Gotcha! Managing Continuous Flow Manufacturing

Did You Know…

If you want software specifically built for lean or continuous flow manufacturing, like steel production, you’ve only got a handful of options

Oracle makes a flow manufacturing application for its 11i e-business suite, and SAP and PeopleSoft also have modules for their enterprise resource planning suites. American Software also sold a flow software package that integrated with J.D. Edwards and other vendors’ enterprise systems, but it is now playing down the product and focusing on ERP software of its own. Only a scant few vendors are actively marketing software specifically for flow manufacturing.

These include Factory Logic of Austin, Texas, DTAKT Systems, of Greenwood Village, Colo., and Cell Fusion, a Burlingame, Calif., company started by the former head of SAP’s flow manufacturing software team.

You may need to write a lot of additional code … or juggle a lot of spreadsheets

Flow-based systems depend on being able to generate and recognize signals, based on the flow manufacturing concept of “kanbans,” or units of materials. When a stock of components or raw materials reaches a certain level of depletion—when a kanban is emptied—a signal is passed back down the manufacturing flow to build or order more parts.

In the steel industry, material planning requires a great deal of precision—even when “kanbans” are measured in tons. “Everything is weighed in and weighed out as it’s consumed,” says Larry Kavanagh, vice president of manufacturing and technology at the American Iron and Steel Institute.

By default, most enterprise planning systems “can’t signal when to start a process based on the “kanban” signals,” says Mike Burkett, analyst at AMR Research. They also often lack the analytical tools needed to optimize production cycles that flow-specific software packages offer.

As a result, the most commonly used software tool for flow manufacturing management, according to both Burkett and Rushton McGarr, Factory Logic’s director of product marketing, is a spreadsheet. “Most of the time when we come in, the customer is using an Excel spreadsheet, or a whiteboard,” says McGarr.

Oracle’s Lou Ciabattoni, senior group manager for e-business marketing, contends its product, Oracle Flow Manufacturing, is better than just basic. One of its original features: Allowing customers to actually design the flow. The latest version includes features that allow companies to automatically track the sequence of kanban signals; and, to complete production without a work order.

You’ve got to know when to flush

Flow software needs to be able to signal the enterprise planning system when it’s time to “back-flush.” That is, remove parts or raw materials from inventory and replace them, if necessary, with finished goods. Burkett says companies have to be careful in configuring the points in the manufacturing process at which inventory data is updated. While this isn’t much of a problem for short product manufacturing cycles (those that last a day or less), it can become a problem for flows that last longer.” Accounting will want to know how much parts and labor you have used; they don’t like to be blind to it,” he says.

This is less of a problem for newer steel mills, which can “go from ore to finished product in a matter of hours,” according to Larry Kavanagh, vice president for manufacturing and technology at the American Iron and Steel Institute. However, older plants, because of their layout, may not be able to operate in a pure “flow” fashion. “Older plants have continuous processes, but have some batch linkages,” says Kavanagh, “in order to deal with the geographic distances between plants.” This makes the tracking process within the product flow even more complex.

You’ve got to know what to measure before you measure it

Part of the customization required for every flow manufacturing environment is recognizing where the choke points in existing processes are. In the steel industry, for instance, that’s at the caster, says Kavanagh. Scheduling the use of that asset from job to job is critical—”How you manage the transition from product to product is where you can make or lose a lot of money. If you schedule the facility properly, you can avoid a lot of costs.”

Templates and tools don’t get you to the goal line

McGarr says Factory Logic’s software, which is based on Java 2 Enterprise Edition, provides implementation “templates” that get through 80% to 90% of the installation process; the rest is done by the company’s professional services unit. DTAKT’s software is more of a set of tools to build flow systems than a packaged software product.

American Software’s flow products are written in COBOL, and often require code-level customization, according to sources. That may be why the company is believed to be getting out of the flow business. The company would not return calls for this article.