Judges' Special Award; Outstanding achievement in a specific area.
'Inspirational' was how the judges summed up last year's Welsh winner, Allevard Springs. European Component Company's seat belt factory in Belfast is just as inspiring - or, to be accurate, part of it is. Managing director Walter Carruthers would readily concede that there is plenty of progress to be made elsewhere, in areas where the factory is still laid out along strictly functional lines. On the other hand, the cell-based assembly operation is among the slickest that the team of judges has ever seen. For pace, fail-safe systems, and production engineering in general, the assembly cells set a standard that would be hard to beat.
ECC - as it calls itself - makes seat belt fittings and latches for a list of vehicle manufacturers that includes General Motors, Land Rover, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. (It supplies approximately half GM's total European requirement for seat belts.) For seat belt assembly, read the complete ready-to-fit unit: the buckles, brackets, inertia reel mechanism and webbing. The product has to be produced in left and right, front and rear versions. A single unit may consist of 20 or more metal or plastic sub-components, the majority of which are produced in-house.
The factory at one time manufactured components for Rolls-Royce aero engines, but later fell into disuse. It was reopened by GM in 1979, before being acquired by the Japanese Takata Corporation 10 years later. The ensuing kaizen, or improvement programme, almost inevitably adopted cells, in preference to lines, for assembly. It also resulted in the best implementation of 'pokeyoka', or fail-safe, in the judges' experience. Honda Accord seat belt supervisor Chris Boyd describes how she worked in Japan for three weeks before her cell was set up - then spent three months on her own in it, trying to build things the wrong way. Every time she found a new mistake to make, the production engineers made it impossible to repeat.
Perhaps it's not surprising that Carruthers himself spends a lot of time on the factory floor. But he's been working like that for 40 years now. 'I just like being where things are made,' he says.
Activity: Manufacture of seat belts for motor vehicles
Task: On-time delivery of safety-critical products at low cost
Size: 530 employees
Outstanding Features: Cell design, 'pokeyoka' fail-safe assembly techniques.