MIS begotten gains

Only by equipping management with up-to-date objective information can the business process be reliably improved ­ this, according to Les Seaton, operations director at IEA Ltd. Management Information Systems ­ is the key to fine tuning

EWOS produces compound feed for rearing fish of the salmon family ­ principally Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout. The company's factory at Bathgate in Scotland employs 60 people producing some 60,000 tonnes per annum of pelleted feed on three parallel, highly automated production lines. Recently, the company made a substantial investment in a management information system supplied by IEA Ltd of Cardiff, to enable its teams to improve the performance of the business.

Interdependent production
In the continuous search for performance improvement, EWOS contacted PA Consulting who undertook a review of the plant and its procedures. Part of PA's recommendations was to invest in a management information system (MIS). Armed with the information from an MIS, management would be better able to focus investment in new plant, plant improvements or in improving best practice. PA also insisted that for a complex interdependent production process such as that operated by EWOS, information collection and analysis would need to be automated in order to provide the speed and accuracy needed. However, automated data collection and sophisticated database analysis is what normally makes MIS a very costly tool.

IEA's solution differed from classical MIS in two critical ways. Firstly, IEA was able to derive the vast majority of the data needed from existing automation systems, and secondly, IEA used Windows NT Client/Server-based packages for collection, analysis and presentation of information. EWOS production processes are controlled by a number of islands of automation: a BMS system for the stock control and intake; a Datastor system for batching and the extruder; a Wenger system for the dryer; and an Intertech system for the vacuum coater. The MIS has to interface with all four to collect the required information ­ not a simple task. Some data, such as reasons for machine down time, inherently require judgement and manual entry. Other data, such as the results from quality control sampling processes, are manual simply because the cost of mechanising the testing is prohibitive.

With a few exceptions then, data collection at EWOS is fully automatic. The volumes of data are huge. Thousands of measurements are logged every minute. To put it into perspective, the system generates 600MB of data per week.

At the other end of the system ­ management information reporting ­ the MIS breaks the business process into three parameters: utilisation, yield and efficiency. This can be applied to the entire factory, or to any section of plant or process. The product of these, applied to the whole operation, is the measure of how well the business is performing. A simple graphical display of this one variable showing current actual compared to the average for the last three months and the average for the last 12 months is a powerful indicator of business performance. By adding the highest and lowest short-term excursions to the graph, a simple graphical display of spread or variability of the business performance can be provided.

Whilst a very useful tool for monitoring progress, these simple graphs clearly do not provide enough information to analyse problems or inform the planning of change. For these purposes, users employ a technique called 'drilling down'. Simply put, drilling down means investigating the successive levels of detailed measurements underlying a trend until the cause can be identified. This sounds simple, but it is easy to become overwhelmed with data while remaining starved of information. IEA's system uses a product from Oracle, called Express, to display information as 3D stacked bar graphs (left), and allows users to display any parameter as a function of any two others. These Ocubes' are startlingly effective.

Of course, to make good use of the system, there must be some focus. The sudden wealth of information can lead to starting too many competing projects, resulting in effort being spread too thinly and little being accomplished. Barbara Wood, production manager at Bathgate, emphasises this point strongly: "Without MIS, the problem is how to measure processes," she explains. "With MIS, the critical management skill shifts to deciding what to focus on. We decided to focus first on yield, and specifically on the drying part of the process."

It was well known to EWOS that more moisture ­ desirable in a product sold by weight - had the effect of making the pellets more fragile and so more likely to break up in the coating stage. The key question was: what is the optimum level? The issue had defied analysis by manual methods. Using the MIS, the impact of small changes in moisture content was analysed and the value that produced the optimum result for the whole business was determined. During this process, it became clear that achieving this optimum value was so important to the business that it was worth investing in improvements to the dryer control system to tighten up the already small (2%) achieved spread of product moisture.

Together, these improvements have shown a significant return on investment. During the same period, production of out-of-limits product that has to be recycled was cut by 95%.



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