Wireless option gives rapid payback

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TRW Automotive, based in Livonia, Michigan and which achieved sales of US$11.3Bn (£6Bn) in 2003, is among the world’s ten largest automotive suppliers, and one of the top financial performers in the industry. The company supplies all major vehicle manufacturers worldwide and is the leader in automotive safety, producing advanced active systems in braking, steering and suspension and sophisticated occupant safety systems for inflatable restraints, seat belts and steering wheels.

TRW Automotive also operates extensively in Europe, employing more than 32,000 staff in 11 countries, and acquired the former Lucas Varity businesses in the UK in 1999.

The TRW Automotive Body Control Systems Division (BCS) is one of the world’s largest suppliers of heating, ventilating and air conditioning controls. The division designs and supplies a complete HVAC driver control and comfort package that has car body-independent software which can be tailored to meet any required system performance level.

TRW Automotive is also the world’s first automotive supplier to design and manufacture electric actuators for use in automotive HVAC systems including European model Chrysler Voyager and Jeep vehicles. The Body Controls Division has adopted IDSI’s OrbeSoft at its four US plants across the Mid West.

As a company successfully competing in a leading market position in the automotive supply industry, TRW Automotive actively pursues continuous improvement across all operations. The BCS plants identified significant improvement opportunities from within inventory management that could be addressed through automated data capture.

TRW Automotive achieved transformational qualitative improvements and rapid payback on its investment in wireless inventory management using the OrbeSoft Suite to provide real-time data capture with embedded business process rules to complement its AS/400 based KBM enterprise software.

At a fundamental level, the TRW Automotive team recognised that scanning transactions, previously hand keyed, would yield improvements in data accuracy and speed of processing. However, the team wanted to achieve more than incremental efficiency gains by encapsulating business logic within the data capture automation, with the ultimate goal of being able to deliver radical process improvements, including traceability.

The team had the demanding blueprint for where it wanted to be; the next step was to find a data capture solution that was up to the challenge.

Sam Harrison, production inventory control manager at TRW Automotive, voices the team’s frustration: “We looked at two other barcode solutions that could be used with our KBM enterprise software. We were close to buying a very expensive (more than $250,000) package, but it was just too rigid in terms of ability to make cost-effective changes, and we would have incurred extra costs in getting help from the vendor every time we needed changes.”

He adds: “We selected the OrbeSoft package a year ago. We chose it because of the very reasonable cost, and especially because we liked the idea that once we had got OrbeSoft up and running, we were free to do what we wanted with it in terms of programming our own process improvements. This flexibility is very important to a business such as ours.”

Karen Strand, systems engineer at TRW Automotive, is responsible for the design of the software customisations. She comments: “Within the space of three days, we had the OrbeSoft installed and integrated with our data capture devices and our KBM enterprise software. The OrbeSoft people were great to work with, and within one week we were pretty much self-sufficient.”

She says: “It was a welcome change to discover how much we could achieve with OrbeSoft in a short space of time using a simple point-click-drag-drop design. At last we had the capability to automate our own ideas without the inflexibility and overhead of older data capture software technology. The capability of OrbeSoft to encapsulate accumulated process knowledge within automated transactions allowed us to reach beyond the confines of existing software. The IT was no longer a barrier to rapid change.”

TRW Automotive has made extensive use of the OrbeSoft design tools both to automate data capture transactions and to extend these with embedded SQL statements of business rules.

Even at its simplest, significant data accuracy and staff productivity benefits are achieved by replacing sequential manual keyboard transactions into the ERP system with a single barcode scan through OrbeSoft to receive purchased goods and allocate these to pre-defined stock locations.

OrbeSoft, which is distributed in Europe through Isle of Wight-based Cemoc, populates the host ERP system, either in real-time or batch mode as required, without the need for host side programming. The use of wireless mobile scanners further complemented productivity and ease of use.

As experience with the OrbeSoft capabilities grew, TRW Automotive has been able to generate more complex rules, adding a sequential control number to items during the receipt barcode print operation. This control number is captured by OrbeSoft throughout the assembly process to achieve valuable traceability, from which materiel and quality management can take more informed decisions.

