Operating for over 100 years, Wheelabrator Group is one of the world’s largest and most established manufacturers of surface preparation equipment and technologies. The company engineers and builds custom surface cleaning and finishing equipment in seven manufacturing facilities across Europe and North America.
This includes highly specialised airblast, peening, and wheelblast equipment and industrial painting systems for customers in industries ranging from construction to aerospace.
By 2005, a period of acquisition-fuelled expansion had left shot blasting equipment manufacturer Wheelabrator Group with a significant international footprint, but almost a dozen disparate ERP systems.
“Across the countries we operated in, it turned out that we had different systems, different ways of working, and different business processes—yet the machines being manufactured in each country were fundamentally very similar,” recalls Phil Hawthorne, vice-president of business process improvement at the Altrincham, Cheshire-headquartered group.
“As a result, not only couldn’t we compare operations consistently, but it was logically impossible for all these different ways of working—and different business processes—to each represent best practice. There had to be a single, better way of doing business.” Accordingly, he explains, Wheelabrator embarked on a twin-strand project of identifying and then implementing that single, better way of doing business.
First, the company began a review of all the different ERP systems on the market, with a view to selecting and internationally rolling-out the system that best met its needs.
The system eventually chosen: Microsoft Dynamics AX—a decision based, explains Hawthorne, on the system’s strong growth trajectory, and its ease of integration with workplace productivity tools such as Microsoft Office.
Second, he adds, Wheelabrator management pulled together a team of just under a dozen people, drawn from right across the group, to identify and codify best-practice ways of working. The goal: to build robust-but-consistent business processes that would aid operational comparisons, but which would also embody leading-edge best practice.
Also required: a suitable implementation partner—a partner that knew Dynamics AX intimately, but which was also capable of exploiting that knowledge to deliver a best-practice solution built out of standard Dynamics AX components.
“We wanted best practice, but we wanted it built from standard Dynamics AX components—we didn’t want a solution that had been customised for us, and which would complicate our future upgrade path, and make it more difficult to roll the solution out internationally,” explains Hawthorne. “We also knew that we wanted to take advantage of capabilities of Dynamics AX such as project manufacturing, which would allow us to view every machine that we sell and build as an individual project, so that we could capture the associated hours worked and material consumed, and then book them against the appropriate projects.”
It was a search for a partner that took Wheelabrator to Columbus UK. And it was quickly clear, explains Hawthorne, that Columbus UK and Wheelabrator viewed ERP and Dynamics AX in the same way, and spoke the same language.
“The more we talked to Columbus, and to the ‘hands on’ implementation specialists who worked for Columbus, the more comfortable we became,” he recalls. “These were people who understood manufacturing, and who also understood Microsoft Dynamics AX.”
The first implementation of Microsoft Dynamics AX within Wheelabrator duly took place within Wheelabrator’s German operations in late 2006, followed by Wheelabrator’s UK, Polish operations, which went live in January 2008.
Next up: the Czech Republic and Switzerland, following Wheelabrator’s merger with DISA, a Danish manufacturer in a similar line of business. This implementation, in 2009, set the stage for a series of further implementations: India and Canada in 2010, the United States in 2011, and France and Spain in 2013.
“What we’re implementing is a proven system and a proven set of simple and robust best practices—and simplicity and robustness is what we like, in Wheelabrator,” says Hawthorne. “The logical flow of each machine’s build matches the physical flow, with no odd off-line processes artificially introduced to suit the convenience of the system.”
And the national implementations are slick and efficient, he enthuses—not least due to a ‘buddy’ system, where people from the last country to be implemented are then seconded to the country next-in-line, to work with their counterparts to set up the system being implemented.
“They talk the same ‘functional language’,” he explains. “We find that when the ‘buddy’ helps to demonstrate the system, and how to work with it, it speeds up the implementation process enormously: from turning up on site, to finishing the implementation, the timescale is now six months.”
And intriguingly, he adds, this has had the extended benefit of setting up global ‘communities of best practice’ within each business function, with people sharing ideas and collaborating together.
Furthermore, it’s a development that has also smoothed the way for technology transfer throughout Wheelabrator. Simply put, notes Hawthorne, Dynamics AX is acting as a communication conduit within the business, helping to share and distribute best practice and intellectual property.
“We now have ten countries and 14 legal entities working on the same system, as a single instance running on a single database, hosted out of Denmark,” he sums up. “And when we compare things between them, we know that we’re comparing like with like, and that we’re looking at ‘one version of the truth’. It’s a single way of working, right across the business—globally.”