by Lara Copeland, contributing writer
The American Mold Builder

The ultimate goal for shop owners is to retain current customers and acquire new business, and this often is accomplished by developing a reputation for on-time delivery. Unfortunately, the hectic nature and unpredictable timelines of custom tooling work create challenges for even the most well-run shops. Superior job scheduling gives a company the opportunity to stand out amongst its toughest competition, but doing so requires a delicate balance between maintaining a schedule and allowing for flexibility.

Understanding the challenges

Managing leadtimes can be the difference between a successful business and one that is less-than-successful, and job scheduling is an essential component to the success of any mold shop as it attempts to reduce leadtime. To anticipate potential bottlenecks and keep production running smoothly, shops need in-depth knowledge of the materials, machines and employees involved in each production task. Because scheduling is constantly changing on a weekly, daily or even hourly basis, a malleable job schedule assists workers in overcoming potential trials; it also allows them to use resources wisely so that bottlenecks can be mitigated. Access to data is the key.

One common challenge to efficient job scheduling centers on the people involved. Customers make changes after they have placed the order or amend the original order to change the quantity, design or completion date. Similarly, vendors can pose a challenge – raw material suppliers may not be able to deliver on time, or outside process vendors may overpromise and underdeliver.

Beyond the external hardships that can impact a company’s delivery performance and success are internal concerns. Certain workstations may get backlogged after an employee illness or extended absence. Machines may have work stacked up and ready to go – but, no one is available to load the CNC program. It is not uncommon for machines to break down or for quality issues to suddenly appear on a program that previously had run without issue.

The variables described above all have an impact on a shop’s ability to meet deadlines, and every tooling shop has run into every one of the issues named. The most successful shops, however, plan their schedules to take into account variables that appear to be unpredictable, providing the resources and capacity to adjust instantaneously to meet the job’s needs.

Finding the solution

Busy tool shops have multiple jobs competing for the same resources – same skilled technicians, same machines, same tight timelines. Customers want to know job status, and management needs to track resource time. That’s where the job scheduling process comes in.

No perfect solution exists when it comes to job scheduling. Too much is dependent on the size of the shop, the volume and frequency of the jobs and the number of repeat programs likely to be performed. Tools range from clipboards and Excel spreadsheets to white boards and software solutions.

“Every shop has the same challenges,” explained Paul Ventura, vice president, marketing, Shoptech Software. “The key is to present information to the user in a simple way. Every production team member in every shop is busy – no one is sitting in front of a computer all day. A job scheduling system must be easy to read and understand or it won’t be used.”

Smaller shops with fewer than 20 employees and a limited number of jobs could create a functional job schedule using clipboards that travel along pegs on a wall as jobs move from one area of the shop floor to another. Excel spreadsheets (or even Microsoft Project) can use color and position to show priorities, often created by “walking backwards” with due dates to show which jobs need to be at certain stations within the shops at certain times.

Scheduling white boards or electronic white boards paired with computer monitors also provide a visual on the shop floor for all employees. By studying the location of each job in a visual presentation – whether on clipboards, in a spreadsheet or on a monitor – shop personnel will be able to see bottlenecks at a machine or station.

For larger shops or more complex and frequent orders, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software may be the answer. ERP systems combine information from multiple processes across a tool shop to collect, store, interpret and manage data.

“Shop management software provides the same visual benefits of a scheduling board, but with the real-time accuracy and speed of a computer,” said Ventura. “However, it’s one of the most difficult things for many of our customers because they’re dealing with ‘guesstimates’ instead of accurate data.”

ERP software requires discipline so each job on the floor is routed and reported. Accuracy isn’t ensured unless it’s simple to collect and enter the information needed to track time and expenses to each particular job, and Ventura acknowledged the simplest implementations are those in which the shops already are manually organized. “If their manual processes are smooth from the front office to the back office to the shop floor, they have a better chance of getting an ERP system off the ground quickly,” he said.

No matter the method, the goal for any job scheduling system is to make it simple for employees throughout the company to easily understand where a job is in the process and what must be done to ensure on-time delivery. This allows resources to be shifted throughout a facility to avoid bottlenecks at a particular machine or to prioritize delivery for certain customers if hard decisions must be made. In addition, if data is collected and tracked on a long-term basis, it becomes easier to set future schedules and quote new jobs more accurately.

Job scheduling also can better prepare machine shops to take on last-minute jobs without suffering many of the typical consequences associated with doing so. When quoting managers and sales staff can see the “what ifs” that exist with any job, they can make more informed decisions and react to both the realities of production and the needs of the customer.

One area where software could provide an advantage is in its ability to find inefficiencies that are occurring in production. Locating the slowdowns will, in turn, create greater efficiency and increase profits. This, of course, is dependent upon the quality of the data collected. “Tool shops require flexibility and ease of use,” said Ventura. “If it isn’t easy, they won’t use it, so ERP systems have to be created with that in mind. ERP software is a tool for the floor, just like the tool that goes into the machine.”

Effective job scheduling lessens the severity of disruptions that occur on a daily basis, while still allowing the shop to meet deadlines.

Develop a plan

No matter the job scheduling system used, some commonalities exist. First, what are the mold shop’s internal rules? How does the company prefer to handle job orders – it is first in, first out or is there a priority system? How should emergency orders be handled? Do the shop’s best customers (however that is defined) jump to the head of the line? Is priority production based on open capacity?

Next, start assigning estimated times. “It’s very hard to come up with exact times,” said Ventura, “but most mold shops can get close by routing every single step of every single job on the floor. Once that data is available, most shops can put together a basic scheduling white board or other system.”

Ventura emphasized the importance of good estimates, and cautioned that too much ballpark guessing can cause significant problems in job scheduling.

“The disciplined shops have a good vision of the future,” he said. “They understand the load on the floor – the capacity of both machines and personnel – which tells them what they’re able to take in. At the end of the day, shops want to know how much time they have to sell, and a good job scheduling system will show those available slivers of time.”

At the end of the day, someone must take ownership of the job scheduling process. Employees need to understand the impact an accurate system can make on their own daily schedules, and shop management must support their efforts. Chaos can be reduced, “emergencies” can be dealt with as minor annoyances and capacity opportunities could open up if job data is collected, tracked and viewed by everyone.