The Best Small Factory Award went to HD Plastics, chosen from a survey of factories with no more than 500 employees all industries were eligible any industry Electronics Industry Award - electronics and electrical engineering.
HD Plastics was set up in 1977 in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire to make black refuse sacks for the growing local authority market. Tendering for council contracts is a notoriously cut-throat business - this year's surprise gain might be next year's equally abrupt loss when a competitor shaves a fraction off his price. Quality and innovation play second fiddle to price. In 1982, when the major supermarkets started selling refuse sacks, HD decided to reduce its exposure to the contract roller coaster, and at the same time branch out into the production of kitchen binliners.
In the mid-'80s the company chose to cut back its dependence on low-value local authority contracts and in 1989 walked away from them completely, recognising that its manufacturing skills could earn a better return elsewhere. Managing director John Fellows clearly has no regrets about no longer being in a "me too" business. "First of all it's fairly boring - and secondly there usually isn't any money in it." With a customer list that includes just about every UK supermarket chain on or off the High Street, no one at HD can complain of being idle. Overdue deliveries to this customer base are virtually regarded as crimes. "We haven't had any this year," says Fellows. "But we did have one last October."
The backbone of the business is the volume production of heavy-duty, own-label binliners and refuse sacks. The cheaper end of the market is left to others. Giant ribbons of continuous tear-off bags weave their way through a series of vast two-storey extruders at around 85,000 bags an hour - and do so seven days a week, 24 hours a day; 1,000 tonnes' worth of bags are produced every month. Production from molten plastic to a supermarket ready-wrapped bundle takes under two minutes. There is some clever engineering in evidence here - one line of bags has a built-in drawstring fitted as it shoots through.
John Fellows explains the strategy of growing both the market and their share of it (currently around 40%) through innovation and market responsiveness. A lot of effort has recently gone into developing a "green" range produced from genuine post-consumer plastic waste.
However, although the building's external architecture might hint at it, this is not some slick, hi-tech wonder factory. Plastic extrusion is not a glamour technology, and HD's application of it is both fairly conventional and fairly labour intensive. No push-button factory of the future here. The turnover of £21 million or so comes from the sweat of over 250 people - quite literally, as a few minutes next to a hot extrusion machine quickly confirms.
HD Plastics does not claim to be a Total Quality company. It doesn't even have the almost ubiquitous BS5750 - although it is quietly moving towards both of these. There are no fancy plaques in the reception - just a white board on the factory floor where everyone from Fellows downwards has signed a pledge to work towards better quality. Although production supremo Derek Hayden is clearly embarrassed by the number of machinery repairs that consist of lashings of sellotape, he is rightly proud of the "keep it going at all costs" team ethos that produces them. Sceptics suspecting a sweatshop mentality were disarmed by Hayden's casual revelation that the bonus scheme was dropped two years ago because it conflicted with quality improvement - and that scrap levels are now half what they were then.
There is no overblown cadre of HQ "experts" on hand to advise the workforce. It's down to planning manager Corrine Butt to decide what to manufacture next. With 260 different product variations this surely can't be an easy role. "What is?", she shrugs. "If something needs doing - it gets done. We work as a team."
She would get on well with Tim Milligan, MD of runner-up Willett Systems in Runcorn. The plant supplies case ink to FMCG companies who use the parent company's inkjet printers to put "best before" dates on their packaging. Although it's a much smaller operation than HD - it has a turnover of around £3 million (90% of which is exported), with only 26 people - the plant has the same "can do" attitude. The business has grown at around 25% a year, and now has 20% of the world market share, says Milligan. He points out the improvements that have been made along the way, such as manufacturing lead times halved, inventory levels down and a strong focus on ease of manufacture.
With a hundred or so widely varying ink formulations, changeover of mixes of ink would be a nightmare if conventional process equipment were used. The Willett solution is a heap of old 50-gallon oil drums - one for each ink. Contamination was eliminated and changeover time reduced to practically zero.
It's a superb example of practical ingenuity. As Lady Thatcher was wont to say - today's smaller companies are tomorrow's providers of economic growth and prosperity. With more companies like Willett Systems and HD Plastics, the future would be considerably brighter.
The secrets of a Best Factory.
Our best factories had 10 vital characteristics in all.
(1) An integrated management team - memos, meetings and agendas were out; talking problems through as they arose and developing solutions on the spot were in.
(2) Commitment to quality - there was an understanding of the need for quality to be built in at the beginning through controlled repeatable processes. BS5750 and ISO9000 were important steps along the way.
(3) The exploitation of key process technologies - a crucial part of the plants' success lay in the way they uses their underlying technology to bring about competitive edge and commercial advantage.
(4) A highly trained workforce - the benefits that come from investing in people were obvious: higher quality, lower labour turnover, and an identification of the individual's goals with those of the organisation.
(5) Operator empowerment - in some plants this resulted in whole layers of management being cut out, high levels of productivity and quality, and a workforce that thought and acted as part of the management.
(6) Simple systems - there were excellent examples of how manufacturing doesn't have to be complicated to be successful. Straightforward yet robust manufacturing and control systems brought big rewards.
(7) Visible operational performance signs - quality levels and output were tracked continuously in many plants. Managers and operatives simply looked at the nearest indicator board to check progress.
(8) Attention to detail - every finalist was greatly concerned with getting the details right but not at the cost of losing sight of the grand vision.
(9) Customer service focus - the customer, not the schedule, was king, excellent service offered by the plants, from designing the product to delivering it, day or night.
(10) Response flexibility - customers no longer hold stocks and expect suppliers to be innovative, thus responsiveness was a key part of the plants' competitive strategy.
AWARD SPONSOR: The Development Board for Rural Wales.
The Development Board for Rural Wales was created in 1977 to tackle rural depopulation by helping to build a new economic and social infrastructure, including the creation of new job opportunities. The region, which covers 40% of the land area of Wales, now has new business premises, new social and community facilities and much improved road and rail communications. Last year we launched our biggest single development strategy under the banner "Rural Wales - The British Business Park". Hundreds of companies are now enjoying the fruits of "ruralisation".