No limits: Portuguese textile maker links MES, APS, readying plant-floor finite scheduling for growth

Look closely at textile finishing manufacturer Aquacolor and you’ll see what some regard as the future of plant-floor operations: an advanced planning & scheduling (APS) and a manufacturing execution system (MES) working in close harmony. It’s a transformation that took the company some years to achieve, but which now is yielding undoubted benefits.


Look closely at textile finishing manufacturer Aquacolor and you’ll see what some regard as the future of plant-floor operations: an advanced planning & scheduling (APS) and a manufacturing execution system (MES) locked together, working in close harmony. It’s a transformation that took the Ribeirão, Portugal-based company some years to achieve, but which now is yielding undoubted benefits. 

Factelligence, an MES from Wonderware , handles plant-floor operations, sending to the PLCs at the factory automation layer detailed instructions for the dyeing, washing, sand-blasting, and brushing processes that the company carries out on behalf of customers such as Levi Strauss , Burberry , and Hugo Boss . Meanwhile, an APS solution from Preactor International oversees and schedules the work, optimizing the use that is made of Aquacolor’s capital-intensive specialized machinery.

“From a manufacturing perspective, it’s much more like scheduling a series of recipes than a process,” says Paulo Nobre, implementation consultant at Lisbon, Portugal-based Sysmaker , which carried out the integration. “Apparently similar products can go through different routings and sequences depending on final customer requirements.”

In many ways it was these differences that drove the decision in the first place, back in 2004, when Aquacolor’s management became frustrated at the difficulties the company’s existing systems had in dealing with the diversity of customer requirements that the company’s cost and technology leadership was bringing by way of successful customer wins.

“For some processes, the unit-of-measure is the number of items treated; for others, it might be the total weight of cloth treated,” explains Nobre. “The result is that the same work order can go through a number of different units-of-measure at the control and scheduling level, and the existing SCADA system was struggling to cope. It wasn’t flexible enough, and didn’t give management the visibility they needed.”

Sysmaker—which had been responsible for implementing the automation layer in the business—was given the task of recommending a solution, eventually emerging with Factelligence and Preactor APS as the preferred road map. Implementation began in late 2006, with work on the MES system seen as the first priority.

Preactor’s Managing Director Mike Novels says the planning solutions vendor is seeing plenty of interest in finite scheduling from manufacturing execution system suppliers that are being pushed by their customers to deliver a better scheduling capability—looking to Preactor for how best to deliver it.

Cultural factors also impinged on what was to be a phased implementation, explains Nobre. Phase 1 saw the replacement of the legacy system that controlled recipe and works order management with Factelligence, providing the capability to automate the sending of work-order information as well as the collection of production, consumption, and utilization data. Phase 2 then extended Factelligence to cover manual operations within the production process, achieved by customized user interfaces to manage the execution of work orders, in addition to collecting production and inspection data.
Finally, Preactor was integrated with Factelligence, adding comprehensive "what-if?" and scheduling capabilities to the system. Production management could now simulate scenarios according to current shop-floor status, choose the best among them, and analyze the impact of potential new work orders. To achieve this within Aquacolor’s manufacturing environment, specific customized rules were developed, incorporating a preferred sequence regarding of colors in order to minimize set-up time, and reflecting capacity constraints and business priorities.
“The combined solution is easy and intuitive to use, answering our requirements and adding the necessary flexibility without losing information,” notes Cristina Assis, CEO, Aquacolor. “It allows us to monitor each process and each resource, and to quickly analyze our global performance," she says. "We can see our company performance in real time, allowing us to identify potential problems and find improvement opportunities, all without additional labor costs.”
And the next phase, says Nobre, is building a better link between the two systems and Aquacolor’s ERP backbone, a Portuguese offering called PHC.
“At that point, the ERP system will effectively lose its detailed knowledge of the factory-floor operations,” says Nobre. “All that information will be on the MES and APS systems and the factory will effectively be a black box.”
For Preactor’s Managing Director Mike Novels, the Aquacolor implementation is the culmination of a trend that has been emerging for some time. Noting that figures from Boston, Mass.-based analyst firm AMR Research predict that a 13-percent compound annual growth rate in the manufacturing operations market sector will outstrip that achieved in most other sectors, he points to a growing awareness of MES scheduling limitations as the reason for the present level of interest in finite scheduling solutions.
“MES generally has a limited scheduling capability,” Novels observes. “There’s routing information and resource information, but the scheduling capability is generally little more than a basic sort process. There aren’t any real optimization capabilities, or very much by way of smart multi-constraint sequencing rules.”
Enter, it seems, Preactor. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in finite scheduling from MES companies at the moment,” sums up Novels. “They’re being pushed by their customers to deliver a better scheduling capability—and they’re talking to us about how best to deliver it.”

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