The control number also enables a FIFO (first in, first out) inventory management (which is not supported in the host ERP application) and OrbeSoft is configured to display stock in descending control number order, with exception alerts and override workflow rules to manage anomalies at the point of scan.

OrbeSoft has also delivered substantial productivity benefits in material flow. Validation of drawing revision level is automated with OrbeSoft, capturing the revision within barcode scan and referencing to the host ERP system data, to reduce dependency on the knowledge of individual material handlers. Similar rules have been created to automate the determination of issuing free-stock and back-flushed components; correct determination is critical to ensure items are replenished.

TRW Automotive uses KBM (formerly Data3) enterprise software in a works-order-less JIT environment, replenishing the shop floor approximately every hour using barcoded Kanban labels.

Before the use of OrbeSoft in material handling, handlers collected a Kanban card, went to the stock room, keyed in the items and finally picked stock.

By applying the business rules and combining transactions within OrbeSoft, only a single scan of the Kanban label is now needed to produce a FIFO-compliant localised picking list.

In Harrison’s judgement: “On top of an immediate 10% productivity gain, OrbeSoft has simplified the manual handling activity – easily by tenfold. Previously our inventory accuracy depended upon the handlers to know the software well and hit the right key. Now the routine decisions are taken in the background and everyone’s job is a lot easier.”

TRW Automotive achieved a return on its investment in OrbeSoft within just eight months, and has now been operating with it since January 2004. OrbeSoft is routinely handling in excess of 1,000 transactions per hour, demonstrating its robust architecture.

Above all, OrbeSoft has enabled the innovation of TRW Automotive staff to reach beyond the confines of existing software to achieve transformational improvements in inventory management, and has unlocked a wealth of information within the company’s existing data to support the continuous improvement that is critical to success in highly competitive global business.

Harrison says: “We are delighted with OrbeSoft. It’s dynamic, flexible and future proof, and very cost-effective to acquire, use and maintain. We are busy working on new ideas to extend our use of OrbeSoft.” AS/400 (iSeries)Core ERP SystemERP Database TablesApplication Programs


Client SupportHow transaction and process flows have improvedAutomation of goods receipts: previously entered by keyboard, OrbeSoft processes scanned barcode data and writes this back into the host ERP software, either in real-time or in batch update mode. As a result data accuracy and staff productivity has improved. Also, TRW Automotive has been able to add business rules easily within OrbeSoft to assign received goods to pre-defined locations based on data codes elsewhere within the ERP system, thereby combining multiple transactions into a single step.

System level validation of engineering revision level: previously items received into stock were visually checked to confirm the engineering revision level. By adding ERP system data to the barcode label, and adding business rules within OrbeSoft, TRW Automotive can provide system level checks and exception reporting of the correct engineering revision for purchased items. A user maintained database supplements this functionality for fabricated parts.

Item control number traceability: by assigning a sequential control number during the barcode print operation, traceability is achieved for subsequent automated data capture and monitoring.

Automated FIFO inventory control: the host ERP software does not support FIFO (first-in, first-out) inventory management, but by using the control numbers created for traceability, TRW Automotive can configure business rules within OrbeSoft to display stock in descending control number order and to display only stock room locations in appropriate order. Exception alerts and override workflow rules have been set up to manage anomalies.

System determined free stock versus backflushing: the host ERP software requires manual selection of free-stock or backflush options when issuing a part. By reading the free-stock codes when an item is scanned, OrbeSoft rules can determine automatically the status of the part, so that stock replenishment and inventory accuracy is no longer dependent upon the detailed knowledge of the material handler keying the issue transaction. Productivity is further enhanced by combining the logic into the scan operation.

Combining transactions in material handling: TRW Automotive has streamlined the issue of parts to the shop floor via the barcoded Kanban labels by using the capability of OrbeSoft to apply embedded business rules. Previously handlers would have performed sequential stock checking, validation and picking transactions, and required a detailed knowledge of the host ERP software transactions and the individual parts. By combining the revision level checking logic, the FIFO inventory management rules, and the free-stock versus backflush determination, OrbeSoft has enabled TRW Automotive to achieve immediate and significant productivity gains. A single barcode scan of the inbound Kanban card now directs the handler to a localised look up of the items to be picked – compliant with the background business rules set.

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