The Forecast Matters, but Maybe Not the Way You Think

True or false: The forecast doesn’t matter to spare parts inventory management.

At first glance, this statement seems obviously false. After all, forecasts are crucial for planning stock levels, right?

It depends on what you mean by a “forecast”. If you mean an old-school single-number forecast (“demand for item CX218b will be 3 units next week and 6 units the week after”), then no. If you broaden the meaning of forecast to include a probability distribution taking account of uncertainties in both demand and supply, then yes.

The key reality is that many items, especially spare and service parts, have unpredictable, intermittent demand. (Supplier lead times can also be erratic, especially when parts are sourced from a backlogged OEM.)  We have observed that while manufacturers and distributors typically experience intermittent demand on just 20% or more of their items the percentage grows to 80%+ for MRO based businesses.  This means historical data often show periods of zero demand interspersed with random periods of non-zero demand. Sometimes, these non-zero demands are as low as 1 or 2 units, while at other times, they unexpectedly spike to quantities several times larger than their average.

This isn’t like the kind of data usually faced by your peer “demand planners” in retail, consumer products, and food and beverage. Those folks usually deal with larger quantities having proportionately less randomness. And they can surf on prediction-enhancing features like trends and stable seasonal patterns. Instead, spare parts usage is much more random, throwing a monkey wrench into the planning process, even in the minority of cases in which there are detectable seasonal variations.

In the realm of intermittent demand, the best forecast available will significantly deviate from the actual demand. Unlike consumer products with medium to high volume and frequency, a service part’s forecast can miss the mark by hundreds of percentage points. A forecast of one or two units, on average, will always miss when the actual demand is zero. Even with advanced business intelligence or machine learning algorithms, the error in forecasting the non-zero demands will still be substantial.

Perhaps because of the difficulty of statistical forecasting in the inventory domain, inventory planning in practice often relies on intuition and planner knowledge. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t scale across tens of thousands of parts. Intuition just cannot cope with the full range of demand and lead time possibilities, let alone accurately estimate the  probability of each possible scenario. Even if your company has one or two exceptional intuitive forecasters, personnel retirements and product line reorganizations mean that intuitive forecasting can’t be relied on going forward.

The solution lies in shifting focus from traditional forecasts to predicting probabilities for each potential demand and lead time scenario. This shift transforms the conversation from an unrealistic “one number plan” to a range of numbers with associated probabilities. By predicting probabilities for each demand and lead time possibility, you can better align stock levels with the risk tolerance for each group of parts.

Software that generates demand and lead time scenarios, repeating this process tens of thousands of times, can accurately simulate how current stocking policies will perform against these policies. If the performance in the simulation falls short and you are predicted to stock out more often than you are comfortable with or you are left with excess inventory, conducting what-if scenarios allows adjustments to policies. You can then predict how these revised policies will fare against random demands and lead times. You can conduct this process iteratively and refine it with each new what-if scenario or lean on system prescribed policies that optimally strike a balance between risk and costs.

So, if you are planning service and spare parts inventories, stop worrying about predicting demand the way traditional retail and CPG demand planners do it. Focus instead on how your stocking policies will withstand the randomness of the future, adjusting them based on your risk tolerance. To do this, you’ll need the right set of decision support software, and this is how Smart Software can help.

 

 

Spare Parts Planning Software solutions

Smart IP&O’s service parts forecasting software uses a unique empirical probabilistic forecasting approach that is engineered for intermittent demand. For consumable spare parts, our patented and APICS award winning method rapidly generates tens of thousands of demand scenarios without relying on the assumptions about the nature of demand distributions implicit in traditional forecasting methods. The result is highly accurate estimates of safety stock, reorder points, and service levels, which leads to higher service levels and lower inventory costs. For repairable spare parts, Smart’s Repair and Return Module accurately simulates the processes of part breakdown and repair. It predicts downtime, service levels, and inventory costs associated with the current rotating spare parts pool. Planners will know how many spares to stock to achieve short- and long-term service level requirements and, in operational settings, whether to wait for repairs to be completed and returned to service or to purchase additional service spares from suppliers, avoiding unnecessary buying and equipment downtime.

Contact us to learn more how this functionality has helped our customers in the MRO, Field Service, Utility, Mining, and Public Transportation sectors to optimize their inventory. You can also download the Whitepaper here.

