Baltimore, Maryland-based Wise Metals Group LLC is the world’s third-leading producer of aluminum can stock for the beverage and food industry. Its Muscle Shoals, Alabama-based subsidiary, Wise Alloys LLC, operates from facilities that cover approximately 100 acres, all under one roof.
Wise Alloys takes environmentally-friendly recycled aluminum from Wise Metals’ reclamation facility, along with a smaller portion of new aluminum, and melts it to form sheet ingot. The ingots are then rolled into coils of aluminum sheets that are approximately 1/100 of an inch thick. Customers use the coils to manufacture food containers and beverage cans, ends, and tabs, along with other products as diverse as trailer roof and fin stock.
Wise Alloys’ facilities currently have a finished product capacity of 950 million pounds per year.
The Challenge of Manual Processes
At Wise Alloys, as at all manufacturers, manufacturing processes must be carefully tracked and monitored to maintain quality control, manage production and provide information to customers. One of the ways that Wise Alloys achieves these objectives is through the use of “lot tickets,” which are 8.5 x 14 inch information sheets printed double-sided on thick paper.
Each coil is assigned a unique number that is printed as a barcode on the associated lot ticket. As the coil passes through the manufacturing processes, employees note critical details of the various production steps on the ticket. In the course of a year, the company processes up to 40,000 separate tickets.
If there is a problem with a coil, such as pinholes in the final product, the lot ticket information is retrieved so that the issue can be analyzed and the problem can be addressed.
In the past, getting information from lot tickets into Wise Alloys’ systems was a manual process. At the end of each day, tickets were batched and sent to an offsite supplier where the necessary information was keypunched. The tickets were also archived to microfiche so that they could be retrieved should there be any keying errors or omissions. Upon receipt back at Wise Alloys, the keypunched data was loaded into the company’s systems which run on an iSeries model 520 server.
This manual process created a number of issues that the company wanted to address:
- Manual keying is error prone—hence the need for microfiche as a backup.
- Microfiche is an older technology that is increasingly difficult to support.
- If an employee needed information from a microfiche, it could take days to retrieve the document from storage.
- Finding information on microfiche is much more difficult than finding it in online files.
- Sending lot tickets offsite to be keypunched and copied to microfiche meant that the tickets, and the critical information that they contain, were unavailable to the company for three to four weeks. Consequently, the company regularly fielded customer calls requesting information on lot tickets that were not in the plant.
After evaluating the available options and performing some hands-on testing, the way to resolve these issues became clear: Webdocs from HelpSystems.
Making the Switch to Digital Forms and Document Management
While attending a user conference, Gene Bendall, senior business systems analyst at Wise Alloys, talked to someone about document management systems and subsequently investigated a few products as possible ways to improve the management of lot tickets. Unfortunately, he found that the alternatives that he looked at were not cost-justifiable, so he put the project on the back burner.
Sometime later, Bendall saw an ad for the Webdocs document management solution in a trade publication. Webdocs allows organizations to scan paper documents and store them on iSeries or PC servers. The images can then be accessed using up to 10 keys. Those keys can be entered manually or Webdocs can automatically extract them from bar codes or textual data appearing within the images. Once loaded into the system, authorized personnel can use a standard web browser to access the images over the Internet from anywhere in the world.
After seeing the ad, Bendall called HelpSystems for more information. He was surprised to find that the cost of Webdocs was only about half the cost of the other alternatives that he had evaluated. Referring to a list of what he needed, Bendall asked what Webdocs could do and what it couldn’t do. “When I looked at the list, I found that there was nothing on the ‘couldn’t do’ side,” noted Bendall. He was impressed, but to ensure that he would be fully satisfied, the HelpSystems representative offered Bendall a 30-day free trial and said, “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.”
Not only was the price right, but the installation process was much easier and faster than for the alternative products that Bendall had considered. The other vendors suggested that it would take about three days of expensive on-site set up to get their systems running, but the HelpSystems representative said that he could help Wise Alloys to install Webdocs in just two hours.
“I was skeptical,” said Bendall. “But everything the rep said turned out to be true. He walked us through everything on the phone in about two hours. He even provided me with recommendations on which scanner to buy.”
Using a duplex scanner, a member of Wise Alloys’ staff now batches up twenty job tickets, drops them into the scanner, presses a button and the tickets are automatically loaded and immediately accessible through Webdocs. Because the company chose to use the lot ticket number, which Webdocs automatically extracts from the bar code on each ticket, as the only key, Wise Alloys has been able to eliminate all manual data entry.
Cutting Costs and Maximizing Productivity
The savings have been substantial. Wise Alloys has a medical facility that operates 24/7. Because that department is usually not as busy at night, it offered to take on the simple and fast scanning task. Consequently, Webdocs allowed the company to eliminate the costs of outsourced keypunching and microfiche production, without the need to increase in-house headcount. Adding to these savings, Wise Alloys dramatically reduced the considerable time that it previously spent searching for lost documents. Lot tickets almost never go astray anymore.
Possibly even more important than the labor and outsourcing savings, lot ticket information is now usually available online within a day of a coil being finished and shipped. Consequently, customers who call up for information on a lot can get immediate answers rather than having to wait for lot tickets to be retrieved during the three to four weeks when they used to be offsite. In addition, because Webdocs eliminates manual data entry, it also eliminates the human errors that used to occur.
Wise Alloys also appreciates the fact that lot ticket information is now more easily and widely accessible. “Our sales and service people go to customers’ plants frequently,” said Bendall. “Now, they can be at a customer location, get on the Internet and pop up the information they need. Using any web browser, all you need is a password to get at the information. It’s just awesome.”