A custom-made computerised tool has been created with the support of the European Commission to assist SMEs in improving their production management. This is an indispensable weapon in the fight to be competitive and to satisfy customer requirements.
In 1992, the Dutch foundation SCOM (Stichting
Collectief Onderezoek Metaalindustrie) carried out a survey among
175 SMEs in the metals manufacturing sector of the Netherlands.
The purpose of the survey was to identify their specific requirements
for improving productivity. "These small industries are generally
very successful when it comes to the quality of their products,"
explains Willem Oudolf, Director of the SCOM. "The major problems
encountered concern capacity management and meeting the delivery
deadlines of their customers. Problems of production management,
in other words."
In a sector like metals manufacturing, the parameters to be coordinated are in fact extremely numerous and complex, from the ordering of raw materials to the assembly of the final product, and including the manufacture of components, which is very often carried out in other factories. Management of this kind with multiple variables can be made a lot easier by computerisation.
A European partnership
Following its survey, the SCOM decided to launch a project aimed at developing software specifically tailored to the problems of management control identified by SMEs in this sector. Right away, those responsible for the project decided that the development should be part of a European cooperative research project. "This was firstly for financial reasons," explains Willem Oudolf. "In the Netherlands we did not have adequate national funding to meet all our requirements for this type of investment. Secondly, there was the question of the market. We felt that this software would interest SMEs in other European countries." Presented through CRAFT, an initiative specifically designed to facilitate the participation of SMEs in R&D projects, the project was initially based on a partnership with the Belgian research centre WTCM (Wetenschappelijk en Technisch Centrum van de Metaalverwerkende nijverheid) in Leuven, a body with which the SCOM already had close links. After other European partners had been sought, the project also involved a group of Portuguese SMEs.
A new tool for profitability
The project began in 1993 and led to the development of the SPAR management software two years later. Particularly flexible, the software can incorporate a whole group of variables linked to the monitoring of production capacity (order book, progression of work orders, subcontracting, etc.).
By the spring of 1996, six firms were using this software on an experimental basis and had already derived considerable benefit from it. The tool enables managers to cut the time spent on order processing by 50% and to meet delivery dates more than 95% of the time. Priced at ECU 30000, it pays for itself in a year, and the average expected benefit per SME can be estimated at around ECU 150000. Given that there are about 4000 SMEs in the metals manufacturing sector in the Netherlands alone, and that this figure can be multiplied by at least 10 for the numbers in the European Union, the benefits of this software - which may also be applicable in other industrial sectors - may be considerable.