Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with President Engineering Group Ltd. about the Group's major expansion over the past few years, and the IT backbone that supports business growth.
President Engineering Group Ltd. (PEGL) – a member of the British Stainless Steel Association – was formed in October 2010 when the Conflow and Bestobell Valves businesses were purchased in a management buyout from Flow Group. These businesses consist of a manufacturing and distribution unit in Sheffield (UK), a distribution unit in Pittsburgh (USA), and an Assembly unit in Ahmedabad (India).
For over 60 years, Conflow has been providing products and services that help to protect miners in the coal industry around the world. Conflow supplies specialist components and systems for dust suppression, fire suppression and water control in underground mining, from coal to gold, in more than 30 countries around the world. In addition, wherever minerals are transported in bulk, such as quarries, power stations and ports, Conflow products help to reduce the negative impact on the environment.
Originally founded in 1857, Bestobell has more than 50 years' experience in the development and supply of cryogenic valves and fluid control equipment for industrial gas, and more than 10 years' experience in providing valve solutions to the emerging LNG markets and associated industries, including: transport, storage, processing, defence, LNG marine and LNG land-based.
In November 2012 President Engineering Group also acquired Bretby Gammatech Ltd. a niche provider of coal monitoring products. This move not only provided significant benefits to both PEGL and Bretby Gammatech but increased President Engineering's credentials in the global mining market. Bretby Gammatech was established in 1994 by a number of technical experts from British Coal, who set up the company and developed the early prototype for the Ash Probe, which has since become recognised internationally for its ease of use and accuracy, saving hundreds of mines and coal processing plants money every day. Over the years, Bretby Gammatech has developed a number of different products, such as the Lab Ash, Ash Eye, Heat Eye and Gamma Eye. In recent years, it has updated the product range, which is now available with interactive digital displays that feature touch screen technology. This is making them more user friendly with the ability to display function keys in languages other than English.
President Engineering Group Ltd. markets worldwide, with a distribution centre in the US supplying to the US market and a smaller assembly part in India which supplies the Asian market. Everything else is supplied from the company's manufacturing base in Sheffield here in the UK. Across the Group, PEGL manufactures around 7000 items on a 100 per cent Make to Order (MTO) basis, supplying over 200 customers across 30 countries. Order sizes range from one-off items through to batches measured in their tens of units. At any one time PEGL has approximately 1200 live orders with around 900 of these passing through its machining and assembly areas each month.
All of the Group's manufactured goods pass through the machining area irrespective of which company or customer they relate to, before being separated out into distinct assembly areas, one for each business. The machining area comprises 12 machining units, many of which can handle a wide variety of products, although some products can only be made on specific machines.
Such a demanding production regime means the Group has to rely on a highly efficient, state-of-the-art IT backbone. Central to this is its EFACS Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution from UK-based Exel Computer Systems plc. Version 8.2 of EFACS was first installed back in 1996. However, due to the Group's various structural changes, acquisitions and MBO since EFACS first went live, PEGL decided to upgrade to the latest version of EFACS in 2012. This version, EFACS E/8, is a fully integrated, flexible ERP software solution encompassing a broad range of business functions aimed at driving improved efficiency, visibility and organisational performance.
EFACS E/8 has a component structure, making it easily customisable and able to provide the best fit for individual business requirements. It is browser, XML and Java based, and can operate on a wide range of servers, operating systems and leading databases. The system is hosted on a single platform at the Sheffield site. As well as being widely used throughout the Sheffield HQ's sales and operations processes. EFACS is also used at the Group's HQ in India, Bretby Gammatch and a roll-out to the US is also currently being considered.
Hänel Lean Lift automated storage and retrieval solutions from Industore.
PEGL's finance director, Marie Cooper explained that after the MBO the Group wanted to upgrade the ERP system primarily to ensure more of the day-to-day business and operational processes could become more automated. "Although much of EFACS can be used effectively 'out of the box', we did ask Exel to come on site and work with our team to undertake some bespoke work around some of the workflow processes," she said. "This was in order to ensure the system could operate in as much of an automated fashion as possible, with the need for minimum manual intervention."
