UK: BEST FACTORY AWARDS 1995 - ENGINEERING INDUSTRY BEST FACTORY. - Sponsored by Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Sponsored by Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland

Toshiba Consumer Products (UK)

Toshiba Consumer Products (UK)

Activity: Manufacture of air conditioning equipment

Task: To achieve Japanese levels of quality and efficiency in a recently established operation

Complexity: Medium

Size: 250 employees

Outstanding Features: Continuous improvement, work design, preventive maintenance

Toshiba's air-conditioning factory in Plymouth has been operational for just over four years. This is a 'greenfield site' with a difference. Most of the factory's buildings and approximately half its staff were previously employed in the production of microwave ovens. When Toshiba withdrew from microwave manufacture in the UK, its executives were - quite coincidentally - looking for a site for an air-conditioner factory. The microwave facility, only a couple of miles from the company's Plymouth television factory, seemed an ideal choice.

'None of us knew anything about air-conditioners,' manufacturing director Neil Lancaster admits. 'We were however very familiar with the Toshiba way of doing things.' The Toshiba way is distinctive, as new recruits formerly employed in the declining dockyards quickly find out. 'The training at the dockyards is superb but the culture is awful' - and 18 months are needed to convert people to the Japanese style of manufacturing. This includes, among other things, a dedication to preventive maintenance. 'The whole factory stops for half-a-day each month while everybody carries out preventive maintenance activities,' says Lancaster laying heavy stress on 'everybody'.

Toshiba's strategy for the air-conditioning plant was entirely straightforward and very Japanese. Training has been extremely thorough. Unlike the microwave business, which was 'more of a screwdriver operation', air-conditioners call for machining and brazing skills.

Having no appropriate manufacturing experience, both managers and operatives spent weeks at the parent company's Fuji factory getting to grips with the technology. Welding and brazing are largely manual operations but there is ample evidence of capital investment too. The sheet metal shop is equipped with an impressive range of modern machine tools, including fast turret punching presses and two laser-driven cutting machines.

The plant's output is minuscule compared to that of the parent factory - 50,000 units per year compared to over a million in Japan. And with 45 different models in the catalogue, flexibility is of paramount importance. Both machining and assembly operations have been extensively redesigned in order to achieve the necessary flexibility without ruining the economics. 'Work envelopes', the combination of tasks performed by each operator, are necessarily lengthy, 'as much as five minutes on the assembly lines'.

An initial impression of clutter on the assembly lines soon gives way to reveal their pace and efficiency. It's evident that a lot of attention has been paid to ergonomic handling issues and line balancing, and model changes are effortlessly handled. Operatives work a nine-hour day on a two-shift basis, alternating four-and five-day weeks. This is done partly for the sake of economies in paint shop operation, and partly because 'people enjoy the regular long weekends that it provides'.

Management's biggest challenge just now, according to Lancaster, concerns the question of local content. The figures are slightly deceptive: the claimed 65% of 'locally sourced' materials includes quantities of copper tube from Finland. Two barriers to further localisation have been identified. 'Getting the required quality is the big one,' says Lancaster. But the willingness of suppliers to adapt to Toshiba's requirements is another stumbling block.

Inevitably, continuous improvement is energetically pursued, with small groups meeting weekly to investigate production problems. One group recently looked at a piece of pipework that was both awkward to braze and a potential source of problems in use. The culprit turned out to be a complicated fitting imported from Japan, but it was found that this could be eliminated altogether using a differently shaped piece of copper piping. The effect was to cut the number of brazing operations from 17 to six, giving a 63% reduction in set-up time and a 68% reduction in process time. Best of all, elimination of the imported fitting knocked almost £2 per unit off materials costs.

Engineering Industry Award

Sponsor: Indusrial 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 tradable services 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.

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