Workload Control - keeping customised manufacturing lean

In a tough competitive market, manufacturing companies which produce customised products on a make-to-order basis face particular challenges – they need to set delivery dates that are achievable but still attractive enough to win them contracts. That's where techniques developed at Lancaster can help.

A novel Workload Control – or WLC – approach developed by Professor Linda Hendry and Dr Mark Stevenson of the Department of Management Science at LUMS has been developed, through research, to address some of the specific challenges encountered by companies of this type.

WLC, explains Hendry, enables customised make-to-order (MTO) manufacturers to operate lean manufacturing principles, and provides a new way of reducing a company’s work-in-progress inventory when the methods used in standardised production do not apply.

“Through better control of this inventory along with capacities, WLC enables companies to set more realistic, yet competitive, delivery dates and therefore bid more successfully for new orders,” she adds. “Given that customised products cannot be supplied from stock, our research demonstrates how important it is for a company to take control of workloads from the moment it receives a new customer enquiry. Firms who adopt the WLC approach gain greater awareness of, and control over, the flow of their work through the production process from tendering or bidding onwards, enabling them to make better decisions on precisely what to do when.”

Industry experience

The research has had a notable impact both within the UK and overseas, on companies of varying sizes.

One company that has already felt the benefits is PDS Engineering, a small precision engineering company in the North West of England producing a wide range of complex, high-specification components, mostly on an MTO basis. Implementing Lancaster’s WLC system has led to increased clarity of production and capacity planning, and has given PDS a much better understanding of shop-floor priorities, of how and when to adjust capacity, and of what delivery lead times they can confidently quote to prospective customers. According to Annette Weekes, Operations Director at PDS, “the LUMS WLC system has improved our performance at PDS significantly ... therefore contributing to our profitability.”

Besides improving the company’s own competitiveness, the improved performance has also made its mark on the supply chain in which PDS operates, and the effects have been felt by key customers – including major players in the UK aerospace industry. Mark Parker, an independent supply chain consultant, says that Lancaster’s WLC system has made PDS ‘fit for purpose’ to supply-leading aerospace companies, adding that he often uses WLC as an example of best practice within the industry.

WLC approach spreads to Europe and China

Through an EU-funded project in the Netherlands, ten companies have collaborated with researchers from the University of Groningen to implement WLC. A firm of consultants provided a piece of production planning and control software to support the EU project, which incorporates many of Lancaster’s WLC ideas and this has since been implemented in many other Dutch companies.

Consultants in Belgium are also using the WLC approach, as are companies working with the University of Coimbra in Portugal. It is also now taking root in China, where researchers from the Guangdong University of Technology are using WLC in several mould manufacturing companies. One of these companies praised WLC as providing a very simple means of maintaining its guarantees for delivery within 24 hours, and other consultants have found that applying the WLC principles has resulted in lead times being significantly reduced at several companies, often by a factor of 50%.