One such example of this is vendor managed inventory and the time taken previously to create and print off purchase orders and subsequent goods received processing for each batch of goods that was delivered. "We developed a system integrated within EFACS whereby the vendor could create delivery notes, purchase orders and goods received notes all in electronic format," said Cooper. "Now, PEGL operatives in the warehouse simply need to check-off what's been delivered. This process now saves around four hours a week." Steel added that EFACS now also allows operatives in the warehouse to undertake full regular stock takes.
Quality Control is one discipline that has benefited particularly well since the implementation of the latest version of EFACS. This process had previously been reliant on manual processes to generate paperwork and testing documentation, and there was always the possibility of documentation going astray or actions being missed or overlooked. Now using the Document Management and Workflow functionality within EFACS E/8, only the correct documentation is available, as required. Additionally, paper trails related to Non-Conformance Reports (NCRs) been replaced by workflow ensuring that each step is correctly adhered to and a full audit trail kept.
For the purpose of accurately tracking and tracing valves and other goods after dispatch, PEGL uses a laser etcher from Laserlines.
The increased visibility that the latest version of EFACS afforded PEGL has also led to improved communication between the commercial and production teams, as each department could now look at the relevant data for each other and act immediately in the most informed way. Decisions that previously could be delayed for days while messages were sent and then actioned, could now be taken there and then. Cooper explained that she could now drill down into financial data much quicker and easier, adding that there was also a widespread view among users that EFACS E/8 was much easier to use and understand.
The plan is now to work with EFACS E/8 to integrate with PEGL's Lean Lift solution which uses the MPX system. Currently the same data has to be entered separately onto each system. Whereas once the changes are made EFACS E/8 and MPX will pass the relevant information to each other, halving the time involved and ensuring the data is kept up to date in real time. Also helping to keep live data up to date is EFACS E/8's Audit module, which is used to provide traceability about key strategic transactions across all the relevant business processes. Now PEGL knows who did what, where and when and can immediately identify if there are any training issues or process/system refinements required.
From left to right, Phil Steel, data analyst and ERP specialist at PEGL; Jordan Greenwood, IT technician at Highlander; Marie Cooper, finance director at PEGL; and Ryan Connolly, sales manager at Highlander.
Shortly after the latest version of EFACS was installed, PEGL decided to engage Highlander IT & Telecoms – a company local to the Group in Sheffield – as its IT partner. Highlander were tasked with supporting and optimising the Group's overall IT hardware and software infrastructure and providing data backup services, as well as having the mandate to recommend additional equipment as and when deemed necessary. The Group's in-house data analyst and ERP specialist is Phil Steel, who, with the support of the Highlander team, is tasked with ensuring that all users of EFACS can benefit from its functionality in as user-friendly and efficient a manner as possible. "Inevitably, some people will decide to work around certain processes for various reasons," he explained, "so if this occurs we look at why these types of choices have been made and, if applicable, look to improve the process within the system in order to make an operative's job easier and more effective."
Another major benefit of EFACS is the way in which various types of data can be extracted and presented in user-friendly formats that make it easier to monitor and analyse information such as historical trends and other sales and operations patterns. This process is largely the responsibility of Steel, who regularly prepares data analysis documents for discussion during management meetings.
Ryan Connolly, sales manager at Highlander, explained that there are over 100 individual users of IT across the Group. "As you would expect, these individuals have various levels of IT awareness and experience, and because EFACS comprises such a large part of the Group's IT estate we, together with Phil and his team, needed to ensure that the system is as user-friendly for all involved and not restricting people in terms of how they undertake their tasks. Basically, it needs to offer maximum advantage for the company as a whole. This was one of the first things we set out to achieve when we came on board, as well as suggest a few enhancements."
Exel recommended the installation of Nemacom touch screens for operatives on the production shop floor. These screens enable operatives to receive production-related data in real time, and feeding information back to EFACS concerning the status of individual manufacturing or assembly tasks.
Data Warehouse Management
One key area where Highlander sought to introduce enhancements to the PEGL infrastructure was Data Warehouse Management. Connolly again: "As well as managing the Group's IT foundation, we also manage its off-site data warehousing requirements in the form of site-to-site data replication."
