The Electronics Industry Award went to Oki (UK), chosen from plants in the electronics and electrical engineering sector.
In a little over a quarter-of-a-century, the electronics industry has grown from being virtually non-existent to one of Britain's biggest industrial sectors. Our three contenders for the award of best electronics factory highlighted British electronics' main strengths: quality, miniaturisation and volume assembly.
At Varian Oncology Systems in Crawley, the judges found a commitment to the Total Quality philosophy hard to equal. Philips Components in Blackburn offered an impressive mastery of manufacturing in miniature: cathodes for TV tubes, each around a quarter of an inch long and containing 13 different components joined together by 18-minute laser welds. But our winner, dot-matrix computer printer manufacturer Oki (UK), achieves all this and more. A strong contender for this year's overall winner, the plant showed a pace, commitment and capability that the judges thought exceptional.
Unlike companies such as Sony and Toshiba, Oki has only recently ventured outside Japan. The factory in Cumbernauld is their sole manufacturing facility in Europe, and is comparatively new - production started up on the site in 1988. With an annual output now in excess of £1 million the venture has clearly been successful. What makes Oki unusual among Britain's Japanese transplants is the home-grown nature of its success. With little prior experience of manufacturing overseas, Oki had no cadre of experts to send over to Cumbernauld to build a Japanese-style carbon copy. Instead, it recruited local talent and brought them back to Japan to learn their techniques. Managing director Hiroshi Kojima is one of the few Japanese on site. "For a time it was harrowing," admits production manager Ian Smith. The pressure to meet parent company efficiency levels meant that labour turnover, even in this unemployment blackspot, touched 19% at one time. Quality manager Jim Forsyth recalls how after a day's work fulfilling their normal roles, the management team would reassemble at the production line to help pack and despatch that day's output target. This often meant staying until late at night.
An abundance of statistics prove the company's worth, but it is the shopfloor that really tells the story. The plant certainly uses all the usual Japanese techniques. Illuminated indicators, for instance, hang from the ceiling and record the number of printers produced so far that day. Scheduling is done with painted kanban squares; parts are pre-kitted to facilitate assembly; overhead lights flag stoppages, and hour-by-hour quality boards highlight problems. The pace of work among the blue-uniformed workforce - an outfit worn by management, too - is fast and fluid, and housekeeping is impeccable. "It costs me a whisky every time Kojima finds something on the floor," rues Smith.
However, it is at the margin that the plant stands out. We saw printed circuit boards going into a component insertion machine the "wrong" way round: this way, though, they can fit onto the conveyor belt two wide. Investment in the very, very hi-tech is there alright, but it is selective, so that every penny of it counts. Alongside the basic dedicated component insertion machines, for instance, there is a brand new flexible 64-head machine - the only one in Europe. There was the slickest manual component assembly operation the judges had ever seen: a line of operatives inserted components into the tiny placing holes in printed circuit boards simultaneously with both hands as they move past on a conveyor belt.
It takes three to six months for operatives to learn how to do this.
The hour-by-hour quality boards tell a story, too. They are filled in by the "customer" of each principal operation. As we came to team leader Catherine Hutchison's section, a problem with jamming print heads was reported. Hutchison quickly identifies a likely culprit: the odd mishapen plastic cog in a batch that's just come in.
But what to do about it?
She sets forth to track down a product engineer to confirm the cause and isolate the fault. It takes 10 minutes. This is Total Quality: not a wall of neat charts and graphs, but action. "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of meeting the schedule has been forgotten," says Smith.
There is much more to the plant than quality. There is the Just-in-Time deliveries from suppliers, the packaging operating technique, and the indicator that informs everyone that, so far this year, the factory has produced four printers more than the 381,723 planned.
As we leave, Ian Smith recounts with pride how computer manufacturers that used to stick their own badges on Oki printers now ask for the Oki one to be put on instead. Apparently every major airline in Europe except Lufthansa has now standardised on Oki printers from this plant. It comes as no surprise.
AWARD SPONSOR: AT and T Istel.
AT and T Istel is a company that provides integrated computer and communications solutions for the specific needs of industry, commerce and the public sector. From its UK base, AT and T Istel has become one of the major information technology companies in Europe, employing over 4,000 people.
The company is the leading provider of computer software solutions to UK manufacturing industries. AT and T Istel has developed software that is appropriate to every stage of the manufacturing cycle, from design through production to supply and delivery.