 

 

White Paper: What you Need to know about Forecasting and Planning Service Parts

 

This paper describes Smart Software’s patented methodology for forecasting demand, safety stocks, and reorder points on items such as service parts and components with intermittent demand, and provides several examples of customer success.

 

    Why MRO Businesses Should Care About Excess Inventory

    Do MRO companies genuinely prioritize reducing excess spare parts inventory? From an organizational standpoint, our experience suggests not necessarily. Boardroom discussions typically revolve around expanding fleets, acquiring new customers, meeting service level agreements (SLAs), modernizing infrastructure, and maximizing uptime. In industries where assets supported by spare parts cost hundreds of millions or generate significant revenue (e.g., mining or oil & gas), the value of the inventory just doesn’t raise any eyebrows, and organizations tend to overlook massive amounts of excessive inventory.

    Consider a public transit agency.  In most major cities, the annual operating budgets will exceed $3 billion.  Capital expenses for trains, subway cars, and infrastructure may reach hundreds of millions annually. Consequently, a spare parts inventory valued at $150 million might not grab the attention of the CFO or general manager, as it represents a small percentage of the balance sheet.  Moreover, in MRO-based industries, many parts need to support equipment fleets for a decade or more, making additional stock a necessary asset. In some sectors like utilities, holding extra stock can even be incentivized to ensure that equipment is kept in a state of good repair.

    We have seen concerns about excess stock arise when warehouse space is limited. I recall, early in my career, witnessing a public transit agency’s rail yard filled with rusted axles valued at over $100,000 each.  I was told the axles were forced to be exposed to the elements due to insufficient warehouse space. The opportunity cost associated with the space consumed by extra stock becomes a consideration when warehouse capacity is exhausted. The primary consideration that trumps all other decisions is how the stock ensures high service levels for internal and external customers.  Inventory planners worry far more about blowback from stockouts than they do from overbuying.  When a missing part leads to an SLA breach or downed production line, resulting in millions in penalties and unrecoverable production output, it is understandable.

    Asset-intensive companies are missing one giant point. That is, the extra stock doesn’t insulate against stockouts; it contributes to them. The more excess you have, the lower your overall service level because the cash needed to purchase parts is finite, and cash spent on excess stock means there isn’t cash available for the parts that need it.  Even publicly funded MRO businesses, like utilities and transit agencies, acknowledge the need to optimize spending, now more than ever.  As one materials manager shared, “We can no longer fix problems with bags of cash from Washington.”  So, they must do more with less, ensuring optimal allocation across the tens of thousands of parts they manage.

    This is where state-of-the-art inventory optimization software comes in, predicting the required inventory for targeted service levels, identifying when stock levels yield negative returns, and recommending reallocations for improved overall service levels.  Smart Software has helped asset intensive MRO based businesses optimize reorder levels across each part for decades. Give us a call to learn more. 

     

     

    Spare Parts Planning Software solutions

    Smart IP&O’s service parts forecasting software uses a unique empirical probabilistic forecasting approach that is engineered for intermittent demand. For consumable spare parts, our patented and APICS award winning method rapidly generates tens of thousands of demand scenarios without relying on the assumptions about the nature of demand distributions implicit in traditional forecasting methods. The result is highly accurate estimates of safety stock, reorder points, and service levels, which leads to higher service levels and lower inventory costs. For repairable spare parts, Smart’s Repair and Return Module accurately simulates the processes of part breakdown and repair. It predicts downtime, service levels, and inventory costs associated with the current rotating spare parts pool. Planners will know how many spares to stock to achieve short- and long-term service level requirements and, in operational settings, whether to wait for repairs to be completed and returned to service or to purchase additional service spares from suppliers, avoiding unnecessary buying and equipment downtime.

    Contact us to learn more how this functionality has helped our customers in the MRO, Field Service, Utility, Mining, and Public Transportation sectors to optimize their inventory. You can also download the Whitepaper here.

     

     

    White Paper: What you Need to know about Forecasting and Planning Service Parts

     

    This paper describes Smart Software’s patented methodology for forecasting demand, safety stocks, and reorder points on items such as service parts and components with intermittent demand, and provides several examples of customer success.

     

      Top Differences Between Inventory Planning for Finished Goods and for MRO and Spare Parts

      What’s different about inventory planning for Maintenance, Repair, and Operations (MRO) compared to inventory planning in manufacturing and distribution environments? In short, it’s the nature of the demand patterns combined with the lack of actionable business knowledge.

