UK: Category Winner - Process Industry.

UK: Category Winner - Process Industry. - Thomas's Europe,

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Thomas's Europe,

Batley

Sponsor: UPS Worldwide Logistics

ACTIVITY: manufacture of pet care products

TASK: design and production of challenging fast-moving consumer goods category-leaders

COMPLEXITY: medium

SIZE: 375 employees

OUTSTANDING FEATURES: continuous improvement, reliability-centred maintenance, statistical process control, harnessing process technology to create competitive advantage, quick changeover capability

Products manufactured at Colmans of Norwich, the 1998 Management Today Factory of the Year, are found in every supermarket in the land.

Coincidentally, so are those produced at the factory with which Colmans vied most closely for the top slot, the Batley, West Yorkshire plant of Thomas's Europe. The plant is one of 60 worldwide operated by the $13 billion, privately-owned petfoods-to-confectionery American giant Mars, whose products include a range from Whiskas to Uncle Ben's to the Mars Bar on which the business was originally built.

The Batley plant is responsible for supplying the company's entire European distribution channel with pet care dietary supplements linked to the company's main petfood brands. Snack foods, in other words, designed to either reward the consumer's cat or dog with a treat, or clean the animal's teeth - or both. The real challenge facing the business, according to the plant's supremo, divisional director Didier Menu, is to persuade consumers to splash out on products such as Kitbits, Markies, Rodeo and Rask in preference to cost-free table scraps. The strategy for achieving this is twofold. First, a huge array of technical expertise and investment goes into creating and manufacturing products which emulate all of the positive characteristics of scraps, without any of their attendant drawbacks - mess, variable quality, limited appeal and sporadic availability.

Rask, a breath-freshening, tooth-cleaning dog biscuit, 'is the world's first injection-moulded food', enthuses the plant's head of operations, supply chain director Jon Grey. 'We were familiar with rubber injection moulding - for rubber chewing bones - and wondered if we could do it with food.' They could indeed, as nine very active giant injection moulding machines testify, although considerable experimentation went into maximising the product's manufacturability, as the foodstuff's characteristics called for a release angle very different from those commonly encountered in plastic or rubber injection moulding.

The story is the same throughout the factory, whether the technology being utilised is meat jerky extrusion - 'the largest meat jerky line in the world', according to Grey - cooker extrusion, cut-and-bake biscuit manufacture, or the solid deposition equipment that wouldn't look out of place in a confectionery factory.

At Thomas's, the technology produces Cesar, 'a cheese-and-meat combination canape for dogs that sells very well in Germany'.

Making the difficult, easy, is really what Thomas's is all about. Grey asserts that, 'it's taken the competition eight years to copy Markies, six years to copy Rask and no one has yet copied Rodeo'.

Indeed, the Rodeo product might be defined as the epitome of the product range: two differently coloured chewy foodstuffs twisted together in long DNA-style helix twists. Visually interesting, it very evidently appeals to the consumer, but equally clearly deters cheaper me-too competitors from encroaching on the company's profitable turf.

But the 30% return on total assets that the plant must meet doesn't just come from cleverly blending research and development, production technology and marketing strategy. Even without these, the factory is still a winner.

Determinedly single status - 'everybody clocks in; everybody shares the same changing facilities' - the factory has its manufacturing teams (which are increasingly self-managed) to drive forward impressive initiatives on a number of fronts. In multi-skilling, for example, the factory has benefited from a policy of deliberately recruiting people with mechanical and electrical skills into production jobs, whilst simultaneously training production employees in these skills. Continuous improvement? The teams produce a wealth of ideas, says Grey - and budgetary constraints are rarely encountered.

'In Mars, good ideas usually get through,' he says.

With giant - and expensive - production lines churning out product for the whole of Europe, uptime is a major issue.

The plant has adopted Reliability-Centred Maintenance as the best way of achieving this. Thermography looks for hot spots on ovens, vibration analysis is in place, and the oil from gearboxes and the like is analysed for signs of wear or imminent breakdown. 'It's a more exacting methodology than TPM,' explains Grey.

SPONSOR: UPS WORLDWIDE LOGISTICS

UPS Worldwide Logistics understands that every customer's problems are different which is why it designs and implements unique supply chain solutions. By combining its strategically located European logistics centres with the management of leading third-party providers and backed by the resources of UPS, its clients are guaranteed world-class service. UPS Worldwide Logistics supports quality and best practice in all business enterprises and is proud to sponsor Mangement Today's Best Process Award.

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