Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Sponsored by KPMG

Courtaulds Films

Activity: Polypropylene film manufacture

Task: A pressing need to improve productivity and equipment utilisation

Complexity: Medium

Size: 310 employees

Outstanding Features: Technological capabilities, preventive maintenance, cultural change

Manufacturing the polypropylene film that gets wrapped around packaged foods such as biscuits and snacks is no picnic. Courtaulds' polypropylene factory at Swindon operates in a particularly tough market and has had to work hard in order to survive. These days, says operations director David Espley, service is an important differentiator. 'You can no longer compete solely on factors such as cost and product technology.' In any process industry, cost and product technology are closely associated with hardware. In this case, the hardware consists of mammoth extrusion-and-stretching machines, some 8.5 metres wide and 70 metres long, which turn one-metre wide polymer extrusion into film up to 8 metres wide and around 30 microns thick.

Service, on the other hand, involves factors such as quality, reliability and attention to detail, which depend more on a factory's people than on its hardware. Espley chooses his words, but it's clear that the factory has been through some painful experiences over the past few years. Although it gained MRP II Class A status in 1991, and made progress with Total Quality, the key which would unlock the plant's people potential remained elusive.

The 30-year old factory's unionised workforce shared certain attitudes with other Swindon employees, notably the railways and the motor industry. Restrictive practices were rife. 'People would fix their cars at the weekend, but somehow magically leave any inherent mechanical skills behind when they came to work on the Monday morning.' Management's frustration mounted as substantial investment - which created a 7,000 pallet-space automated warehouse, among other things - showed constantly disappointing returns.

In the end, after various attempts to introduce flexible working had foundered due to 'uncooperative unions and endless meetings on small points', management decided to take the bull by the horns and restructure the operation. The design was based on its vision of how the plant would have run had it been a greenfield site. The target was a 30% increase in production (which was 'no more than the capacity we had originally bought', Espley points out) along with a 20% reduction in numbers. Production was based around teams, with multiskilled craft technicians absorbed into the manufacturing function.

A year later the people side of the business was under control. It was time to address equipment issues. Following a study tour of Japan, Espley and his team realised how poor their operating efficiencies were, and how misleading simple measures of machine uptime could be. The factory switched to measuring Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), calculated by combining uptime, quality and speed performances in a single percentage figure. 'With OEE there's no place to hide,' says Espley. He could only guess that before the 1992 reorganisation, when comparable Japanese plants were achieving OEE figures of 85%, Swindon was operating at around 30%. 'There really wasn't any data - which was illuminating in itself.' Investment in preventive maintenance and 'asset care excellence' programmes have since brought major improvements, with OEE reaching 63%. There is a new attention to detail: spare pumps are located right by equipment in case of failure; pressure and temperature gauges have been painted with very visible green and red go/no go segments; acrylic windows have been let into drive-belt housings to facilitate in-line inspection. Most important, productivity per employee has climbed sharply from under 75 tonnes per year before the changes to over 110 tonnes today. That amounts to several thousand tonnes of additional output per year with 'very little capital investment'.

As a footnote, it should be added that the factory is currently being merged with a similar operation owned by Hoechst. But it was Courtaulds Films that was entered and judged for the Best Factory awards.

Most Improved Factory Award

Sponsor KPMG

KPMG is the largest auditor of The Times 1,000 companies in the UK. KPMG's Manufacturing and Technology team is a multi-disciplinary business covering accounting, corporate finance investigations, tax and consultancy. The consultants' experience stretches from strategic planning to shop-floor productivity, and their re-engineering and change management projects embrace both suppliers and distribution companies.

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