Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Management Today

Electronics companies have tended to show the way forward to the rest of British manufacturing industry. New computer systems, quality initiatives, just-in-time methods - over the years the electronics companies, with their growing markets, have been able to find the time and money to invest in these things ahead of many others. Yet the results have been patchy. On the whole, the judges were disappointed by this year's entrants in the Electronics category. The general criticism does not apply to GPT, however, which leavens the latest technologies with commercial good sense.

GPT, which is jointly owned by GEC and Siemens, has transformed the old Plessey factory in Edge Lane, Liverpool. Dating back to 1903, this was once one of the largest plants in the North West, employing several thousand people in the manufacture of telephones and exchanges. Modern high-tech exchanges use microprocessors in place of electro-mechanical devices, and GPT has had to adapt with the technology.

Overall, the company's workforce has been more than halved - from 25,000 to 12,000 - in just two years, and the nature of the work has altered just as abruptly. These days the System X exchanges built at Edge Lane are updated by changing the software rather than the hardware, and the site's 600 programmers now outnumber assembly workers by two to one.

Inescapably, Edge Lane's manufacturing operations are very like those found in most electronics factories: board 'stuffing', assembly, testing, despatch. A high degree of automation is also a standard feature of the industry, and equipment such as Fuji mounting and soldering lines can be found almost everywhere. GPT has invested substantial sums in high technology where appropriate. There are four wiring machines, for example, each of which is capable of connecting up to 1,200 backplane pins per hour. But management has not been averse to investing in low tech as well: like the row of rotatable wooden assembly benches which allow operatives to work on one batch while the other side is being set up for the next.

Quite recently a robotic machine was taken out of the line and replaced by people. Production manager Tony Perry explains that the robot was actually more expensive than human beings, after accounting for its spare parts and maintenance costs. Edge Lane pursues its solutions with admirable thoroughness, always opting for the practical fix in preference to the fashionable fad.

A further example. Single sourcing is highly fashionable these days. Management at Edge Lane acknowledges the reasons for cultivating customer/supplier partnerships, but insists on dual sourcing nevertheless. Manufacturing costs in electronics are generally notable for their high bought-out content - which indeed has become something of an Achilles heel. 'It's always nice to have a little competitive edge,' says procurement manager Janet Butler. She is equally blunt about GPT's objective of maximising the cash balance by way of its payment terms - 90 days from the end of the month of delivery. Suppliers are assessed, incidentally, not only on their quality and delivery but also on their EDI capability.

At present, with British Telecommunications' massive installation programme nearing completion, an uncertain future looms for Edge Lane. General manager Ian Wilson can see 'four more years of reasonable volume in the UK market'. Software for add-on features - such as BT's 'call waiting' facility - has already become the main activity on the site. Later there will be new products for the home and export markets. The factory is even now building a network of Rabbit-type base stations for the Chinese railway system.

Flexibility is essential if the transition of the next few years is to be managed successfully. A changing cultural environment is seen as one of the keys here. This is a huge undertaking for any business, and perhaps particularly for Edge Lane in view of its age. It also has an ageing workforce and long established working practices. Although visitors to the site now see modern structures set in landscaped grounds, appearances are deceptive. 'All the buildings look new but only one actually is new,' Wilson explains. A major programme of demolition and site refurbishment has just been completed - partly to make the site more attractive to employees, both current and prospective.

Activity: Manufacture of telecommunications switching equipment

Task: To supply UK and international PTTs

Complexity: High

Size: 2,100 employees

Outstanding features: Excellence of quality and manufacturing systems

Electronics Industry Award - Sponsor: The European.

The European newspaper, launched in May 1990, is now firmly established in the pan-European marketplace with award-winning excellence in editorial and production. Published on Thursdays, The European is produced in three 16-page sections and reports on news and issues from a European perspective. The editorial team comprises 60 multinational and multilingual journalists under the direction of editor Herbert Pearson. Guest contributors from the worlds of European politics, business and finance also appear regularly in the newspaper. This year The European won the prestigious European Newspaper of the Year Award. Current weekly sales exceed 160,000 - over 60% of which are outside the UK.

Regional Award: North West - Sponsor: Co-operative Bank.

There is no such thing as a typical Co-operative Bank customer. The Bank works with organisations of all sizes, from the self-employed to local authorities.

The Bank believes there are two main reasons why it is able to attract such a diverse range of customers. First, it is willing to tailor its services to meet individual needs. Second, it is open about the services that are charged for - and how much they cost.

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