PA Group: Phifer-JUST MES Case Study

In 1952, J. Reese Phifer established Phifer Inc. in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as a weaver of aluminum insect screening with two main goals — to excel in quality and service. Today, the company is the world’s largest producer of aluminum and fiberglass insect screening products. Throughout the years, the company’s weaving expertise has broadened and expanded to include a wide variety of innovative woven sun control fabrics for windows, designed fabrics for outdoor furniture applications, as well as drawn wire products. Phifer also manufactures woven products for specialty markets including pet care, filtration, contract furniture, wall covering, automotive, ventilation, reinforcement, awning, and marine. Manufacturing and corporate offices are located in Tuscaloosa with warehousing/offices in California, Italy, India, and Asia. Phifer exports all products worldwide and has a full international sales and traffic staff.
Phifer’s Proprietary Software Grows Beyond Manageability
In 2003, Phifer implemented a Tier I Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) platform in order to handle the company’s growth and complexity. To bridge the divide between the ERP and manufacturing operations, a Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) group was created within the IT department. The MES group developed a proprietary specifications database in which they could store product specs for materials sourcing and the machine settings required for production.
Over time, the proprietary application grew well beyond its intended use, becoming extremely difficult to maintain. Individual areas within the company’s manufacturing operations responsible for metal, fiberglass, and specialty products each operated independently and established separate business processes and data management methods. Personal notes and spreadsheets from machine operators often never made it into the system. Reporting and data accessibility became labor intensive with requests being submitted to the MES group from each department within the company. Product specification changes had to be manually entered by IT one at a time across the database and any data needing to be synced to or from the ERP also required IT involvement.
These symptoms, common for growing manufacturing enterprises, prompted Phifer CIO William Cork to explore a new MES solution. “We were either going to overhaul it in-house or we were going to purchase a piece of software,” Cork said. Chattanooga, Tenn.-based PA Group USA was invited to demonstrate the capabilities of its JUST MES suite, consisting of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), Planning and Scheduling, and Monitoring components. “We did a cost-benefit analysis of developing in-house versus going with PA Group, and after an extensive vetting process we decided to go with PA Group. There was not another solution on the market that could do what PA Group could do.”
A Commitment To Lean Manufacturing And Standardization
Phifer formed a committee of key stakeholders to come together with a consulting team from PA Group and create a vision for what a new MES solution would look like. A crucial requirement was the capability to deliver a system that would support Phifer’s commitment to a lean manufacturing model. PA Group provided an initial analysis of the current system and then built a prototype with the software programs and modules that would form the complete MES solution – JUST PLM, JUST Planning with modules for weaving, beaming, and yarn production, and JUST Monitoring for weaving looms and beaming machines.
The solution implementation posed a significant challenge due to the complexity of Phifer’s operations within the three separate manufacturing divisions for metal screening, fiberglass screening, and specialty products. “There are three divisions at Phifer that each have a different way of working, and even sub-divisions inside of those divisions with different ways of working,” said PA Group Project Manager Carlo Cranchi. “There are eight different kinds of planning logic inside the system that makes the scheduling system very complex, and a lot of people that needed to be trained on the system.”
After a successful implementation of the JUST suite in the metal screening division, Phifer employees immediately began to realize major efficiency improvements in the handling and movement of data. The MES and ERP systems are now completely linked. Getting material data from production to IT to front office used to require a change request and tedious spreadsheet conversions, and has now been replaced by a one-click sync process. Mass changes to spec data had not previously been possible, but now through the JUST PLM system, these changes are executed with ease. “The old system was kind of geared more toward what we do, and not as much as to how we can use the data we are collecting to make us better,” said Phifer Director of Product Data Management Laura Jackson.“ I think with the JUST suite that we have now, we have the opportunity to do that — to take us to the next level when it comes to manufacturing excellence.”
Kaizen Methodology Supported By MES Platform
When it comes to manufacturing excellence, Phifer has adopted the kaizen methodology of improving all functions of the business while involving all employees. “We really use the Managing for Daily Improvement (MDI) methodology extensively throughout the factory floor,” Cork said. “Every product line has a daily MDI walk where they go from process to process reviewing their performance metrics and taking action when we do not meet our metrics.” PA Group’s JUST Monitoring system has been a major contributing force to these daily kaizen events. Large flat-screen monitors are positioned in highly-visible areas, highlighting division-wide performance metrics. PCs are stationed within individual machine groupings offering the ability to go back and view historical production data for each machine right from the shop floor. Each machine has a Human Machine Interface (HMI) that allows machine operators and other personnel to interact directly with the system.
For Phifer, visibility has long been an issue that frustrated the company’s key stakeholders. Enabling data accessibility through user-generated reports and templates is a core function of JUST MES. Phifer uses bulletin boards stationed throughout the production facility to post reports from the MES that are reviewed during each MDI walk-thru. “There’s a program within the monitoring called Stops Trace, and I really like that program because you can print out on one piece of paper how a weave room did for the previous 24 hours and quickly tell the story of what happened,” Cork added. “One of my favorite things is that consistently you’re able to get any information out of the system. All throughout the JUST suite you have export to excel so you are able to get that data out and do any sort of manipulation.”
Prior to implementing JUST Scheduling, Phifer was using three different home-grown scheduling software programs for weaving, as well as separate applications for yarn production and beaming. “Every scheduler did something completely different than the person working next door to them,” Cork said. The new MES platform has enabled Phifer to standardize on a universal set of tools and processes. The advanced planning capabilities of JUST Scheduling have also given the Phifer planning team greater insight felt upstream in yarn production. “When they schedule their looms, the system will automatically explode the BOM so that they can see their yarn requirements going out very, very far into the future,” Cork stated. “It gives them the ability to see what yarn they need to be making two or three months from now and if they are going to have the necessary capacity during peak seasons to achieve that.”
A Stronger Outlook On The Future
JUST MES is offering Phifer immediate benefits, as well as opening the door to future possibilities. The new software is enabling users to generate their own reports and templates without the need to involve programmers while also providing the preventative maintenance staff with better insight into potential machine issues, helping Phifer to operate smarter. Looking to the future, Cork believes they are providing the necessary tools for a younger workforce that will want to have the ability to solve problems on the fly. Laura Jackson sees a workforce that better understands the manufacturing processes in play and a system that will enable users to drive innovation. “Innovation is whenever you realize you have some technology that will help you get to that next level that you didn’t think you would ever be able to get to,” Jackson said.
Modern manufacturing companies have an immense challenge in collecting and managing the vast amount of data that can be used to drive innovation and success. The JUST MES solution from PA Group has brought in a level of data sophistication and standardization that Phifer can use to establish a foundation for the future. “They have a more stable solution than in the past and a more standard solution than in the past,” stated PA Group’s Cranchi. “Data migration used to take a lot of time for Phifer because the data was not well structured in the old system. Now the data is structured in a standard way. Before, every division worked in a different way. Right now, all the divisions work in a common way with the same documentation in production and a standardization in the work they are doing.”
Phifer Values The Expertise of PA Group
One very important aspect of the JUST PES project for both Phifer and PA Group has been the fit between the consulting team and the company’s employees. “When it comes to any project like this … the critical component to it is the people,” said Cork. “It’s the people who are going to be implementing it and the working relationship that the two organizations have.”
 August 18, 2015