UK: ELECTRONICS & ELECTRICAL - BEST FACTORY. - Sponsored by International Factors - Sun Microsystems Scotland.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Sponsored by International Factors - Sun Microsystems Scotland.

Sun Microsystems Scotland

Activity: Computer manufacture

Task:Circuit board manufacture and assembly of hi-tech computers

Complexity: High

Size: 600 employees

Outstanding Features: Technology absorption, test engineering, commitment to excellence

It is by no means unknown for judges to groan inwardly when they find their attention drawn to a factory mission statement. Surely managers cannot really expect employees to understand - let alone strive to satisfy - such convoluted objectives so laboriously expressed. The mission statement of Sun Microsystems' Linlithgow plant 'took a minute and a half to write', says Hugh Aitken, the company's manufacturing director for Europe. It declares, in one short sentence, the unit's intention of creating a world-class manufacturing environment which will be the industry benchmark.

'I envy Toshiba, Marks & Spencer and United Distillers,' says Aitken.

'I want others to envy us.'

There is a great deal for others to envy. The factory is no minor adjunct to a much larger US operation. Although set up as recently as 1990, it manufactures half of Sun's output of computers - approximately £600 million-worth. Europe and Japan are supplied from Linlithgow, while a sister plant in California serves the rest of the world - using circuit boards that are in many cases also produced in Linlithgow. Japan takes roughly 40% of the factory's output - 'more, in dollar terms, than the entire Scottish whisky industry,' claims Aitken.

This global arrangement accounts for Linlithgow's considerable complexity. Although a distribution operation in Holland carries out a lot of localisation, the factory produces virtually every computer in the Sun range - which these days extends far beyond high-powered workstations. The company's latest enterprise-sized machines, for example, 'offer mainframe power at a quarter to a third of the price'.

Naturally, high technology is everywhere to be found. Test engineering is loudly proclaimed to be a core competence. Fast surface mount lines - recently redesigned to incorporate the latest fusion equipment - are complemented by a tape automated bonding capability which Aitken claims to be the fastest in the industry. Even newer is the 'ball grid array' technology. This employs components with tiny balls on the bottom in place of the usual pins, allowing every device three times as many input/output connections in a given area.

Operatives are well-versed in the terminology of statistical process control, and employ it freely. But in place of the conventional kaizen model, the factory has adopted its own English-language 'Five-S' formula for manufacturing excellence: Structurise, Systemise, Sanitise, Standardise and Self-discipline. 'We're tempted to add a sixth,' says Aitken: 'the Success which results.'

As things are, the judges were hard put to fault any aspect of factory floor operations. Attention to detail appears absolute. Even in fairly trivial matters - employees' earth testing records, for instance, which are so often found wanting in other electronics factories - performance was irreproachable. Management attributes this high standard, at least partly, to quality-oriented initiatives such as the Business Excellence model, but it's clear that the close corporate links forged with Toshiba have a bearing too.

Toshiba prompted a $4 million move into cell-based manufacture. It lies behind a recently-adopted 'half programme': to get down to half the present level of costs with half the number of processes, simultaneously to 'ramp up' new products to a given volume in half today's time, and so on. Toshiba's influence can also be seen in the decision to highlight the local culture as an area for strengthening. Over the past 18 months the plant has been focusing on people-based initiatives, including the Investors in People award and continuous improvement teams, and has introduced standardised employee workwear. A heavy reliance on temporary labour to cope with peaks and troughs has already been overcome. 'The churn rate was too high: we were just training people for other companies,' says Aitken.

It was one more step in a highly successful evolution, a process which Aitken is in no doubt will continue. 'I don't know what world-class really means,' he confesses.

'I do know that I expect to be able to taste it and feel it when I get there.'

Electronics & Electrical - Award

Sponsor: International Factors

International Factors launched the UK's factoring industry in 1960 and remains one of the country's leading invoice finance companies, providing £500 million to over 2,300 clients. With 12 regional offices in the UK, International Factors offers tailored and local expertise.

Clients vary from start-ups and family-owned businesses to international plcs, with 41% of clients based in manufacturing industry. Invoice finance is a particularly flexible form of funding providing finance for growth and expansion, as well as funding a range of deals including MBO/MBIs and acquisitions.

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