The Engineering Industry Award went to Ketlon, chosen from plants in mechanical and instrument engineering sector.
Curiously enough, both finalists in our engineering category came up with virtually identical descriptions of themselves. They said they didn't have products of their own as such; that their customers owned the designs for what they made; and what they sold was their ability to manufacture them better than anyone else.
Both factories have to manufacture safety-critical components. Both have to achieve extremely high tolerances. And both have visibly impressive implementations of flowline and cellular technology. Anyone curious about what the hi-tech jobbing shop of the future looks like need go no further than Ketlon (UK) in Paddock Wood, or Lucas Aerospace in Burnley.
The components manufactured by category winner Ketlon have to perform reliably under demanding conditions for thousands of miles and years at a time: these are complex precision automotive gearbox and steering components for the likes of Ford, Rover and Jaguar. Runner-up Lucas Aerospace's products operate - but only once - under equally demanding conditions: they are rocket motor casings for missiles, including the British MLRS and US Patriot systems that worked to such devastating effect in the Gulf War.
Lucas's skill is typified by the manufacturing design which won it the MLRS contract, now in its sixth year: a multi-million pound, purpose-built, state-of-the-art computer-driven production line complete with robots and automatic guided vehicles that can produce up to 1,000 missile cases a week with only two operators in attendance to monitor the process.
Ketlon, in contrast, resembles far more a Japanese manufacturer, such as Kawasaki: the company's skills lie in buying up old machine tools and refurbishing them to contemporary state-of-the-art standards for a fraction of the price of new equipment. Knowing the equipment intimately enables them to customise it: fancy electronic controllers and such are then bolted on to achieve hard-to-beat standards of process control and inter-machine linkages.
The committed feel of the shop-floor is reinforced by technical director Trevor Lawler's clear dedication to his work. "This machine is 25 years old," he enthuses, pausing in front a multi-spindle chucking auto that would normally be a museum piece. "We stripped it down and retro-fitted electronics to it - now it's better than a new one. And you can't even buy a new grinder for that particular job," he adds, pointing towards an adjacent cell. "We had to take a five-axis lathe and rebuild it as a grinder."
This ability to adapt and improve is crucial, since their customers are also their competitors. With the sort of critical, high value parts that the company specialises in, in-house manufacture by the vehicle builder has historically been the norm. Ketlon survives and prospers by consistently being able to improve on what the customer could achieve on his own. The strategy for doing this - a combination of low-cost equipment, consistent tight tolerance engineering and sparse amounts of work in progress - has proved a winner.
Customers, MD Brian Bensley explains, tend to come with projects rather than the other way round. Given the European automotive industry's much feared intention of sharply shrinking its supplier base to under a quarter of its present level, this situation is reassuring. The survivors of the shake-out must not only take on work withdrawn from the losers - meaning a steep (and forced) growth curve - but also maintain their winning formulae in a more unfamiliar market. Ketlon has already found itself moving outside its normal experience with the manufacture of steering knuckles on new custom-built machinery. With the rebuilt equipment advantage taken away, the company is having to rely even more on its process control and quality skills.
Statistical Process Control (SPC) is the clear key to the latter, and Ketlon displayed one of the best SPC implementations that the judges had seen among the 11 finalists. A series of moving belts carry parts to a central SPC station where readings are taken. A particularly neat touch is temperature compensation. As the specification calls for a particular tolerance to be achieved at 20oC, all measurements are taken with reference to a known master part kept in a temperature-controlled room.
Also typical of the attention to detail that the company lavishes on process control and repeatability are the padlocks on the oil drums by each machine. Fluctuating oil sump levels, Ketlon's management team has found, produce fluctuating manufacturing tolerances, and so only one operative per machine has the authority to replenish the oil level - the operative with the key to fit the padlock. It seems a lot of trouble to go to to shave off the odd micron, but at this plant managing microns is what it's all about.
AWARD SPONSOR: British Nuclear Fuels.
British Nuclear Fuels is a world leader in nuclear technology, with over 40 years experience in the manufacture of nuclear fuel for power stations and over 30 years experience of recycling spent nuclear fuel. BNFL is one of only two companies worldwide that can offer a complete nuclear fuel cycling service on a commercial scale. The cycle ranges from fuel manufacture and uranium enrichment, through electricity generation to spent fuel recycling and nuclear waste management. About 25% of BNFL's work is exports which bring in valuable revenue to Britain.