist of vendors that included Intellution and Rockwell Automation. As part of the project, almost every process, along 16 of the production lines, is now logged in the CATS (SQL Server) database. Time and attendance is recorded on each line, with all shift workers using swipe cards to log on at the start of each shift. Also, alarms on each line, once triggered, stop the line temporarily – until the reason for the stoppage is logged. Supervisors on each line use Allen-Bradley touch-screen terminals positioned next to each line to record the reason for the stoppage. There’s also ten supervisor workstations positioned around the plant floor and in the production planning office, each loaded with MCS CATS software. The software takes all the logged data from the 16 line-side terminals (LSTs) and issues reports for production planners and higher level management. The summary reports are formulated using ‘live’ data from the production lines. Online head counts, efficiency targets, actual efficiency levels, plant overview reports, are all made visible to the user. In addition, CATS uses a simple colour display: red means a line stoppage has occurred, green means the line is running, blue means the line is currently idle, and yellow means a changover or set-up is in progress. CATS has been customised to suit Whitman, using a combination of Microsoft Access and Visual Basic software, coupled with an overlying Crystal reporting module – in other words, best-of-breed software, integrated. The hardware is all standard Compaq PCs, connected along the IT department’s existing Ethernet backbone, but the system is web-based allowing production supervisors, managers and maintenance staff to view summarised reports from anywhere in the plant. The benefits are obvious. Whitman production managers can view summary reports, identify trends in line stoppages, and identify sources of downtime, then try to eliminate them. The software monitors production against shifts, and the downtime reports are used to generate efficiency figures but on its own provides a tool for maintenance to analyse and correct the major causes of lost production – many a manufacturer’s nightmare! But the 12-month implementation has had its problems. “The project’s certainly not been plain-sailing,” complains Hunt. “First, we had to get buy-in for the project at a corporate level [i.e. Estee Lauder], and that wasn’t easy. Second, we had to convince all the employees here that the system was necessary and good for them, not just a way of tracking their every move. “We’ve also had to climb a very steep learning curve over the last six months, and the biggest problem here has been a cultural one - I reckon we’ve lost three months of the project due to cultural barriers alone! … And even though the project has had commitment from the top, we really should’ve employed an overall day-to-day project manager at Petersfield to oversee things.” Hunt explains the project costs in detail: “The complete implementation, including software, some configuration of CATS, training, hardware and cable installation, has cost us about £210,000 in total. But we should achieve payback within 18 months [that’s six months from now], and we’ve already seen a 3% increase in throughput, which is big money on our kind of product.” And 10 other Estee Lauder sites will follow Whitman’s lead shortly with similar SFDC projects. At a corporate level, Estee is also currently assessing supply chain logistics solutions from i2 and Manugistics, to improve overall planning and execution between itself and its suppliers. And on the ERP (enterprise resource planning) side, the Group has been courting three vendors: SAP, Baan and JD Edwards. Hunt comments: “The corporate decision looks likely to favour JD Edwards as they have the best-fit solution for us.” As far as the Whitman site is concerned though, the horizon will also see a finite scheduling solution introduced over the next year or so. Hunt concludes: “We’ve looked at a good solution from Preactor, but we’re still undecided which software to go for yet. The objective will be to reduce inventory levels through better planning of set-ups and production changeovers.”