      Demand Patterns

      Manufacturers and distributors tend to focus on the top sellers that generate the majority of their revenue. These items typically have high demand that is relatively easy to forecast with traditional time series models that capitalize on predictable trend and/or seasonality.  In contrast, MRO planners almost always deal with intermittent demand, which is more sparse, more random, and harder to forecast.  Furthermore, the fundamental quantities of interest are different. MRO planners ultimately care most about the “when” question:  When will something break? Whereas the others focus on the “how much” question of units sold.

       

      Business Knowledge

      Manufacturing and distribution planners can often count on gathering customer and sales feedback, which can be combined with statistical methods to improve forecast accuracy. On the other hand, bearings, gears, consumable parts, and repairable parts are rarely willing to share their opinions. With MRO, business knowledge about which parts will be needed and when just isn’t reliable (excepting planned maintenance when higher-volume consumable parts are replaced). So, MRO inventory planning success goes only as far as their probability models’ ability to predict future usage takes them. And since demand is so intermittent, they can’t get past Go with traditional approaches.

       

      Methods for MRO

      In practice, it is common for MRO and asset-intensive businesses to manage inventories by resorting to static Min/Max levels based on subjective multiples of average usage, supplemented by occasional manual overrides based on gut feel. The process becomes a bad mixture of static and reactive, with the result that a lot of time and money is wasted on expediting.

      There are alternative planning methods based more on math and data, though this style of planning is less common in MRO than in the other domains. There are two leading approaches to modeling part and machine breakdown: models based on reliability theory and “condition-based maintenance” models based on real-time monitoring.

       

      Reliability Models

      Reliability models are the simpler of the two and require less data. They assume that all items of the same type, say a certain spare part, are statistically equivalent. Their key component is a “hazard function”, which describes the risk of failure in the next little interval of time. The hazard function can be translated into something better suited for decision making: the “survival function”, which is the probability that the item is still working after X amount of use (where X might be expressed in days, months, miles, uses, etc.). Figure 1 shows a constant hazard function and its corresponding survival function.

       

      MRO and Spare Parts function and its survival function

      Figure 1: Constant hazard function and its survival function

       

      A hazard function that doesn’t change implies that only random accidents will cause a failure. In contrast, a hazard function that increases over time implies that the item is wearing out. And a decreasing hazard function implies that an item is settling in. Figure 2 shows an increasing hazard function and its corresponding survival function.

       

      MRO and Spare Parts Increasing hazard function and survival function

      Figure 2: Increasing hazard function and its survival function

       

      Reliability models are often used for inexpensive parts, such as mechanical fasteners, whose replacement may be neither difficult nor expensive (but still might be essential).

       

      Condition-Based Maintenance

      Models based on real-time monitoring are used to support condition-based maintenance (CBM) for expensive items like jet engines. These models use data from sensors embedded in the items themselves. Such data are usually complex and proprietary, as are the probability models supported by the data. The payoff from real-time monitoring is that you can see trouble coming, i.e., the deterioration is made visible, and forecasts can predict when the item will hit its red line and therefore need to be taken off the field of play. This allows individualized, pro-active maintenance or replacement of the item.

      Figure 3 illustrates the kind of data used in CBM. Each time the system is used, there is a contribution to its cumulative wear and tear. (However, note that sometimes use can improve the condition of the unit, as when rain helps keep a piece of machinery cool). You can see the general trend upward toward a red line after which the unit will require maintenance. You can extrapolate the cumulative wear to estimate when it will hit the red line and plan accordingly.

       

      MRO and Spare Parts real-time monitoring for condition-based maintenance

      Figure 3: Illustrating real-time monitoring for condition-based maintenance

       

      To my knowledge, nobody makes such models of their finished goods customers to predict when and how much they will next order, perhaps because the customers would object to wearing brain monitors all the time. But CBM, with its complex monitoring and modeling, is gaining in popularity for can’t-fail systems like jet engines. Meanwhile, classical reliability models still have a lot of value for managing large fleets of cheaper but still essential items.

       

      Smart’s approach
      The above condition-based maintenance and reliability approaches require an excessive data collection and cleansing burden that many MRO companies are unable to manage. For those companies, Smart offers an approach that does not require development of reliability models. Instead, it exploits usage data in a different way. It leverages probability-based models of both usage and supplier lead times to simulate thousands of possible scenarios for replenishment lead times and demand.  The result is an accurate distribution of demand and lead times for each consumable part that can be exploited to determine optimal stocking parameters.   Figure 4 shows a simulation that begins with a scenario for spare part demand (upper plot) then produces a scenario of on-hand supply for particular choices of Min/Max values (lower line). Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) can be estimated by averaging the results of many such simulations.

