On 10th and 11th April 2002 a visit to one of the key steel manufacturers in the UK, CORUS STRIP PRODUCTS UK took place. The main contributor in making this visit possible is Mr. Steve Thornton working in the same company’s plant situated at the Teesside, North Yorkshire. The main focus of the visit was to look at the knowledge acquisition and capture of different knowledge assets involved in the area of scheduling for steel manufacturing. CORUS STRIP PRODUCTS UK is a leading carbon steel manufacturer specialised in producing hot rolled, cold rolled and metallic-coated steels for many industries such as the automotive and transport industries, building and construction, shipping, consumer appliances and electronics, and general engineering. Even though the year 2001 was bit hostile for the carbon steel market in UK, the UK sector of the company had a turnover of £2,291 m after the tax with the overall production of 4000-ton steel.
The two plants visited are situated at Llanwern Works, Newport and Port Talbot. The plant at Llanwern Works is more specialised in steel rolling whereas the one at Port Talbot is comprehensive in manufacturing steel as well as converting the steel to match customer requirements.
The first day of the visit began with the Llanwern Works plant. The Operations and Logistics department of this plant is responsible for handling the planning and scheduling activity for both these plants. Like any other industry, scheduling plays a vital role in keeping the plant running efficiently as well as effectively. The reason behind this is not surprising, as the company has nearly 80 different customers whose wide ranges of orders have to be satisfied against the due dates. To make the matter more complicated, the sales office changes the priority of these orders without much advance notice to the scheduling people. It makes the life of the people working in the department of Operations and Logistics quite difficult. To match up with the growing number of fluctuating demands the Operations and Logistics department work round the clock.
By keeping the initial objective of the visit in mind (understanding the schedule construction process in steel manufacturing) and trying to make implicit knowledge assets hidden in expertise explicit, it was absolutely important to talk with the schedulers in this department.
The much-appreciated help came from the key scheduler Mr. Steve Williams in this department who gave a substantial amount of time for the interview from his extremely busy schedule. Mr. Williams, along with two of his colleagues, participated in the discussion as well as interview session. Their main responsibility lies in the area of constructing the schedule for the week that is derived from the weekly plan. The weekly schedule then further gets broken down in the daily schedule that actually goes to the manufacturing plant situated at Port Talbot. The overall discussion and interview session was lasted for nearly 7 hours during which various important issues in scheduling were discussed through the formal question answer session as well as through informal discussion session. After the discussion and interview session to make the overall picture further clear different software tools that are in use within this department to build the schedule such as, Simple ++, BOCS (BRONER), MOS are demonstrated. The day was wrapped up with the informal discussion and by presenting the brief summary of the day. The overall session was quite useful in not only understanding the way experts think to construct a schedule for the real-life business but the amount of complexity and the importance of the organisational communication that takes place to construct an efficient schedule for the company.
Right from the beginning of the visit it was an issue in mind to go around the actual manufacturing plat to see the actual execution of the schedule that is constructed in a nice office environment on the plant floor. Also, without going on the manufacturing plant it would be quite difficult to understand the different decision making involved in the process to reach the customer target. At the same time it was a kind of privilege to visit the highly restricted manufacturing area to appreciate the legacy of engineering work. On 11th April we have visited the manufacturing plant at Port Talbot. The plant is a self-sufficient in terms of overall manufacturing process involves in making the steel – primary steel making and secondary steel making.
The on site tour of the plant was started by looking at the primary steel making unit. It is usually a batch process where similar chemical composition steel is batch together. After going through the 4 different processes of primary steel making the molten steel is produced satisfying the chemical composition of the steel according to the customer. The molten steel afterwards feed to the secondary steel making plant as a raw ingredient. The secondary steel making plant performs further operation on it and finally the molten steel, which is strictly within the range of chemical constraints given by the customer, gets converted into the slabs by the continuous casting process. The tour guide gave significant input in bringing the hidden issues involved in on-site scheduling in the light. Its interesting to see how the execution of the schedule constructed at the first place breaks down and works at different levels of abstraction. Surprisingly many of the decisions taken while constructing the schedule gets amended and modified by the time it goes through the actual manufacturing process.
Currently, they have no knowledge-based system implemented for constructing a schedule as quickly as possible. The Operations and Logistics department seemed quite interesting in implementing a knowledge-based scheduling system as a prototype so that can give them the overall picture of the schedule as quickly as possible. Also, it means that they can devote more of their time on the schedule improvement side to make the process distributed evenly throughout the process hierarchy. Finally, the visit was concluded by agreeing upon the future meetings with the industry in the month of June to give a presentation and demonstration of the problem-solving methods that will be developed by using the input derived from the visit. In sum the visit was very useful experience in understanding the way real-life industry works not only in the area of planning and scheduling but as a business organisation in total.