Sponsor - Exel Logistics.
An unprepossessing industrial estate on the outskirts of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire seems at first glance to be an unlikely place to find manufacturing excellence. A few minutes inside Krone (UK) Technique's factory is all it takes to demonstrate the perils of jumping to unwarranted conclusions.
Whilst Krone itself isn't a household name, anyone who has ever installed an extension wall socket to a domestic telephone will have had first-hand experience of the company's telecommunications products, says managing director Paul Curtis. In addition to this market, the company - the largest foreign subsidiary of its German parent - has the lion's share of the market for the connectors inside British Telecom's ubiquitous green roadside cabinets. It is also, he continues, 'doing very nicely' from the fast-growing market for data-grade connectors as businesses connect up their computers to networks and the Internet.
'Understated excellence' best summarises the factory's approach to manufacturing.
Take the plastic injection mould shop, a common enough facility in thousands of factories across the UK, and in Krone's case one which could readily serve as a model to most of them. Quick changeovers? Krone has same-colour component changeovers down to seven minutes - a carefully choreographed set-piece that wastes not a moment. Careful standardisation of the injector's mount and the associated tooling is what makes it look easy: one man unfastens and lifts, while another reprograms at the keyboard. Two yellow spanners, fastened by elasticated cord and suspended on each side of the machine, are the only tools required for the entire operation.
Equally effective is the production control of the moulding shop. A simple card-rack provides top-level planning, whilst brightly-coloured kanban squares and rotating carousels driven by pre-set counters control production at the level of individual injection moulding machines. Spotlessly tidy, the waste plastic - or sprue - is reground in recycling units attached to each machine and fed back through again.
The assembly areas exhibit the same steadfast pursuit of excellence.
The strategy, explains Curtis, is very simple: 'What can't be produced in a cell tends to be outsourced.' Some cells are clustered around high-volume automated lines, others around a traditional U-shaped hand-assembly operation. In either instance, the care that has been lavished on layout, training and product flow is very much in evidence, as is an increasing drive towards employee involvement in continuous improvement.
The principal cell producing connector jacks for British Telecom, for instance, had historically run with 31 people producing 37,000 jacks per week. By last May, an improvement programme initiated in August 1996 had transformed this into an operation that employed 23 people but produced 50,000 jacks per week. At the time of the judges' visit, further improvements had brought the cell half way towards its final target of 15 people and 50,000 jacks.
Curtis and his team are equally enthusiastic about the rewards of a company-wide business process re-engineering exercise that is now close to completion.
Involving £400,000 of investment over 18 months - 'most of which was a dedicated project team on a full-time, fully cost-justified basis' - the exercise has resulted in significant benefits: a sharp fall in process costs, improved stockturns, improved customer service and better relationships with suppliers.
With devastating logic, the associated process-oriented realignment of job descriptions has seen, for example, production manager Sarah Smith's title become 'Fulfil Customer Order Process Manager' and her role embrace sales order receipt, quality and supply chain development, in addition to responsibility for manufacturing. It may be a bit of a mouthful, but any connection with the company's German antecedents is vigorously denied.
Krone (UK) Technique
Activity: Electrical connector manufacture
Task: Mass production of precisely-engineered, low-cost connectors
Size: 340 employees
Outstanding Features: Continuous improvement, cellular production, commitment to excellence, quick changeovers
Electronics & Electrical
Sponsor: Exel Logistics
Exel Logistics is Europe's leading supplier of logistics services.
The company also operates across North America and Southeast Asia. It manages the flow of information and customer products from raw materials through manufacturing and retailing to the final point of consumption.
Its services range from the design and management of international supply chain and systems integration services, to the simple provision of distribution, warehousing and transport resources. Its operational excellence is built on innovation and process management, delivering consistency of service and efficient use of resources.