      MRO and Spare Parts simulation of demand and on-hand inventory

      Figure 4: An example of a simulation of spare part demand and on-hand inventory

      You can read about Smart’s approach to forecasting spare parts here: https://smartcorp.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Probabilistic-Forecasting-for-Intermittent-Demand.pdf

       

       

      Spare Parts Planning Software solutions

      Smart IP&O’s service parts forecasting software uses a unique empirical probabilistic forecasting approach that is engineered for intermittent demand. For consumable spare parts, our patented and APICS award winning method rapidly generates tens of thousands of demand scenarios without relying on the assumptions about the nature of demand distributions implicit in traditional forecasting methods. The result is highly accurate estimates of safety stock, reorder points, and service levels, which leads to higher service levels and lower inventory costs. For repairable spare parts, Smart’s Repair and Return Module accurately simulates the processes of part breakdown and repair. It predicts downtime, service levels, and inventory costs associated with the current rotating spare parts pool. Planners will know how many spares to stock to achieve short- and long-term service level requirements and, in operational settings, whether to wait for repairs to be completed and returned to service or to purchase additional service spares from suppliers, avoiding unnecessary buying and equipment downtime.

      Contact us to learn more how this functionality has helped our customers in the MRO, Field Service, Utility, Mining, and Public Transportation sectors to optimize their inventory. You can also download the Whitepaper here.

       

       

      White Paper: What you Need to know about Forecasting and Planning Service Parts

       

      This paper describes Smart Software’s patented methodology for forecasting demand, safety stocks, and reorder points on items such as service parts and components with intermittent demand, and provides several examples of customer success.

       

        5 Steps to Improve the Financial Impact of Spare Parts Planning

        In today’s competitive business landscape, companies are constantly seeking ways to improve their operational efficiency and drive increased revenue. Optimizing service parts management is an often-overlooked aspect that can have a significant financial impact. Companies can improve overall efficiency and generate significant financial returns by effectively managing spare parts inventory. This article will explore the economic implications of optimized service parts management and how investing in Inventory Optimization and Demand Planning Software can provide a competitive advantage.

        The Importance of Optimized Service Parts Planning:

        Optimized service parts management plays a vital role in mitigating inventory risks and ensuring critical spare parts availability. While subjective planning may work on a small scale, it becomes insufficient when managing large inventories of intermittently demanded spare parts. Traditional forecasting approaches simply fail to accurately account for the extreme demand variability and frequent periods of zero demand that is so common with spare parts.  This results in large misallocations of stock, higher costs, and poor service levels.

        The key to optimized service parts management lies in understanding the trade-off between service and cost. Inventory Optimization and Demand Planning Software powered by probabilistic forecasting and Machine learning Algorithms can help companies better understand the cost vs. benefit of each inventory decision and wield inventory as a competitive asset. By generating accurate demand forecasts and optimal stocking policies such as Min/Max, Safety Stock Levels, and Reorder Points in seconds, companies can know how much is too much and when to add more. By wielding inventory as a competitive asset, companies can drive up service levels and drive down costs.

        Improve the Financial Outcome of Spare Parts Planning

        1. Accurate forecasting is crucial to optimize inventory planning and meet customer demand effectively. State-of-the-art demand planning software accurately predicts inventory requirements, even for intermittent demand patterns. By automating forecasting, companies can save time, money, and resources while improving accuracy.
        2. Meeting customer demand is a critical aspect of service parts management. Companies can enhance customer satisfaction, loyalty, and increase their chances of winning future contracts for the asset-intensive equipment they sell by ensuring the availability of spare parts when needed. Through effective demand planning and inventory optimization, organizations can reduce lead times, minimize stockouts, and maintain service levels, thereby improving the financial impact of all decisions.
        3. Financial gains can be achieved through optimized service parts planning, including the reduction of inventory and product costs. Excess storage and obsolete inventory can be significant cost burdens for organizations. By implementing best-of-breed inventory optimization software, companies can identify cost-effective solutions, driving up service levels and reducing costs. This leads to improved inventory turnover, reduced carrying costs, and increased profitability.
        4. Procurement planning is another essential aspect of service parts management. Organizations can optimize inventory levels, reduce lead times, and avoid stockouts by aligning procurement and the associated order quantities with accurate demand forecasts. For example, accurate forecasts can be shared with suppliers so that blanket purchase commitments can be made. This provides the supplier revenue certainty and, in exchange, can hold more inventory, thereby reducing lead times.
        5. Intermittent demand planning is a particular challenge in spare parts management. Conventional rule-of-thumb approaches fall short in handling demand variability effectively. This is because traditional approaches assume demand is normally distributed when in reality, it is anything but normal. Spare parts demand random bursts of large demand intersperse many period of zero demand.  Smart Software’s solution incorporates advanced statistical models and machine learning algorithms to analyze historical demand patterns, enabling accurate planning for intermittent demand. Companies can significantly reduce stockout costs and improve efficiency by addressing this challenge.

