The MRPII March

The Kimball name first earned widespread public recognition over 30 years ago for itsmusical electric organs. Currently, Kimball Electronics Group (KEG) operates threefacilities to manufacture its products, including circuit boards, multi-chip modules andsemiconductor components. Prior to 1992, most of their IT services were provided by theparent company, Kimball International, Inc. As the technical needs of the various KimballInternational divisions and facilities became more specialized, these IT services becameprogressively decentralized.

KEG used an IBM Copics system for twenty years. This was a loosely-integrated system,characterized by the addition of numerous programs developed in-house as the needs aroseover the years. Internal developers customized Copics with company-specific scripts fororder entry, master scheduling and shipping. To bring a what-if planning capability to thelegacy MRP system, company developers created two separate instances of the Copics systemon the mainframe.

Test Anxiety

The second instance was for modeling and testing the impact of customer changes. Thiswas a cumbersome process at best, involving a number of steps. For each test it wasnecessary to refresh the test system with the existing production data, return to the testsystem and enter customer changes to simulate order increases. Because this was a batchMRP system, the simulation could not be run until the evening. It was a minimum of 24hours before data was available.

For the company's material planners, also responsible for day-to-day production MRPactivities, imposing the additional analysis meant taking three days to a week before theycould finish analyzing test data and spot problem areas -- obviously a lengthy and painfulprocess. And Kimball's suppliers are now calling more frequently with change orderrequests and asking corresponding questions about how those changes affect the schedulingof their orders. Taking a week to get back to a customer with that information was thenorm in 1992 -- in 1998 it's usually fatal.

Despite the advances of the MRP, it was obvious that supplementing the existing ITsystem would not be straightforward. Although plans for upgrading to a new MRPII systemwere already in the works, the constant pressure of the change order situation increasedthe urgency of implementing a successful solution. So, KEG designed an IT environmentbased on the realization that the company is effectively a branch of the manufacturingplants of every customer.

Ch, Ch, Ch Chain-ges

The IT group purchased Rhythm, a supply-chain planning application from i2 Technologiesand decided to extract what services they could from Copics by interfacing it with Rhythm.At that time, the plan was to install Rhythm specifically for the purpose of schedulingshop floor operations. A healthy mix of disciplines that included business systemanalysts, developers and master schedulers were represented on the implementation team.

Their consensus was that advanced scheduling capabilities needed to be an integral partof the system. At the time, the team wasn't ready to consider using Rhythm's what-ifsimulation capabilities. However, as they worked through the different situations andbecame more familiar with the supply-chain planning approach, the value of what-ifplanning became very clear and, in fact, became indispensable.

Interfacing Rhythm with Copics was relatively simple because the process required onlya one-way extraction of data from Copics, not feeding it back in. With i2 support andconsulting, the team developed the needed interfaces within two weeks. The results weresurprising: it was possible to load and run simulations and have reports within 10-15minutes, in some cases enabling completion of customer requests within the hour.

This initial experience with Rhythm proved to be the foundation for the current ITsystem. In designing the migration to an MRPII plan, the team selected Avalon System'sCIIM application to work in harmony with Rhythm. While there were challenges to theupgrade, developers' familiarity with Rhythm made writing interfaces for funneling datafrom CIIM to the various planning aspects a fairly simple matter.

As it evolved in 1994, KEG's new MRPII system was a major leap forward in severalrespects apart from the primary goal. The hub is Avalon's CIIM 8.6 running on a dual-CPUHP 9000 Series K450 with Oracle's RDBMS. Several additional HP servers and workstationswere eventually purchased for various applications.

KEG user workstations run Windows 95 and a shareware Telnet application called QvtNetfor VT220 emulation to the CIIM application over several 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps Ethernetsegments. HP's GlancePlus monitors the HP servers and the network is monitored with aPC-based tool called SNMPC and various home-grown Linux applications. KEG's IT team choseNetWorker from Legato Systems, Inc., as the enterprise backup software and a StorageTek9714 tape library provides several DLT tape drives and 100 tape capacity for backing upall UNIX, NetWare and NT servers.

