Engineering Industry Best Factory sponsored by Black Horse Relocation Services; Best Factory in Northern Ireland sponsored by Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland.
Japan's Ryobi group is the largest independent die-casting company in the world. Its plant in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, exists because Ford Motor - having been unable to find a suitable die-casting specialist in Europe - asked the company to set up to produce transmission and clutch cases for the Mondeo. At present, only 45 people work in the 128,000 sq.ft building, and Ford's plant at Duren, near Cologne, is their only customer. However, Ryobi's confidence in the plant's future may be judged by the amount of spare capacity available. The factory stands in 27 acres of ground, and the original £16 million investment included the foundations and all services for two more 10,000-tonne die-casting machines and one additional furnace. As from March, Carrickfergus will have a second customer, when production of engine bearing bedplates for Jaguar gets under way.
The judges' view is clear from the fact that, besides coming first in the Engineering Industry category, the plant almost carried off the Factory of the Year award as well. Ryobi excels at process control. Gearbox casings are not simple components to cast - although Ryobi makes it look easy. The company refines each ladle of molten metal with flux before pouring it into the casting machine. This provides greatly increased process repeatability at the casting stage. 'Other companies either don't do this or don't regard it as important,' says MD John Hughes. When manufacturing manager Hiroshi Urabe arrived to commission the plant he found that UK-sourced fluxes - in theory, identical - performed differently from the flux used at home. The specification of Ryobi's own flux was faxed through to enable the chemical to be produced locally. In the meantime, flux was flown in from Japan.
The dies used in the giant Toshiba casting machines are, of course, central to the whole operation. Ryobi makes all its own tools and employs a patented vacuum system. 'Companies can always purchase tools from external suppliers but these will have been built for ease of construction, not for suitability of manufacture,' says Hughes. The dies that Ford uses to manufacture the same part (Ryobi accounts for three-quarters of the build requirement while the motor company's own casting operation produces the other 25%) are quite different from Ryobi's. The Japanese company, Hughes suggests, is at heart a toolmaker which happens to use its own tools.
For the time being, the Carrickfergus plant is limited to repair work. Sometime in the next 10 years, it may be entrusted with tool manufacture. Tool maintenance, on the other hand, is a top priority, which is why the die maintenance workshop, which occupies a large part of the factory, is equipped with sophisticated machine tools. Producing 300 castings a shift rapidly takes its toll of a die, but the engineers have succeeded in extending tool life from a planned 100,000 castings to 130,000.
Urabe explains that the condition of each die is reviewed at the morning production meeting and it is withdrawn for refurbishment at the first sign of degradation. While watching the fluxing process, the judges noticed an operative filling in a tooling and equipment condition checklist printed on reverse of the furnace's melt log - another example of first-class process control.
The maintenance workers are fully flexible - a result achieved by recruiting electrical engineers and training them in the required mechanical and welding skills. Everyone, Hughes explains puts in 'only' an hour a week in group-based kaizen (continuous improvement) discussions - one half-hour being paid for, and the other voluntary. Given the standard of excellence all around, one wonders what they find to talk about?
Engineering Industry Award
Sponsor: Black Horse Relocation Services
Relocation market leader Black Horse Relocation Services was formed in 1983 and is part of the Lloyds Bank Group.
The company offers a wide range of services designed to help organisations at all stages of a relocation, from the development of a corporate policy through to the movement of an entire workforce.
Black Horse Relocation handles over 5,000 employee moves each year, the majority of these being key individuals relocating for business reasons and career development.
Regional Award: Northern Ireland
Sponsor: Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland
The Industrial Development Board's role is to support and encourage the profitable growth of Northern Ireland's manufacturing and internationally tradeable service sectors through the development of existing companies and by securing new investment projects from outside Northern Ireland. The IDB's actions are designed to help build a vigorous business sector, leading to durable employment.
Activity: Aluminium die-casting
Task: Just-In-Time supply of automotive components
Size: 45 employees
Outstanding Features: Process control, production engineering.