There is a perception among smaller manufacturers that production control software is complex and expensive. And some of it certainly is. But Chippenham-based subcontract machining company Altex Engineering’s experience of a Microsoft-based system aimed precisely at its level proves that it doesn’t have to be. Last year the firm implemented Kewill System’s JobBoss software, for jobbing shops and the like, in less than three months – and it says it’s now realising significant benefits from computerised production control and scheduling, like improved efficiency, reduced costs and being able to respond better to changes. It’s view: these packages are no longer difficult to grasp or expensive, and they can offer payback in just a few months. Altex Engineering has been in business as a subcontract machinist and fabricator for all sorts of materials – metals, plastics and so on – for 13 years. Turnover is £2 million on 28 staff, and the firm has progressively invested in good CNC machine tools – the latest a laser cutting machine – which has provided it with a competitive edge. It’s ISO 9002 accredited and has a reputation for quality products, delivered on time to a variety of blue chip clients across industry. In July, 1999, the company decided to sharpen its edge. Managing director Bob Hogton says market expectations had been going well beyond excellent quality: lead times were getting shorter (“from two or three weeks, down to days”) and on time delivery was essential. Without a finite capacity planning tool, he says, you just couldn’t make the kind of commitment to production that was being asked. It wasn’t just about loading the factory efficiently, important though that is: he needed to know what else he could get through when customers were on the ‘phone. The firm installed the Windows-based production control package JobBoss because it’s designed exactly for this environment – with the emphasis on estimating, not just order taking, and production scheduling, rather than simple stock control. Hardare includes one communications server, one file and print server, eight Pentium PCs and some laptops. Altex systems manager Stephen Jackett says: “The system went in smoothly. If you can install Microsoft Office and you have a basic knowledge of computer networks then you can install JobBoss, simply by using a CD. It took under three months to implement the core of the system. One of the major advantages is that it is built to industry standards. [It is] 100% compatible with Microsoft and integrates very nicely with MS Office, and we can easily customise it to suit our working methods.” He adds: “Its searching facilities are also very powerful, which makes looking for a specific product, component or order very easy. For calculating job costs we are in the process of inputting machine speeds, feeds and time standards.” Hogton says: “We were attracted by its comprehensiveness: it handles everything from quotations through to costing and delivery. It is ideal for us because in our business a quotation becomes a manufacturing plan and then a job planning sheet.” There’s no data re-entry: “If we get a job, we can pull it across from the quoting system and load it into the shop: we can look again and get up and running very quickly,” he says. “We are basically selling our time and the package enables us to tell a customer, while he is on the ‘phone, whether or not we have the capacity. We can quickly check if we need to work overtime to achieve the delivery, and can tell the customer straight away that it will be, say, next week rather than this week so that we don’t lose the order because of vague delivery dates. We can also push through an urgent job for a major customer, and JobBoss tells us what effect that would have on other delivery dates.” He adds: “Knowing the exact capacity position in real time gives us a strong credibility factor about on-time deliveries – which is so important in our business.” And he continues: “The other main benefit is that it helps us to maintain the profitability of the jobs and to know whether we are under-quoting or over-quoting. Once the machine set-up and run-time standards are established we know that the costs will be right.” The other side of this is that the system also enables the firm to stay on top of machine, workcentre and machine operator performance – and Hogton expects this visibility to encourage methods and practices review so that standards can be maintained or improved. Beyond this, Hogton says job recording with swipe cards will be next up, providing for more meaningful reports to support this process. And he says all paperwork, labelling and invoicing will also be integrated, again making operations smoother and cutting costs.