Car tyres don't lose pressure in quite the way that they used to, so they don't always have to be checked every week or so. The reason for this is a thin inside coating of halogenated butyl, or 'halobutyl', a largely impermeable man-made rubber which is manufactured by only two plants in the world. One of these is contained within Exxon's massive petrochemical complex at Fawley, near Southampton - the refinery which spearheaded productivity-linked pay bargaining in the 1960s.
As with any plant of this kind, there's not a great deal to be seen of the production process except for miles of pipes and reaction vessels. However, many of the improvements in manufacturing that have taken place since the plant was first commissioned in 1963 are attributable less to technology than to people and operating principles. Fawley is an 'all staff' site where employees are paid salaries rather than wages, they work in cross-functional teams and where trades unions are not recognised. 'We have no demarcation lines and a lot of very flexible people,' says manufacturing manager David Price. With a fully rotating five-shift system in operation, the plant is capable of running seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Inside the blast-proof control room, the plainest proof of excellence in manufacturing is provided by shift manager Lynda Mathews' continuous improvement project recording system. This covers the activities of her team of 17 - plus those of the other four shift managers - and directs and monitors improvements across the entire plant. Mathews is the first shift manager at the plant who was not previously an operative. She enthuses about the potential of the system, and demonstrates some of the progress that has been made to date. One example is a computer program designed to assist in making the switch from one grade of halobutyl to another - a process that previously entailed an element of discretion on the part of the operator. No longer. 'There's only one best way to change over,' says Mathews firmly.