Paperless Shopfloors: How FC Laser enhanced efficiencies and control

Paperless Shopfloors: How FC Laser enhanced efficiencies and control

Paperless Shopfloors: How FC Laser enhanced efficiencies and control

The move towards paperless operations is gaining momentum across manufacturing.  Beyond its evident environmental benefits and cost-savings, the shift is reshaping workflows, minimising human errors and providing real-time information access.

The concept of the ‘paperless’ office emerged in the 1970s with the arrival of computers. However, despite more than half a century having passed, most workplaces still contain mountains of paper. 

At a time when digital storage, software programmes and electronic devices are more affordable and accessible than ever, many companies continue to rely on legacy paper-centric processes.

The drawbacks of paper-based workflows and record-keeping are numerous, including:

  • The environmental impact of paper production, transportation and disposal
  • Paper-based processes are inherently slower to create and retrieve information from, with a higher likelihood of manual errors
  • Paper documents are susceptible to loss, theft or damage, posing risks to sensitive and confidential information
  • Tracking the progress of tasks within paper-based systems can be difficult, leading to reduced oversight and control
  • The significant expense of paper, printing and storage could be redirected toward more strategic initiatives
  • Physical documents are often confined to specific locations, which is a barrier to real-time collaboration and access to critical information
  • Paper-based systems lack the adaptability and flexibility of digital tools, making it complex and cumbersome to evolve and scale with changing business needs

Recognising these challenges, organisations are embracing digital workflows. One such company is FC Laser, the fastest-growing precision laser company in the Midlands.

The need for greater control

As a 75% employee-owned company providing laser cutting, folding and fabrication services, FC Laser operates in a highly competitive market where speed and turnaround time are paramount. The company’s typical turnaround time is just two to five days, during which it will quote, review, develop and process an order, fold profiles, cut parts, assemble, inspect and deliver finished goods.

In a typical month, the company produces around 250,000 parts, uses more than 300 different grades and thicknesses of material, and delivers to 200-plus customers. The nature of their operation demands agility, quick decision-making and a robust planning and control system.

Until recently, FC Laser relied on whiteboards and T-card planning boards for tracking work-in-progress. The system was extremely manual, relying on a lot of handwritten information being transferred around the operation.

“It worked, it was organised and people knew what they were doing but it didn't give us much control or flexibility and it made us very reactive,” explained Daryl Lowe, Managing Director of FC Laser.

“To grow as a business, we needed to change how we managed our production planning and capacity. I wanted to produce more with the same resources. I wanted a better flow of jobs and information through the business. I wanted more control.”

During a recent Monthly Industry Meetup, Darly shared his journey from basic planning to a more sophisticated, integrated and automated system.

Overcoming the ‘Fear of Change’

FC Laser, like many small manufacturing operations, faced the challenge of a “We’ve always done it that way” mindset. Key to its recent transformation was encouraging a growth mindset focused on continuous improvement. Today, employees are constantly looking to make processes easier and more efficient, to improve themselves as individuals, as teams and the business.

“Over the last five years, we've made a lot of changes,” Darly said. “To me, it's all about making positive change and experimenting. Try it, does it work; if it does, you move forward; if it doesn't, try something else. Enable your people to try new things and, most importantly, to fail.”

The appointment of a dedicated control systems and software manager played a crucial role in FC Laser’s successful transformation.

“Our CAD manager was very software savvy, he understood SQL programming, and I felt that moving him into a systems and software manager role would be more suited to his skillset,” Darly explained.

“His key remit is to integrate and optimise all our business systems, automate processes and create custom dashboards and reports. It’s proven to be a key strategic role and we’re now utilising the systems more fully and in a much better way than we were without him in that role.”

Manual whiteboards have been replaced with a digital system capturing real-time data to track work-in-progress. Software installed on each cutting machine automatically informs FC Laser’s material requirements planning (MRP) system when a job has been completed and a new job can be taken on.

“The changes we’ve made have enabled us to work more productively and efficiently with increased control and flexibility. We have so much more granularity now in terms of business information, and all of it is real-time and accurate. We understand capacity to such a degree that if a customer needs parts urgently, we know exactly which jobs can be advanced and which moved back. It gives us full work-in-progress trackability and traceability.

“Dashboards serve as our early warning system. If we don't cut or fold something when we should, the system flags it. As a result, we find problems earlier in the process rather than discovering them at the end when it’s more costly to rectify.”

Overcoming industry’s lack of systems managers

Following Daryl’s talk, a Discussion Group of a dozen Made Members further explored the advantages of having a dedicated systems and software manager. Although fairly rare in industry, it was agreed that this role can provide immense value by streamlining the adoption and integration of new and existing technologies.

“A lot of key improvements we've achieved either wouldn’t have been possible without having that person in place or would have taken us five, six, seven years to achieve,” noted Darly. “If I was the MD of any manufacturing company, I would be looking to hire someone in that role because the benefits for me are vast.”

Despite the advantages, the group went on to discuss the reasons why manufacturing companies, especially SMEs, may struggle to have a dedicated systems and software manager.

These included:

  • Budgetary constraints
  • Not fully understanding the potential benefits of effective systems and software management
  • Being unable to find candidates with the right combination of technical skills, industry knowledge and experience
  • Being uncertain about the specific responsibilities and outcomes of the role
  • Relying on external IT consultants or services instead of having an in-house expert

The group went on to discuss how relying too heavily on one individual could be a potential risk to the business, especially around continuity if that individual is absent or leaves the organisation.

To mitigate these risks, participants agreed on the importance of cross-training and capturing important procedures, configurations and troubleshooting steps.

It was suggested that companies conduct regular team meetings and collaborative projects to help pass on information and skills, and have contingency plans in place to address sudden departures, ensuring that others can step in and maintain operations.

With manufacturing facing a lack of dedicated systems and software managers, how do we create more of them? According to participants, we have to address both the supply and demand side of talent development.

On the supply side, they raised the need to develop relevant specialised courses supported through internships, apprenticeships and other hands-on experiences for students. Managers should also encourage employees to pursue relevant qualifications and professional development, and provide financial assistance or study resources where possible

On the demand side, companies could develop internship and entry-level programmes to nurture talent from the early stages of their careers. These could be supported by mentors and career development opportunities to help entry-level professionals grow within the organisation.

Join our Monthly Industry Meetup!

The opportunity to openly discuss challenges, opportunities and solutions is why the Made in Group’s Monthly Industry Meetups are so invaluable.

During these captivating virtual events, industry experts, thought leaders, and professionals gather to share knowledge, insights and best practices.

The goal is to foster collaboration, inspire innovation, and drive growth within the manufacturing community.

Each month, we feature three engaging talks from Made Members, focusing on best practices around key themes that shape the future of manufacturing, including Global Trade, People & Skills, Future Factories and Sustainability.

The presentations are followed by interactive Discussion Groups. These virtual roundtables enable Members to exchange ideas and gain further insights on their chosen topic.

We look forward to seeing you at the next one:

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*Header image from Freepik