14 August 2012
Time and again
Sophisticated time and attendance systems are not only being used to underpin production planning and scheduling, but also continuous improvement projects and ultimately manufacturers' competitiveness and financial performance. Brian Tinham reports
Enlightened manufacturers, we hear, are extending their time and attendance (T&A) systems to cover more than mere payroll, absence management, Working Time Directive compliance and the like. They're using additional functionality on these same systems directly to improve operations itself, in terms, for example, of performance tracking, and skills and certification management – but also, in some cases, production and maintenance scheduling, as well as project management. Some are even harnessing real-time and historical data from their humble T&A systems to support production time and process sanity checks, as part of cementing in continuous improvement.
Why? Well, most of these manufactures make the point that, for them, T&A is the closest system to the factory. It also provides the central database for two major resources – time and people. So it doesn't take the greatest leap of imagination to see that stretching the system's functionality to take in aspects of material and work movements, primarily through shopfloor data collection (SFDC), might be a smart move. Arguably, a smarter move than coming at it from the top down.
That's certainly been the experience of manufacturers such as KLM UK Engineering, Venture Steel Group and Princess Yachts. So, since these good folk are walking the walk, let's take a closer look at what they're doing and how they're doing it. Let's also check out the cost/benefits and see how much might be applicable to a wider audience.
First up is Norwich-based KLM UK Engineering, which originally implemented a DOS-based version of what is now K3 Business Technology's Equator T&A system, back in 1994. Richard Dixon, information systems analyst at the firm, which provides maintenance and repair services on regional and narrow body commercial aircraft, quips that it's changed just a bit since then.
That partly reflects the changing ownership of his company, which started life as the engineering facility for Air UK, before becoming part of KLM in 1997 and then also Air France, following the merger in 2004. Today, the company specialises in servicing Boeing 737s, Fokker 50, 70 and 100, and BAe146 and Avro RJs in its five workshop bays, for several of the world's airlines.
What sets KLM's T&A system apart, however, is not just its length of service, nor its slightly chequered past, but its development, almost from day one, as the system of record for SFDC, as well as time and attendance, in a highly project engineering-centric environment.
"We have 350 employees using the system, 250 of whom are in production, and K3's system is central to driving operations on the shopfloor," states Dixon. "We use it for SFDC, and time and staff management across all five of our maintenance and repair bays, with everyone swiping on and off jobs, using their badge readers, our portal screens, the PCs in the hanger or the integrated wall clocks."
They're not just clocking on though. "Everything runs off barcoded job cards – potentially several hundred for a single aircraft maintenance check, with projects running over several weeks," he explains. So they use the system to swipe on and off the jobs themselves, too.
In brief detail, KLM UK's airline customers provide base data for maintenance and/or repair requirements on their aircraft. That data is then imported into the company's bespoke PMI (purchase, maintenance and inventory) system, which generates the job cards for engineers to swipe on, using the K3 Equator system. Dixon explains that the first tranche of cards generated for any aircraft project are all 'schedule' cards for standard tasks, such as wing inspection, each allocated standard times. However, as engineers carry out tasks, they may find additional problems, so the system then generates non-routine job cards for further repairs, with estimated time and materials requirements, linked to the schedule cards that are the keys to all work.
"All hours are compiled through the T&A system and are available for analysis, but the system is primarily operational," explains Dixon. "So, for example, it manages hours accumulating against job cards and alerts supervisors of any need for customer approvals against extra costs as cards get close to their estimated time limits."
Just as important, it also enables managers to review over- or under-runs on standard scheduled jobs, prompting either new estimates or a closer look at working practices. "Work times might go into the 'red' band if, say, we have some apprentices running tasks, which you might expect to over-run. But, equally, it may be that there's now more to do to complete certain jobs on a particular aircraft. The point is that our system keeps tabs, using real-time information, and helps us to ensure that our quotation estimates are as accurate and realistic as possible."
Beyond all that though, supervisors at the Norwich site also get instant advance warning of potential issues on maintenance work, thanks to a large screen for each hanger bay, depicting the main aircraft sections in green, amber and red, according to expected time estimates versus actuals. They also have access to training records, certifications, and health and safety data – and the system provides the backbone for shift scheduling, taking account of individuals' qualifications. And the system links through to KLM's main management suite for audit trails and formal project sign-off, as per aviation industry requirements.
You get the message: for KLM, the opportunities way exceed the immediate implications of the term 'time and attendance'. But different strokes suit different folks, and so it is that at steel fabricator Venture Steel Group, Vanquish workforce management software, from Auto Time Solutions, has recently been focused on boosting overall business efficiency as well as employee management.
