Thorn Lighting's Spennymoor plant near Durham - one of a dozen factories worldwide - contains a huge and impressive display of manufacturing technology. Plastic components are produced by no fewer than 26 injection moulding machines, the granules arriving at each one through colour-coded pipes. State-of-the-art computerised Salvagnini and Amada punching and forming machines turn out a variety of sheet metal components the programs being downloaded direct from solid modelling CAD systems in a new £20-million lighting laboratory. Other departments hum with the sound of presses, rotary coil winders and still more machines. Just when the visitor thinks that he has seen it all, it appears that there's a Awhole 30,000sq.ft electronics assembly building still to come. It might itself have been a contender for the Electronics industry award.
Yet, in spite of all the activity, it would be wrong to suppose that Spennymoor had grown to its present state. In recent years at least, it has in a very real sense contracted - which it had to do for the sake of survival. A dozen years ago the factory employed 2,500 people. In the wake of sell-offs and redundancies only 1,100 remain on the site. But the transformation also swept away decades of traditional practices.
Change came suddenly in 1988. Having evaluated a number of consultants, management chose the US guru, Richard Schonberger, to help set the plant on the road towards world class status. Schonberger is, after all, a manufacturing expert, and leading exponent of the principle that each function in a business is a 'customer' of the next. Spennymoor clearly possessed considerable technical expertise. What it required was a way of linking these islands of excellence together.
Before anything in the factory was changed, management sat down and agreed on the text of a manufacturing policy document setting out exactly what it wanted to achieve. (Progress against this document is still reviewed annually.) Cells were to be the glue that would hold the factory's disparate operations together. Working in cells demands that individuals possess reasonable teamworking skills. Therefore, as the cell concept spread throughout the plant, groups of employees were sent on team-building exercises in Keilder Forest. Around 1,000 employees, from all functions, have attended so far.
Teamworking skills also count when it comes to multi-disciplinary programmes aiming for continuous improvement. Training in problem-solving techniques, which initially involved a professional facilitator, helps to ensure that team contributions are constructive. Today, managers are expected to be facilitators. No longer are they bureaucratic cogs: anufacturing manager Albert Hickman, who has been at Spennymoor since 1964, still shakes his head about the months he spent in the 1970s preparing job descriptions for everyone on the site.
Trade-offs have had to be made. Bonus schemes have been bought out, for instance. But the progress is obvious - and measurable. Seven layers of manufacturing management have been reduced to four, and these days the managers clock-on. 'All of us clocked on, or none of us,' says Hickman. A warehouse with a £10 million inventory has been replaced by a covered roadway lined with sparsely filled shelves. (Along with the stocks 17 of the 20 people who used to load, unload, count and despatch them also disappeared.) At a technical level, injection moulding changeover times are down from 11 hours in 1988 to under four hours. And the changeover time on a coil winding machine has been reduced from a seemingly unimprovable four hours to a matter of minutes.
There is still, Hickman admits, a long way to go. Meanwhile his factory is a worthy winner in its category.
Activity: Lighting manufacture
Task: Design and manufacture of interior and exterior lighting systems
Complexity: Extremely high
Size: 1,100 employees
Outstanding Features: Flexibility, range of manufacturing technologies in which excellence is achieved, CAD/CAM.
National Award: Household Products - Sponsors: Nissan Motor (GB).
Nissan Motor Manufacturing was formed in 1933 and has since developed into one of the world's leading manufacturers, with 24 overseas manufacturing plants producing 2.8 million vehicles.
Since the early 1960s Nissan has pursued an international policy, with the establishment of major operations abroad. For UK and European customers, the commitment of Nissan to manufacture and design within Britain and Europe is of prime importance.
By 1993 investment in Europe will amount to £1.5 billion.
Establishment of operations in the UK began in 1984 with Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) Ltd in Sunderland, and has expanded dramatically to a total investment of £700 million. Vehicles produced at the plant have over 80% local content.
Nissan Motor (GB), responsible for sales, marketing and distribution, began trading in January 1992 and now has a network of 300 authorised dealers.
Regional Award: North East - Sponsor: Northern Electric.
Northern Electric is one of the 12 regional electricity companies, distributing and supplying electricity to over 1.4 million customers inhabiting the counties of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham, Cleveland and North Yorkshire.The company also supplies power to a number of large customers throughout the UK, operates a retail chain consisting of more than 50 shops selling electrical appliances and has investments in power generation and telecommunications.