Supply chain to the stars [from the July/August 2012 MM&D print edition]

by Carolyn Gruske

The James Webb Telescope has been created with one purpose: to peer into space and time while positioned high above the Earth—all while enduring temperatures of -230C.

The successor to the Hubble Telescope is scheduled for launch into space in 2018. Once at its destination, it will rely on Canadian-designed and built technology to provide a clear and precise view into the mysteries of the universe.

Cambridge, Ontario-based Com Dev International, which designs and manufactures equipment for commercial, government and military space applications, debuted a crucial two-in-one instrument for the telescope in July. The device consists of Webb’s fine guidance sensor (FGS) which will allow the telescope to locate its celestial targets with an accuracy of one millionth of a degree, and a near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph (NIRISS) that analyzes planetary atmospheres for water vapour, carbon dioxide and other potential biomarkers such as methane and oxygen.

“Imagine the challenge at hand here: design and deliver technology capable of unprecedented levels of precision to conduct breakthrough science on board the largest, most complex and most powerful telescope ever built,” said Steve MacLean, president of the Canadian Space Agency. “The Webb telescope will be located 1.5 million kilometres from Earth—too far to be serviced by astronauts like Hubble was. At that distance, the technology simply has to work.”

A key part of ensuring the technology will work is knowing exactly where every part and every component in the $136 million Com Dev instrument originated, and being assured of its quality. Much of that responsibility fell to Scott Falcone, director of planning and logistics.

“As far as traceability goes, traceability is king. We’re in the space industry. Everybody at Com Dev lives and breathes the fact that every part is traceable. From our suppliers, we expect full traceability from them on raw materials or sub-components they’ve used. We have a full system of maintaining batch traceability all the way through all of our build sequence.

“Obviously the things we use in production—consumables we use—are not part of that. It’s really that level of traceability and the documentation that we deliver to our customers. That’s what they’re buying. The hardware itself is really nothing without the paperwork that proves what we’ve done.”

Com Dev’s supply chain reaches into 12 different countries. Suppliers in North America, Europe, Asia and the Philippines provide materials, and the company keeps a close eye on all of them.

“You’re dealing with different cultures, different infrastructure and their experiences with the types of products we’re manufacturing, so some of the countries with more breadth under their belt are self-managed. We put our processes and our controls in place and we don’t necessarily have to hold their hands.

“In other countries, we obviously have to take a more active role in making sure we’re comfortable with who we’re dealing with and that we have an understanding of their culture and how they work. I don’t think that’s different from most other organizations that are looking at a global supply chain.”

Taking an active role can mean taking one of many different approaches. Sometimes all that’s needed is a Web-based video conference between Com Dev and the supplier. Other times the company needs to send its own personnel overseas to supervise the supplier.

Understanding exactly what Com Dev needs and delivering the order correctly the first time is critical because of the way the company operates.

“My entire supply chain is really LTL. We are very much what they’d call a job shop or an engineer-to-order type of organization, where it’s high mix/low volume type of products,” Falcone says.

Of course this means the Com Dev logistics department faces the challenges that come with that type of production environment, both on the inbound and outbound sides of the equation.

“Even where we have the ability to buy larger volumes, it’s always LTL. I don’t have docks, I don’t have trailers sitting here, I don’t have anything like that,” says Falcone.

“We strictly use our external supply chain partners. We don’t use any 3PL. We use only secure carriers. Our supply chain partners would be either PIP (Canada Border Services Partners in Protection) or C-TPAT (US Department of Homeland Security Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism) certified.

“The challenges I have are the fact that our shipments are made based on our customers’ contracts and our commitments. If it comes down and it needs to ship today, based on a customer contract, it has to ship. There is no opportunity for load-building or manifesting right now, although much down the road that is something we’d like to take a look at.”

That possibility will depend on the space market opening up to even more commercial projects and, as a result, equipment becoming commoditized. Until then, each order is special, requiring highly individualized components and low levels of inventory.

“If there’s an engineering change notice, we have to figure out what we’re going to do with the part [in inventory]. There’s not thousands of them. We’ve got two. It’s very specific to the product in your hand. It’s not about next year’s model. When that type of thing comes out, we’ve got a configuration control board. We sit down and say, ‘this is the change and there are various scenarios that can happen. Is it in build already? Can it be adapted. Is it meant for the next build? Do we have to start again?’

“It’s situationally dependent on every single change notice and where it is in the build. It’s a matter of the right people sitting down in a meeting and saying, ‘What are we going to do with this?’” says Falcone.

Having the right piece at the right time means having suppliers deliver goods when promised. And as much as the company relies on its suppliers to accomplish that, it is proactive in looking for problems that could derail shipments before they happen, especially when dealing with single-source suppliers.

“We have a risk management piece that says ‘what’s the risk to our supply chain if scenario A or B would happen?’ That’s an ongoing process that we have. Obviously the world is changing all the time and the global economy is getting bigger, so some places are easier to deal with now than they were five years ago. But as other countries come onboard, we try to assess the risk and determine what it would mean to our supply chain.”

Beyond working with the right suppliers, for Falcone having and working with the right internal people—both inside his department and across all of Com Dev’s departments—is a defining characteristic of the company.

“I would say as an organization we collaborate very well. My material planning and scheduling team is very integrated with our business units, so drafting, engineering, the lab, we’re very integrated with them because we have to be, because we’re all each other’s customer. We’ve even co-located our team. Our material planning team sits right beside procurement, and we’re also closely located to project management and engineering so that it takes away boundaries. You get up and walk 20 feet and there’s the engineer you need to speak to.”

Falcone has 35 people in his team: 21 in logistics (Customs, shipping/receiving, traffic and storage) and 14 in planning. Hiring the right individuals takes some effort, but he knows it pays off in the end.

“For me to hire a production scheduler or a master scheduler or even somebody in shipping and receiving, there are lots of folks out there who have that title, but it depends on the industry they came from and how they would fit in here to our culture and with our product.”

That culture includes embracing Lean methodologies, being able to deal with lots of individual items, and understanding why the company places such an importance on traceability and on following quality management procedures.

“Our quality management system clearly defines where those levels of traceability have to be. It’s a solid training program we have with all of our employees so they understand not only the fact that we’re doing it but why. It’s one thing to say to somebody, ‘you’re going to do this because it’s policy.’ It’s another thing for that person to understand their inputs and their outputs and why what they do is important to out next internal customer.’”

Com Dev’s technology

As a high-tech electronics and manufacturing company, Com Dev understands that good IT systems can lead to good results, and that you can’t have a properly working system unless you pay attention to it.

The company has been using SAP since 2000, and although comfortable with its capabilities, Com Dev continually looks at upgrades and new modules that promise improved functionality and process improvement.

“Our SAP system is our trigger point, so everything we procure into the building is assigned a batch number through our SAP system when it comes in the back door. Essentially that batch number follows itself all the way through all of our receipts and transfer postings and goods issue and those types of things. We do use barcoding. We have barcodes on our goods receipts. We use barcoding on various other areas, our production orders, when we kit our material out to the floor it has a barcode on it that prints automatically. We use a combination of a batch number and a serial number, depending on the material and the level of traceability that’s been defined in our system,” explains Falcone.

The company’s quality control management system (QMS) is documented out of SAP, but it feeds data and information into the ERP system and references transactions that will be done in SAP.

“We do all of our build and materials, our material master records, our sales orders, MRP, procurement, inventory control, receiving, that’s all done inside of SAP. It’s a closed loop that way, therefore all your batch traceability is all in there because it’s all hooked together. All of our production control on the floor, our orders, is all from our SAP system.”