Solanum is one of the UK’s premier suppliers of potatoes with a reputation gained by providing quality and value for more than 60 years. A division of the £240m turnover ProduceWorld group, Solanum is based in Sutton Bridge at the former headquarters of the Potato Marketing Board and supplies 57,000 tonnes of potatoes each year to the major UK high street retailers. When the company decided to completely review and overhaul its entire approach to production planning and scheduling, it did so with the help of Preactor.
The process steps involved at Solanum are relatively straightforward. The company receives orders on a daily basis, which may or may not correspond to a long range sales forecast and need to be supplied on either a same day or next day basis. Potatoes are size graded by variety before being washed, packed, labelled and dispatched. However, as operations director Darren Mortimer explains, the reality is complicated by a range of factors which create some challenging business issues: “While dealing exclusively with potatoes we handle in excess of 27 different
varieties which with all the packaging permutations add up to approximately 140 possible SKUs. Order sizes range all the way from a single case which might be six kg up to over 4500 cases which might be ten tonnes upwards.”
Then there is the challenge of managing the source of supply. Eighty per cent of all potatoes used are grown in the UK while 20 per cent are imported and all need to be harvested at the correct time and appropriately conditioned. Planning and logistics co-ordinator Rob Callaby adds another level of perspective: “While we harvest every year, many of our varieties need to be planned three to five years ahead in terms of a viable growing and harvesting cycle. It also goes without saying that the actual yield of any particular crop may differ significantly from anticipated yield for a number of reasons including growing and harvesting conditions.” “There is also the issue of sensitive crops,” adds Darren. “One of our key challenges is to maximise the usage of every crop throughout the entire supply chain. It clearly has an impact if 15 per cent of a shipment is bruised as opposed to only five per cent.”
There were also difficulties in managing the efficient use of the company’s resources at both a machine and a human level. Whereas four of the company’s production lines can manufacture 70 per cent of SKUs, the remaining four lines can only manufacture the remaining 20 per cent. Darren again: “Ideally each line needs to be optimally used but this is hard to plan at the best of times as up to 25 per cent of the potatoes processed through the production line are not of an acceptable quality, and are graded out on line, prior to packing which obviously influences the actual time that a line is physically working on a particular order.”
Even when an order is complete and in cold storage prior to dispatch, there can be complications because bruising which may have occurred during the packing process may only show several hours later. If this is the case, the affected packs cannot be dispatched and the shortfall needs to be made up, which of course impacts the rest of the flow. To cope with fluctuations in peak activity in the normal course of production the company has to ensure either that appropriate levels of staff are present on site at all times or to utilise short term agency labour which can be costly. Other key challenges include managing Christmas period demand, planned and unplanned maintenance, and maximising the delivery capacity of each of the 15 lorries that leave the company every day.
Darren describes the company’s Ingredientsplanning prior to investing in Preactor as ‘individual production line focused due to an absence of a factory wide planning culture.’ A failed in-house planning software application hadn’t helped at all and planning was literally down to the experience of a few key personnel and a general culture of assuming that most people knew what needed to be made most of the time. As Rob recalls: “We had no production planning systems or spreadsheets. Orders would be issued to the production teams in their raw format and they were left to produce to the order as best they could. This would be complicated by the fact that some production runs had completed before the order was issued.”
Darren adds: “There was a system in place, however no one really knew how or why it functioned and it was impossible to gain a holistic view of progress against demand at any time.” The catalyst for change was a review of the order and planning process with input from a number of key individuals, including Nicola Bingham, the then planning manager. This led to Darren and Nicola drawing up a comprehensive list of requirements for an ideal production planning and scheduling solution that would fit the company’s needs.
Four solutions providers were then approached with this list and their offerings assessed which reduced the list to two. Further investigations were made with site visits being taken with each supplier. In the end Preactor was the clear winner for offering the best combination of value for money as well as the best levels of service and support. Darren again: “Preactor had the visual look and feel that our planning manager wanted as well as a very easy and intuitive user interface via the Gantt charts. I was impressed by the combination of functionality and flexibility of the product but also by the fact that Preactor had a clear and demonstrable track record in the food and beverage sector. We liked the service levels that Kudos could provide not just in the short term but also on an ongoing basis should we need to do any further work with the system.”
Implementation commenced shortly afterwards and was helped by Solanum already having a complete breakdown of all of the relevant process and production data from its earlier failed system. This was handed over to Kudos Solutions which used it to develop all the appropriate planning rules and within two months, Solanum was generating what Darren describes as ‘relatively robust production plans’. He is quick to credit the smooth implementation of Preactor resting with Nicola Bingham and Kudos.Obstacles overcome
“An excellent working relationship was formed and any obstacles were soon overcome.” More importantly, Preactor was serving as a catalyst for changing the entire planning culture in the company, as current planning and logistics co-ordinator Rob explains. “While it took a further two months, the plans became increasingly more accurate which meant that people began to trust the results Preactor was generating.”
In addition to the helping facilitate this cultural change, Preactor in conjunction with other initiatives and improvements has helped deliver a broad spectrum of benefits for Solanum, not least an improvement in resource efficiency of five per cent In terms of human resource, whereas the company had five to ten per cent spare resource at any one time, this has now been reduced to zero in addition to a reduction to the use of costly short term agency staff. Because of the increased visibility and accuracy of what needs to be packed and when, over-packaging has been reduced significantly with half of this being directly attributable to Preactor. Special deliveries due to orders having missed their loading slots have been reduced from an average of three per month to less than one a month which not only represents a real cost saving but also an improvement in customer satisfaction levels.Confidence
Such is the increase in confidence and accuracy that Darren says the company now routinely hits 95 per cent or more of the plan each day and this confidence has impacted other areas of the business. The new planning process has helped facilitate a move to a four on/four off shift pattern, something Darren 16says would have been completely impossible before. It has also helped make the process of manufacturing new products more robust, which in effect reduces time taken to get these products to market. And because it is right first time, the company is now more competitive as a whole. It is no wonder that Darren anticipates even greater things to come when the group as a whole completes a roll-out of Microsoft Navision as its new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Because Preactor already has a proven link with Navision, Darren knows that using Preactor in conjunction with Navision as opposed to its current standalone capacity will bring more wide ranging benefits across the entire company. Hence he concludes: “Preactor has helped transform not only the way the company operates but also its entire approach, moving us much more to a genuine demand driven business. If you took it away, we simply wouldn’t know what to do without it.”
Preactor International is a world leader in production planning and scheduling software used by a wide range of businesses.
For further information, visit: www.preactor.com