For many small companies, automated scheduling is a kind of Holy Grail. The more you have, the more you want, so they think this functionality is necessary to improve their management and get to the next level. This attitude can make small businesses vulnerable to the whole array of marketing gimmicks, where automated planning is used as a hot button, tipping the scales in favour of some advanced ERP software system. Reality verifies these decisions. Many years of experience as an implementation consultant taught me that automated scheduling was a dead end and totally unsuitable solution for small companies.
Why is automated scheduling a trap?
When you are interested in buying an advanced software system, you have some idea of how it would help you. Most importantly, you reason. Automated planning will save you a lot of time. Instead of spending a few hours every day creating lists of tasks in Excel or paper notebooks, handing them to your foreman and workers on the shop floor, you will enjoy an evening dinner with your family. If you are in charge of a slightly bigger company, you think that you can give a notice to your planner because you won’t need them any longer once new automated scheduling is installed. But when you purchase such a system, some things are kept quiet. Sales reps usually focus on benefits, so naturally, you see the world through rose-tinted glasses.
One of the things not mentioned is the gigantic amount of data you need to provide to create a schedule. Without feeding the information into a system, it is impossible to use automated scheduling.
What information do you need so the software can plan things automatically?
- The calendar
The first thing you need is a calendar with the availability of your machines, operations, etc. You might consider that a straightforward task, but in fact, it’s much harder than it looks. We are not talking here about some simple rota with time blocks, Monday to Friday, but a detailed plan that precisely says which machines are busy, how many hours, how many shifts, including weekends, bank holidays, and emergencies. Now ask yourself: how often do you do last-minute changes because a large order was committed, or work overtime to meet the deadline, add an extra working Saturday/Sunday? Maybe you use only a few machines – a common situation in the print house. Only printing presses or binding machines have some operations scheduled for the weekend. All of these to speed up the queue of orders, and to deliver products on time. It surely won’t be a problem for automated planning. Yes, but under one condition: your scheduling software needs to know everything in advance. Without complete data, it won’t be able to prepare a reliable plan.
Let’s not forget the time needed for the maintenance. Unfortunately, it is crucial to plan all these breaks for automatic scheduling to track the hours/minutes spent on cleaning, service, etc. Unfortunately, the perfect plan is no longer valid when the machine is out of service for three hours due to maintenance. There is no possibility of adjusting it on the spot and going ahead with the rest of the planned operations.
2. The workers
You might feel a bit overwhelmed with the number of things you need to consider when preparing your planning software. And it is just the beginning.
Once you have completed the calendar for your machines, it’s time to do the same thing for your staff. Advanced planning forces you to prepare a schedule with shifts and availability of each worker for the next few weeks or even months, including their holidays, possibility of sick leave, etc.
When your plan is updated, it’s time to compare machines and workers using the abilities matrix. You fill the rows and columns with the names of workers, matching them with machines/operations and marking their fluency level. Without this information, an automated scheduling system cannot make correct decisions or delegate the job to the right person.
The last thing you have to do is connect your software to a time and attendance system and see who is present at work and can physically do the job. Imagine a situation when 2 out of 10 workers fail to turn up for their shift. The perfect plan must be adjusted quickly; otherwise, it will generate more mistakes and chaos.
3. Advanced norms of work and the technology of products
Most products you make in 99% of cases need a minimum of 2-3 operations in the production process. To each operation, you should assign norms (time, number of pieces, efficiency), so it’s clear how long it takes to produce something or how many pieces per hour your workers should make. For the benefit of automated scheduling, the norms must be precise. For example, if you have to make 100 pieces and the time-lapse is 10-15 seconds per piece, the total discrepancy is huge (10-sec x 100 pieces). It is no longer a tiny delay but a miscalculated holdup. The efficiency should be calculated to an accuracy of one second, including setting up and changeover times.
It is also important to note operation dependencies between the operations (start-start, start-stop, stop-stop, others). The algorithm and your scheduling system must know them. On top of that, you have to consider the labour intensity (how many people have to work simultaneously on different machines). Sometimes one person can operate a few machines. At other times you need as many as 4 people for one machine to function correctly. Your advanced software needs this information.
Last but not least, you need to know the BOM (Boom of Materials) or the recipe of your product; that is the complete list of raw materials needed to make it.
4. Raw materials and the warehouse organized to a perfection
Precise management of your stock is a crucial part of automated planning. Without the availability of raw materials, the software cannot create an automatic plan, only a line of operations and orders. When there isn’t enough steel in stock (and it’s a common situation in times of crisis), it’s impossible to deliver the products. The software needs complete information on stock levels with raw materials delivery dates (and delivery confirmation), the exact number of orders, the BOM for each product. The connection between the warehouse and shop floor is essential: the information flow must be smooth and precise; without it, automatic planning won’t work.
There is also an issue of managing leftovers and collecting information on reusable stock. Not only small manufacturing companies have that problem. For example, let’s say that you have produced a 2.5-meter pipe, and there is still 50 centimetres of raw material left in stock. Can you use it for other projects? Well, it depends. Technically speaking, it’s still in stock, but will your advanced automated system allow you to access it? Each order must be entered into the system first, with all the products and technology (the exact amount of raw materials needed). Only if you include this data in the software can you use leftovers. So although you have raw materials in stock, the system won’t allow you to use them without precise information.
Are automated scheduling systems the evil of this world or are we here in the wrong?
It all depends on the situation. There are many things you need to feed the automated planning system to function correctly. It works like a set of dominos or intricate jigsaw – one mistake somewhere in the process generates another. Sometimes the mistakes are irreversible, and some operations are planned in the wrong way.
The question is not whether automated scheduling is a good choice because thousands of companies in the automotive industry have been using it with great success for many years. However, humans can’t beat the machines in large factories, which make unique products. In a small manufacturing company (except for a few % of companies).
First of all, an automated planning system, such as ERP, can cost you flexibility, which is a great advantage in a small manufacturing company. The number of variables is huge, so you would have to change it every 2 seconds to have the last, updated version for the plan to work correctly. What’s more, adding a new product /order can take longer than actually producing it, and that’s not what you are looking for. Last but not least: with the small scale of production, even if automated scheduling increases efficiency by 5-10%, it still won’t cover the costs of implementation, not to mention other expenses and the time needed to enter the data into the system.
Obviously, many small company owners have a “can-do” attitude; they like the risk and believe in the success of the automatic scheduling venture. But it doesn’t work like that: this is a complex IT project, with 0-1 systems, and the will and positive mental attitude are not enough.
Solution for the small manufacturing companies
When you are interested in automated planning, it is probably because you are after production management and tracking key metrics to improve productivity in your workshop. But the advanced system might not be what you have in mind.
What you really need in a small manufacturing company:
- tools to organize your shop floor with interactive, graphical planning (so you or the plannist could easily set things up, without the need of remembering about each tiny detail);
- simple norms and information for estimating lead-times and tracking efficiency;
- the list of orders and stock levels to balance production (supply/demand);
- your products database which you can grow by adding more data systematically.
You can start transforming your company, and let us take you through Prodio software tools to show you how you can optimize your production. It is a cloud-based solution designed for rapid deployment with no up-front costs. Customizable, web-based dashboards provide the visibility and transparency to understand production performance and status at a glance. In addition, you can manage the shop floor operations, inventory, equipment and workers to ensure your products are flawless and up to the customer’s satisfaction.