        Evidence from Smart Software’s Customers:

        Investing in Smart Software’s Inventory Optimization and Demand Planning Software enables companies to unlock cost savings, elevate customer service levels, and enhance operational efficiency. Through accurate demand forecasting, optimized inventory management, and streamlined procurement processes, organizations can achieve financial savings, meet customer demands effectively, and improve overall business performance.

        • Metro-North Railroad (MNR) experienced an 8% reduction in parts inventory, reaching a record high customer service level of 98.7%, and reduced inventory growth for new equipment from a projected 10% to only 6%. Smart Software played a crucial role in identifying multi-year service part needs, reducing administrative lead times, formulating stock reduction plans for retiring fleets, and identifying inactive inventory for disposal. MNR saved costs, maximized disposal benefits, improved service levels, and gained accurate insights for informed decision-making, ultimately improving their bottom line and customer satisfaction.
        • Seneca Companies, an industry leader in automotive petroleum services, adopted Smart Software to model customer demand, control inventory performance, and drive replenishment. Field service technicians embraced its use, and total inventory investment decreased by more than 25%, from $11 million to $8 million, while maintaining first-time fix rates of 90%+.
        • A leading Electric Utility implemented Smart IP&O in just 3 months and then used the software to optimize its reorder points and order quantities for over 250,000 spare parts. During the first phase of the implementation, the platform helped the Utility reduce inventory by $9,000,000 while maintaining service levels. The implementation was part of the company’s strategic supply chain optimization initiative.

        Optimizing Service Parts Planning for Competitive Advantage

        Optimized service parts management is crucial for companies seeking to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and ensure the availability of necessary spare parts. Organizations can unlock significant value in this field by investing in Smart Software’s Inventory Optimization and Demand Planning Software. Companies can achieve better financial performance and gain a competitive edge in their respective markets through improved data analysis, automation, and inventory planning.

        Smart Software is designed for the modern marketplace, which is volatile and always changing. It can handle SKU proliferation, longer supply chains, less predictable lead times, and more intermittent and less forecastable demand patterns. It can also integrate with virtually every ERP solution on the market, by field-proven seamless connections or using a simple import/export process supported by Smart Software’s data model and data processing engine. By using Smart Software, companies can leverage inventory as a competitive asset, enhance customer satisfaction, drive up service levels, push down costs, and save substantial money.

         

        Spare Parts Planning Software solutions

        Smart IP&O’s service parts forecasting software uses a unique empirical probabilistic forecasting approach that is engineered for intermittent demand. For consumable spare parts, our patented and APICS award winning method rapidly generates tens of thousands of demand scenarios without relying on the assumptions about the nature of demand distributions implicit in traditional forecasting methods. The result is highly accurate estimates of safety stock, reorder points, and service levels, which leads to higher service levels and lower inventory costs. For repairable spare parts, Smart’s Repair and Return Module accurately simulates the processes of part breakdown and repair. It predicts downtime, service levels, and inventory costs associated with the current rotating spare parts pool. Planners will know how many spares to stock to achieve short- and long-term service level requirements and, in operational settings, whether to wait for repairs to be completed and returned to service or to purchase additional service spares from suppliers, avoiding unnecessary buying and equipment downtime.

        Contact us to learn more how this functionality has helped our customers in the MRO, Field Service, Utility, Mining, and Public Transportation sectors to optimize their inventory. You can also download the Whitepaper here.

         

         

        White Paper: What you Need to know about Forecasting and Planning Service Parts

         

        This paper describes Smart Software’s patented methodology for forecasting demand, safety stocks, and reorder points on items such as service parts and components with intermittent demand, and provides several examples of customer success.