Sponsor - Acacia Technologies.
Not for the first time, one of Britain's best factories turns out to be located on a site steeped in history - a salutary reminder that greenfield sites and wholesale dislocation are not necessarily the only route to manufacturing excellence.
'Actual physical evidence of papermaking on the site only goes back to 1770,' apologises John Gaunt, manager of Arjo Wiggins' Buckland paper mill in Dover. Documentary evidence, however, apparently dates the start of papermaking on the site at some point in the 16th century.
While the site's history certainly brings some limitations - 'In an ideal world we'd like to pick our papermaking machines up and rotate them through 90 degrees in order to improve the flow,' says Gaunt - it's surprisingly satisfying to see the extent to which listed buildings and a modern papermaking business can co-exist. One of the prime reasons is the mill's principal product: 97 different variants of the well-known Conqueror premium brand of watermarked business stationery, which itself dates back to 1888. Accordingly, the mill - which is part of the giant 19,000-employee Arjo Wiggins group - is in the happy position of contributing slightly over 1% of the group's turnover but a pleasing 10% of its profits.
The plant 'is essentially a traditional papermaking operation', concedes Gaunt, a 27-year veteran of the site. Indeed, the two papermaking lines appear both narrow and slow by contemporary standards. But according to Gaunt, wider, faster lines 'can't achieve anything like the same consistency of watermarking', in which the paper fibres are gently eased apart at the point when the pulp mix going through the presses reaches around 3% fibre. The factory's expertise lies in the way that it has extended and bolstered this basic capability to become the lowest-cost producer of Conqueror stationery in the Arjo Wiggins group. Despite faster and wider papermaking lines in some of the group's other manufacturing locations - 42 in total in 10 countries - the Dover mill exports Conqueror stationery to 57 countries around the world.
The relatively early adoption of Total Quality Management in the mid-1980s clearly helped, as did a 1993 reorganisation that replaced the traditional supervisory system with shift-based teams. 'Operatives are responsible for quality,' explains Gaunt. 'You certainly won't see any white-coated quality inspection people walking around.' The management team is currently in the throes of negotiating with the unionised workforce for an extension to this arrangement, which would introduce employee-led maintenance. 'It's always difficult in a brownfield site, but we'd rather take our time and get it right,' he shrugs.
Technology has played its part, too. The dual gas-and-oil combined heat and power plant provides not only all the electricity and steam that the mill itself uses, but also supplies around 4MW of power to Dover Harbour Board and sells surplus electricity to the national grid. Operating at over 80% efficiency, the introduction of the new plant has been responsible for lopping over £750,000 a year off the mill's fuel bill.
Even more impressive is a computer-based defect monitoring system that incorporates advanced optical recognition technology. Particles or holes are not only mapped - so that their precise location on a reel of paper is easily detected - but they are also categorised and analysed for trends and repeatability in order to help track down the factors that cause them.
Rigorous benchmarking is a very evident part of the culture. Impeccable housekeeping standards are bolstered by a permanent competition among Arjo Wiggins plants in which retired senior production personnel tour plants and judge their standards of cleanliness and efficiency. Details of their findings are published.
After many years' use, one of British industry's strictest and best-regarded safety management systems (the Dupont-inspired approach) has been discarded in favour of one that incorporates a twice-daily operator-led audit.
The mill's 10 freight hauliers, too, are kept on their mettle by a system under which their performance is carefully monitored and published in league tables. Expectations are high: 'We tell each of them when to come in and pick up a load,' says Gaunt. 'Not the approximate hour of the day that we'd like them to come in, but the exact time.'
Arjo Wiggins Fine Paper
Activity: Paper manufacture
Task: Cost-efficient manufacture and distribution of high-quality premium-grade paper
Complexity: Low to medium
Size: 220 employees
Outstanding Features: Housekeeping, process control, integration of manufacturing and business strategies
Sponsor: Acacia Technologies Acacia Technologies, a division of Computer Associates, focuses on IBM AS400 manufacturing and distribution business software. An independent business unit, it co-ordinates worldwide all aspects of its products (CA-PRMS, CA-KBM and CA-Warehouse BOSS). Packages are supported by experienced in-house consultants, who not only help to ensure fast return on investment, but also assist long-term clients to meet changing market conditions with the functionally rich software provided. This combination of millennium-capable hardware and software provides businesses with cost-effective capabilities at low risk.