Indeed, the Cradley Heath, West Midlands firm, which supplies products from steel coils to finished pressed products, says it chose Vanquish precisely because it covers functionality ranging from staff scheduling to job costing and reporting – not just payroll and absence management. That, it says, is what makes the difference – all the way from gaining greater insights into employees' working practices to making better informed management decisions across the business.
Venture Steel's finance director Warren Kelly explains that, instead of barcode swiping, this T&A system relies on biometric hand-scan terminals, installed across the production floor, to capture employee attendance. These, he says, are not only fast and robust, but also ensure that all clocking-in transactions, across what is a large workforce, are genuine, because they measure the shape and height of the hand, rather than scanning finger or palm prints.
Most important, though, Kelly says that by gaining immediate confirmation of staff attendance, the firm gains two useful data sets. On the one hand, it gets an audit trail of each individual's detailed attendance for payroll and regulatory purposes. But on the other, Venture is also able to track labour hours performed on specific jobs. The latter enables management to calculate overall costs for operations and compare these with budget assumptions generated through ERP.
And another thing: "By monitoring the production cycle in real time, line managers are able to adjust employee work schedules [to prioritise specific jobs], if it is evident that certain areas are falling behind against schedule," reports Kelly. "Also, with this information at our disposal we can work out whether we're over or under budget on a specific job – which helps us to estimate the cost of future jobs more accurately."
Beyond that, he also points to the value of detailed staff scheduling, with Venture's T&A system helping managers to organise the workforce ahead of time, matching skill sets and qualifications to projected workloads, in line with availability, holiday requests and employment legislation. Just as with KLM's implementation, this system records staff qualifications, licences and training, enabling managers to automatically assign best-qualified employees to specific tasks.
"Accurately scheduling staff time to meet future workloads removes costs associated with overtime payments and boosts overall productivity, because managers can assign the right person to perform the right tasks," comments Kelly.
And he adds: "The self-service tool has been a key feature: empowering staff to manage their own working time has helped to reduce unauthorised staff absences, as they are more likely to plan their absence in advance. This helps us to plan shift patterns accurately and, more importantly, reduce the possibility of having individuals with the same skill set on annual leave at the same time... [We can now] estimate budgets with greater accuracy and ensure that all our prices are accurate and profitable."
For Kelly, it's all part of a pattern of informed management that also extends to regulatory compliance – including in respect of the EU's Working Time Directive and health and safety regulations – and management of emergencies. In the latter case, for example, the system automatically generates fire call reports, allowing managers to identify workers who were on site at the time of an incident.
All well and good, and you instinctively see that there are potentially substantial financial gains here, achieved by underpinning improvements around operations. However, few manufacturers are prepared to offer specifics, even if they've been measured. So it's interesting finally to look at Plymouth-based Princess Yachts International's experience, having implemented Crown Computing's Open Options extended T&A system – starting with some of what it sees as its bottom-line benefits.
Chief among these are: flexible shift planning to match demand; ease of dealing with absences and adjusting work rosters to minimise any impact on production; better health and safety compliance; and improved return-to-work processes. But, according to payroll manager Peter Bryson-Meehan, the biggest improvement has to be improved boat build times and processes, thanks to enhanced labour analysis.
"We use the system's activity management tool and this allows us to allocate hours to specific boat lines and other activities," he explains. "It therefore enables us to control and interrogate the time taken for certain things. That, in turn, allows us to improve the processes and also the boat build times."
Admittedly, activity management may not be everyone's bag: apparent threats of Big Brother don't always go down with workforces under pressure. On the other hand, with appropriate consultation involving unions and staff, early adopters of activity monitoring say they are using their systems to help define labour standards that take account of real world factors, and so provide fair, accurate and achievable productivity goals for employees on a per-job basis.
As for the rest of Princess Yachts' system, Bryson-Meehan says its flexibility and robustness are key. "Within the manufacturing scope there are a lot of changes shift-wise, and now it's very simple and quick to make those changes.
Another major attraction is the speed of clock data recovery, which is instantaneous. This gives our managers greater autonomy over their own environments so they can deal with absences and anything else that comes along, more or less instantly."
For the future, he expects the system soon to improve processes requiring management authorisation – for example, around overtime, skills updates and training. "Any of these could be used to trigger an event within the system that allows a manager to monitor and approve anything that needs to happen."
But if all that prompts you to action, it's worth taking on board some words of wisdom from KLM UK Engineering's Dixon. "No single system is going to do everything from day one, so you need to investigate current systems and be willing to make changes. Also, if you're buying into the ideal of a real-time system, be aware that when someone swipes in or out, it may take a couple of seconds before you actually see that all the right things have happened. What's important here, though, is that real-time information close to the production floor is the key to being more competitive: it's what enables you to see potential problems before they happen – and underpin continuous improvement with reality."
Auto Time Solutions
K3 Business Technology Group plc
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