Back in 2007, Belfast‑based defence contractor Thales Air Defence faced a challenge. A leading global manufacturer of ground‑to‑ground, ground‑to‑air, and air‑to‑air missiles, the business had won a contract to partner with Sweden’s Saab Bofors Dynamics to produce shoulder‑carried anti‑tank ‘NLAW’ missiles for the British Army.
But two immediate problems posed themselves, explains Brian Abernethy, head of manufacturing at the company.
First, the tender for the contract had been highly competitive, and margins were slim. Cost control, in short, would be critical.
Second, the contract came with a traceability requirement in the shape of what were called ‘ammunition data cards’—effectively a full ‘as‑built’ record of the individual components going into every single missile produced.
Lean manufacturing initiatives had been in place at Thales for some time, says Abernethy. But the volumes involved in the new contract, and the tough cost targets involved, meant that the business would need to redouble its efforts around lean manufacturing and low‑cost, efficient flowline‑based production.
The traceability requirement would be a tougher nut to crack. Not only couldn’t the company’s legacy MRP system deliver the required functionality, explains Abernethy, but at the volumes involved in the contract, attempting to deliver it manually would add prohibitively to headcount. On another missile contract, running at much lower levels of production, the task required two full‑time product engineers, together with manual records and spreadsheets.
Serialising parts, and then scanning their barcodes, offered a foundation on which to build. But what was then required was a way of tracking the captured data, and reporting it in the format that the customer wanted—and doing so efficiently.
“In the short term, the focus was on capturing the build history, and delivering it to the customer in the required format—without incurring non‑value added cost, and to do it in a way that didn’t need expensive IT systems,” says Abernethy. “After that, the focus was on accelerating our lean activities.”
Coincidentally, a sister company, Basingstoke‑based Thales missile electronics business, had made use of Mestec’s ‘Manufacturing Smart Box’ terminals for quality management purposes.
Talking to their colleagues at the company, Abernethy and his team realised that the Mestec Manufacturing Smart Box system could meet their own traceability requirement, as well. But better still, from its position as a factory floor ‘system of record’, a Mestec‑based solution could offer much more.
“We quickly saw that Mestec’s functionality was much broader than we’d thought, and that we could use it to eliminate non‑value adding and non‑conforming activities,” he says. “From a lean perspective, it gave us data that we didn’t have, in a format that we could use to drive improvement actions.”
But with missile deliveries scheduled for late 2008, implementation would need to begin immediately.
An early ‘win’, says Wilson Lenaghan, Thales’ work and material planning manager, was a visit to another plant running Mestec’s Manufacturing Smart Box system, where the team saw the potential for barcoding work‑in‑progress, and getting suppliers to barcode components.
“The more we looked at how we were working, the more we saw the potential to change our manufacturing processes, and to move away from ‘kitting’ and instead adopt pull‑based systems,” he recalls.
“Mestec gave us the ability to link people to work centres,” adds Abernethy. “Which not only gave us the ability to ensure that the people performing tasks were appropriately qualified and ‘current’, but also gave us log‑on and log‑off times, from which we could capture manufacturing cost and efficiency metrics.”
And when the Mestec system was integrated with the plant’s MRP system in 2010, explains Lenaghan, the act of logging‑on was then used to automatically trigger ‘back‑flushing’ through the bill of materials, with the old way of working completely replaced by pull‑based manufacturing and kanban squares.
“What began as delivering an ‘as‑built’ capability evolved into something far more transformational,” he says. “Today, it’s all about best practice in material flow, and eliminating actions—such as kitting—that don’t add value.”
Abernethy concurs. “Without doubt, we can demonstrate very real savings,” he sums up. “From capturing and reporting ‘as‑built’ data, to faster cycle times and improved material flow, we’re a business today that runs far more efficiently, thanks to Mestec.”
Turn the clock forward to today, and Thales has now purchased additional licenses, in order to extend the Mestec system’s reporting and dashboarding facilities to a whole new set of employees.
On one production line, the impetus has been the realisation that the Mestec item genealogy report contained a wealth of information about individual assemblies—who did what, when, and what the test results were.
Back on the NLAW line, lean manufacturing and the quest for efficiencies remain the driver, with Mestec providing a rich source of data on actual vs. standard times and costs.
“Via reports and dashboards, the system is delivering valuable actionable information, and Thales is wanting to extend the number of people who can access these insights and exploit them in their day‑to‑day roles,” sums up Jeremy Harford, Mestec’s managing director.
“We’re finding this to be a common theme among our customers: even if they originally bought our solution for some other reason, such as traceability, the sheer power of its reporting functionality makes targeting efficiency improvements incredibly straightforward.”