As it is being used, the Rhythm application is interfaced tightly with the CIIM system.The company also makes use of various other tools to analyze Rhythm data. Besides thestandard Rhythm reports, users extract files and download them to Microsoft Excel andAccess; Cognos Impromptu is frequently used for ad hoc report preparation. The informationis used by the order fulfillment group, master scheduler, production planners and materialplanners to assess the impact of customer change order requests.

KEG's other facilities in Burbank, Calif. and Reynosa, Mexico are poised to deploysimilar systems. These locations are running CIIM on HP servers (only the Jasper facilityis using Rhythm for scheduling and what-if simulations). Even though the three facilities'MRPII systems are currently independent of each other, there is a good exchange ofinformation and mutual support between them. Kimball International provides the wide areanetwork which connects the U.S. and Mexico locations with T1 frame relay links.

Good Vibrations

Customer service representatives have significantly improved their response speed andaccuracy. Planners can develop ad hoc reports containing basic information within minutesafter plugging in the specifics of a change order, and in hours rather than days providecustomers with detailed information on the scheduling and pricing impacts of theirrequests.

The improved performance has also been noted outside the company. Last fall, KEG wasawarded the 1997 Overall Customer Rating Service Excellence Award for Contract ElectronicsManufacturers in the large company category. That award, based upon input from customersof electronic manufacturing service companies and presented by Technology Forecasters,Inc. and Circuits Assembly Magazine, constitutes a vote of confidence from our customers.

Other divisions within Kimball International are moving to make similar IT systemupgrades. In fact, another division, Kimball's Jasper Furniture Company, has installedi2's Rhythm for their MRP and supply-chain functions. At KEG's Jasper facility there areplans on the table for implementing a manufacturing execution system (MES) and setting thestage for a 24x7 operation. During these upgrades we will also upgrade the Rhythmsoftware.

The benefits of Jasper's MRPII system were immediate. In the warehouse, inventory hasbeen cut by 59 percent at the same time we have seen a 50 to 60 percent increase in sales.

Of course, in this industry you're never caught up to the point where you can relax. IfIT organizations are doing a good job, the company will be able to fill more orders --even though individual orders will be for increasingly complex products for increasinglyunpredictable markets. For these reasons, KEG and every other company in the electronicsmanufacturing services sector must keep a vigilant watch on the direction of IT solutions.Within KEG's IT organization it's possible to have a stronger sense of security now thatwe have effectively factored the unpredictability of the market into our IT solution.

Bruce Reinhart is the materials manager for the Kimball Electronics Group.


It's one thing to streamline manufacturing planning, it's another to physically deliver the goods. Electronic components, such as those that Kimball manufactures under QS9000 requirements today for the auto industry, must adhere to even more stringent requirements.

The Test Engineering Department develops in-circuit and functional tests for the electronic assemblies manufactured by KEG. Production testing at KEG is based on the HP 3070 family of board test systems which are used to detect assemblies with solder shorts, open circuits and missing or defective components. Nearly a dozen of the HP 3070s are currently in use in this role. Later in the manufacturing cycle, functional testing ensures that each board operates correctly and meets detailed application specifications. KEG has upgraded its HP board test systems for in-circuit tests over the years, boosting production rates as necessary with test systems that operate faster, can be changed over more rapidly for different boards and new software features that improve operators' proficiency.

Several times a day on high-volume production lines, test operators need to test different circuit assemblies like those produced for automotive and computer markets. KEG minimizes the time required to change-over the test stations for the different assemblies. Operators replace test fixtures that electrically connect each different device under test (DUT) to the HP 3070. The operator also selects the appropriate test program for the DUT using a Windows-based application. To simplify and streamline the change-over at KEG, the software verifies that the test program selected matches the test fixture the operator installed on the HP 3070. Relying on these and other features, the change-over is quick with operators ready to test another batch of assemblies in under five minutes.

-- Chris Luebbehusen, KEG Test Engineering Manager