Exel recommended the installation of Nemacom touch screens for operatives on the production shop floor. These screens enable operatives to receive production-related data in real time, and feeding information back to EFACS concerning the status of individual manufacturing or assembly tasks. These Wi-Fi enabled terminals allow operatives to instantly access the required drawings, SOPs etc., increasing efficiencies.
Customer Relationship Management
EFACS could be used to handle PEGL's Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tasks. "This is still something we need to progress, but when it is set up could enable everything from customer enquiries to the creation of quotations and sales orders," explained Steel. "This data is then passed to EFACS's MRP in order to create works orders and purchase orders. At this stage the touch screens on the shop floor come into play aiding the flow of information regarding production and assembly processes, through to dispatch."
Cooper remarked that one of the main advantages of the latest version of EFACS is it offers the Group enhanced levels of the visibility across the whole business. "From a finance perspective, it can analyse and report on information from quotations, pricing, credit and debtors etc." she said. "From a commercial point of view our sales personnel can see what progress each order is making at any given time so they can report back to the customers. On the shop floor, our team can see what orders are being placed on a daily basis, so they have forward visibility of what will need to be scheduled for production. So, in essence, EFACS gives everybody the ability to work more efficiently as a team."
In order to ensure the Group has a more robust and efficient disaster recovery regime in place, as well as an enhanced IT backbone able to complement further business growth, Highlander sourced a series of EMC remote servers and an EMC back-up server, which are installed on its own virtualised infrastructure platform. "One of the first things we did when we took on IT responsibilities on behalf of PEGL was to put in place this virtualised network that's able to undertake daily automated backups of all data, including emails," explained Jordan Greenwood, IT technician at Highlander. "And over the past three years we've added to this and made certain improvements."
Connolly added that, of course, the IT world is constantly evolving, so when anything new becomes available that Highlander feels could suit the PEGL's requirements it brings this up during regular monthly update meetings. In terms of the purchasing decision process for new IT solutions or enhancements to existing equipment, he explained that Highlander or a member of the PEGL team will discuss a requirement. Then, if given the go-ahead, Highlander researches the market and presents two or three options that if feels would best fit the intended function. PEGL management will then make the final choice. A recent example of this process involved sourcing a new projector for the boardroom; the final decision being in favour of an NEC plasma screen model. Cooper remarked that even though Highlander is classed as an outsourced IT solutions and support company it is very much an integrated force within the Group.
PEGL staff in the field are supplied with a range of mobile IT tools that are able to interrogate relevant data from EFACS when required, as well as be able to feed data back to the system wirelessly in real time. Greenwood explained that the majority of mobile devices used by PEGL staff in the field are provided by Highlander on behalf of the Group. "We prefer to supply and manage these devices ourselves, mainly for security purposes," he said. In terms of the particular device used by a member of staff, Greenwood pointed out that they are chosen and supplied based on the individual requirements of each user. "If, for example, particular members of the sales team do a lot of travelling visiting customer sites, sharing data or giving presentations then they will require a laptop that is of quite a high specification and of a more rugged form factor than an iPad," he explained. "On the other hand, if a user is more office-based then an iPad, iPhone or something similar will often fit the bill."
Greenwood added that, Highlander doesn't have an allegiance to any specific provider, such as HP or Dell; instead preferring to be able to investigate what it considers to be the very best fit for a particular job role.
For the purpose of accurately tracking and tracing valves and other goods after dispatch, PEGL uses a laser etcher from Laserlines. Steel explained that when a works order is produced this is scanned and can then retrieve various types of information from EFACS. This information can then be laser-marked onto the side of the valve. PEGL sourced its first laser etcher five years ago, but realised that, although this afforded major track-and-trace benefits, the etching process sometimes caused bottlenecks in the assembly area due in part to the increasing volume of orders the Group was attracting. Because of this, the Group sourced a second laser etcher two years ago. "This has largely alleviated the bottleneck problem," said Steel. Other systems in the Group's armoury include two Hänel Lean Lift automated storage and retrieval solutions from Industore.
In conclusion, Cooper commented that the partnership between PEGL, Highlander & Exel has proved highly beneficial in ensuring the IT estate is fit for purpose as the Group gears up for future growth.