NSK Bearing Europe
Activity: Manufacture of bearings
Task: Low-cost, high-volume and high-quality production for a quality market
Size: 700 employees
Outstanding Features: Narrow focus on quality, productivity and cost control
NSK, the world's second largest manufacturer of bearings, opened its Peterlee plant in 1976 when Japanese factories were still comparatively rare even in the North-East. As a result of dedication to quality and cost control, this has grown into a complex operation which employs 700 people and produces over eight million bearings every month. Customers include newer Japanese arrivals in Europe, such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda, as well as native Europeans like Rover, Ford, Volkswagen and Bosch.
The layout suggests a single-minded pursuit of efficiency without paying any homage to dogma. Cells and transfer machines are blended together with conventional functional departments in a drive to achieve maximum volumes at minimum cost: 'value added productivity', in the words of bearings division director Richard Coitino. Conventionally enough, drawings, photographs and samples are positioned at each stage of the process to give visual aid to operators. For the same reason, machine tools have flashing lights attached, alerting supervisors and others as to their operating status.
One of the classic problems of bearing manufacture is that of matching balls to inners and outers to achieve the necessary tolerance. Formerly, bearings were assembled using one of 21 ball sizes, each of which differed from the next by one micron. Today, thanks to tighter machining tolerances, in-line compensation for tool wear and a computerised matching technique, only seven ball sizes are required.
The factory's continuous improvement projects focus sharply on quality and productivity improvements. (Teams compete against one another and members of the winning team spend a week touring Japanese factories.) No one makes a fuss about empowerment any more: instead, Coitino talks of 'total responsibility'. Visitors to the plant are often surprised that the critical heat-treatment function is in the hands of ordinary operators. Another point of interest is the machine refurbishment area, where equipment is stripped down and rebuilt every 10 or 15 years. Mindful of the need for engineering excellence, management wants the job carried out by Peterlee people - who have been trained to Japanese standards - rather than by external contractors.