Demand Forecasting in a “Build to Order” Company

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

forecasting and inventory optimization

We often come into contact with potential customers who claim that they cannot use a forecasting system since they are a “build-to-order” manufacturing operation. I find this a puzzling perspective, because whatever these organizations build requires lower level raw materials or intermediate goods. If those lower level inputs are not available when an order for the finished good is received, the order cannot be built. Consequently, the order could be canceled and the associated revenue lost.

I agree that in such an environment, forecasting the finished good is not always possible or particularly helpful. Sometimes it’s helpful, but not sufficient. In any case, it is critical to make sure that the underlying raw materials and intermediate goods that go into the finished good are available. Demand for these can certainly be forecasted.

The organization’s goal would be to maintain service level inventories for these intermediate goods that are high but not unaffordable. Planners will need to set optimal stocking levels for these materials, balancing service level requirements against available budget. Since a given intermediate good could serve as an input to more than one finished good, the volatility of the demand for the intermediate good would be less than the volatility of the demand for a specific finished good. Hence, the safety stocks necessary to keep high service level inventories of the intermediate goods would be relatively lean.

Three companies, all users of SmartForecasts, serve as interesting examples. The first is a chemical company, Bedoukian Research, which manufactures custom chemicals for various clients. Each of these “finished goods” is a unique combination of intermediate chemical compounds. Bedoukian begins its demand planning with a finished goods forecast, which drives the production schedule and allocation of essential production resources. This requires exercising considerable judgment, as finished goods demand changes dynamically.

Once these finished good forecasts are created, raw material requirements can be estimated via a bill of material disaggregation. Bedoukian combines these results with safety stock estimates, based on actual utilization rates and service level objectives to be achieved, to generate the complete, service level-driven forecast for raw materials. This has allowed Bedoukian meet its production requirements with significantly less inventory.

The second company manufactures the internal components for mobile phones, where finished goods are specialized combinations of these components. For example, an order may call for a certain number of phones with unique labels on the case. This is the finished good for this order. Everything that goes into that order, except for the label, is built out of standard components. Again, SmartForecasts will be used to keep lean, high service level inventories of the components. This company thought that the only way to manage component inventories was via bill of material aggregations. They are now looking at the actual utilization rate for the components and setting much leaner inventories while maintaining high component availability.

A third company, NKK Switches, which explored this topic in their recent webinar (see CFO Bud Schultz’ guest blog post), considered their products to be “unforecastable”. You can read more about it below, but overall NKK Switches was able to forecast components and meaningful aggregations of product families. By tracking forecast vs. actuals over several months, NKK was able to demonstrate the accuracy of its forecasts to its Asian factory suppliers, and convince them to shift from a “build-to-order” model to “build-to-forecast.” This change has resulted in dramatic reductions in lead times, in many cases cutting them in half, increasing customer satisfaction and the overall sales close rate.

The bottom line here is that there is a perfectly viable—I would say essential—method of demand forecasting for build-to-order businesses, setting high service levels for pivotal input resources. If you would like to know more, please drop me a note, at nelsonh at smartcorp dot com.

Nelson Hartunian, PhD, co-founded Smart Software, formerly served as President, and currently oversees it as Chairman of the Board. He has, at various times, headed software development, sales and customer service.

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        A CFO’s Perspective on Demand Planning – “More Strategic Than You Think”

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        Bud Schultz, CPA, Vice President of Finance for NKK Switches, presented his company’s experience with demand planning during a recent webinar. The following is a brief summary of Bud’s key points; view the complete webinar by clicking here.

        Q: Tell us about NKK’s business and demand planning challenges.

        NKK Switches, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, is a leading manufacturer and supplier of electromechanical switches. The business involves many different switch types—toggles, push-button, rotary, even some programmable switch types. We are known for our high quality, and for our ability to meet an exceptionally broad range of customer requirements on a turnkey (custom configuration) basis. NKK Switches produces customized solutions from component parts sourced exclusively from manufacturing facilities in Japan and China.

        There are literally millions of possible switch configurations, and we never know what configured solutions our customers will order. This makes our demand highly intermittent and exceptionally difficult to forecast. In fact, until fairly recently we considered our demand unforecastable. We operated on a build-to-order basis, which meant that customer orders could not be fulfilled until their component parts were produced and then fashioned into finished goods by NKK. This resulted in long lead-times, painful for our customers and a competitive challenge for our sales organization.

        Q: What did you expect to get from improved product demand forecasting?

        When we began to investigate the value of demand forecasting software (SmartForecasts from Smart Software), we tried to view the decision from a Return on Investment (ROI) point of view. We did some capital budgeting, making assumptions about potential reductions in inventory levels, reduced inventory carrying costs and other potential savings. Although the capital budgets returned positive returns on investment, we nevertheless were unable to move forward based on that information. We lacked confidence in our assumptions, and we were worried that we wouldn’t be able to justify the safety stock and inventory levels that the software would suggest.

        What we didn’t expect was a challenge from our parent company. In light of the capabilities of a newly implemented ERP system, they would consider a new approach. If we could produce demonstrably reliable demand forecasts, they would consider procuring raw materials and producing switch components on a build-to-forecast rather than build-to-order basis. This opened the door to a much more profound impact. We tracked actuals against forecasts over a twelve-month period and found that our forecasts, particularly in aggregate, were exceptionally accurate: actual demand was within 3% of forecast. Once we were able to prove the validity of our forecasts, we were able to move forward with the parent company’s plan to manufacture product based on those forecasts.

        Q: How did accurate forecasts of product lines with intermittent demand data transform NKK’s operations?

        From the many different combinations we manufacture to order, individual switch parts can show very intermittent demand (long periods with zero orders and then seemingly random spikes), but we can identify more consistent patterns across switch series. All of the part numbers in a given series have common components and raw materials, such as plastic housing, brackets and other hardware, gold, silver and LEDs.

        Providing our manufacturing facilities with reliable forecasts ended up allowing us to make dramatic changes. Our manufacturing plants could start procuring raw materials that in the aggregate would eventually be used in production of different part numbers within that series, even if the specific part numbers to be produced were unknown at the time the forecasts were made. And in many instances, despite the irregular demand history data, it was even possible for the suppliers to manufacture specific part numbers based on the forecast.

        Once the program is fully implemented, we anticipate our leads times will be reduced to half the time or even less. Shorter lead times will result in lower reorder points, resulting in higher service levels while reducing our inventory requirements.

        Bud Schultz leads all finance and accounting functions at NKK. His background as a Certified Public Accountant, attorney, engineer and pilot for the US Air Force provide unique perspective on finances for engineering and manufacturing operations.

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