Case Study

Automated Scheduling Helps Composite Tooling Manufacturer Grow 40% per Year

By Bill Kansky, VP/Finance, UCAR Composites Inc. (Irvine, CA)


•Scheduling issues
•Scheduling Capabilities
•Improved communications
•Job costing

Implementing manufacturing software that automates scheduling has helped a major producer of composite tooling grow at a better than 40% per year rate without adding administrative staff. At the same time, the company has gone from shipping four days late on average in the past to shipping four days early now. The spreadsheets and white boards that were used to maintain schedules in the past weren't very accurate and took a lot of time to update. So the firm switched to a software package that automatically schedules the entire company's workload based on priorities determined by management. The new software also includes integrated financial accounting, eliminating a one-and-a-half person job previously required for data entry.

Founded in 1988 as Coast Composites Inc., UCI is today a subsidiary of UCAR International that produces one-of-a-kind lay-up molds, jigs and fixtures for aerospace and telecommunications manufacturers. The company's customers include industry leaders such as Boeing, Hughes Space and Communications, Space Systems Loral, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. A key to UCI's success is its use of customer supplied data to generate a three-dimensional digital master for all operations. Once the electronic 3D digital master model has been created and checked for accuracy, appropriate software packages are utilized to create machining and inspection programs. UCAR Composites accurately inspects shapes manufactured up to 60ft.x16ft.x10ft.

Scheduling issues

UCI produces tooling for customers on a number of extremely productive computer numerically controlled machines whose high cost and the skill of their operators makes them a very scarce resource. In the past, these machines were primarily scheduled by managers by writing on white boards located at each machine. Viewing a single job in isolation, managers could fairly easily estimate how long it would take to complete each job without any other competing projects. But it was nearly impossible to estimate delivery dates in the real-life situation where up to a hundred jobs are competing for limited machine time. Things got even more confusing when UCI received special rush orders, such as building a tool that will be used to replace a satellite that was destroyed in a launch failure. There was no way to determine what the impact of moving a job that like to the top of the production schedule would have on the delivery dates of other projects.

The situation was not much better in regards to maintaining financial records. An effort was made to track the time and materials of each project on spreadsheets. The immensity of this task meant that batches were at best a week or two behind. This meant that in most cases management had no way to know whether a project was over budget or behind schedule until it was too late to do anything about it. The fact that this information was stored in spreadsheets made it very difficult to find records on earlier jobs, such as to assist in quoting a new similar job. The manufacturing cost information also had to be re-entered by hand into the financial accounting system, a lengthy task that also presented the potential for errors.


Scheduling capabilities

UCI management selected VISUAL Manufacturing from Lilly Software Associates Inc. (Hampton, N.H.), because it has the most powerful scheduling capabilities of any package they examined. The program keeps track of how long is required to complete each operation and is able to estimate delivery times and produce schedules for the entire shop based on priorities selected by the scheduler. The program highlights any jobs that will not be completed by their due dates under the current assumptions. The scheduler can easily change the assumptions by changing the priority of jobs or moving them to different resources simply by dragging and dropping them with a mouse. The program allows the scheduler to quickly evaluate multiple scenarios and determine their impact on the delivery dates of all jobs in the shop.

Click here to see Figure 1.

Implementation of the new system—which took only 42 days from start to production mode—has dramatically improved the scheduling process. First of all, every time the schedule is run it provides a delivery status update of each job, making it clear exactly which ones are in trouble. This information wasn't available in the past, until the job was far enough behind schedule to be obvious. Within minutes, the scheduler can evaluate different alternatives for increasing the priority of a job that's behind or a rush assignment that just came in the door. Most important, the software shows what the effect of moving that job ahead will have on other jobs in the plant. With all this information at his fingertips, the scheduler can usually find a way to satisfy every customer.


Improved communications

Beyond simply tracking and prioritizing, the new software has improved manufacturing efficiency by improving communications and accountability. It provides a structure for organizing every aspect of the manufacturing process. The fact that complete information on the requirements and status of each project is stored in the system eliminates the need for continual communication of routine information, allowing managers to focus on exceptional cases. By the same token, the system highlights problem areas to clearly identify the areas where problems exist. Any operation that is over the estimate is highlighted in red, so that managers can immediately determine the cause of the problem and take corrective action.

UCI uses nearly all of the VISUAL Manufacturing modules. The quoting module allows the estimator to enter a job description and process information and automatically totals up the cost of the various operations. When the order comes in, rather than starting from scratch, engineering simply checks and expands upon the initial estimate. Engineers create a shop floor traveler that is printed out and moves with the job but also can be called up from the software at any time. At this point, all of the materials needed to complete the job are entered into the system, making purchasing's job easy. The software groups common materials that are required for multiple jobs so they can be purchased in a single order for larger quantity discounts. When the material comes in, the person in the tool crib prints out a "receiver" that shows what job the material is intended for. When the receiver is created, the material shows up in the system as received and the job status changes to ready for production.


Job costing

Employees swipe the traveler with a bar code wand to indicate that they have begun work on a specific operation. The software keeps track of the time that they spend on each operation as well as the overall status of the job. The system notifies the employee when punching in if any engineering changes have been made since the original traveler was issued. The time that the employee has spent on the job instantly updates time and cost summaries maintained by the system. This means that managers can determine the status of every job and its position versus the budget and the schedule in seconds. This is a tremendous improvement over the old system which made it necessary to actually walk down onto the shop floor to see what was happening with a job.

Of course, all the manufacturing information described above is immediately available for updating the financial system. Rather than entering each invoice into the system, the accounts payable person can simply call up a list of purchase order receipts on the screen and check off invoices received. The system flags any invoice for which the items ordered have not yet been received. The hours that were entered into the time accounting module can be accessed for preparing the payroll. UCI provides the time figures to its payroll service. The system also keeps track of inventory including work in process and enters it into the financial accounting system, removing a job that used to be major headache. These improvements have made it possible to reduce the typical month-end accounting close by two days.

The net result has been a substantial improvement in operating efficiency. Since the software was first installed two years ago, UCI has been able to improve its profitability by maintaining its administrative expenses at a constant level while increasing sales at a rate of 40 percent. Customer satisfaction has improved since nearly all jobs are delivered on time and the company can provide accurate progress reports. The company plans to further upgrade the system in the near future by providing each machine operator with a personal computer that can be used to access job descriptions, scheduling information and enter time. When accomplished, this will make the firm one of the first to have achieved a completely paperless manufacturing system.

Case Study submitted by Lilly Software Associates Inc., 500 Lafayette Road, Hampton, NH 03842. Phone: 603-926-9696. Web: