Sponsor - Exel Logistics.
Many 1980s icons of manufacturing excellence were forced to rethink their approach by the cold winds of competition that blew through British industry that decade. The electronics industry suffered particularly badly, and not a few former 'factories of the future' are now relegated to the second division. Not so Xerox's vast 3,000-employee Mitcheldean facility near Gloucester, where the company's commitment to manufacturing excellence, so evident in the 1980s, remains undimmed. There have been changes, of course. The Xerox Electronics Manufacturing Centre, highly commended in this year's Electronics and Electrical category, operates in a way that is 'completely different from the traditional vertically integrated business model', observes general manager Yves Zucconi.
Although the centre is still very much a part of the electronic giant's monolithic global manufacturing and supply chain, the rules have changed.
These days, if Xerox factories can buy any of the 150 or so variants of circuit boards that the factory produces more effectively from a third party, they are free to do so. Equally, Zucconi is free to sell outside the company: today, a quarter of the factory's output goes to non-Xerox customers, a proportion that is scheduled to reach 40% within two years.
Adapting to this environment has forced the factory to adopt a number of interesting innovations. Zucconi speaks glowingly of 'virtual factories', a reference to the outsourcing of manually intensive operations. A small army of local homeworkers assembles wiring harnesses at a highly attractive hourly rate; a partnership with Sony in Wales sees a comparable operation carried on a piece-rate basis for just 40% of what it would cost to perform internally.
A high proportion of the factory's direct employees - 44% - are contractors hired from a national agency, some of whom have been at the plant for seven years. They are paid the same as the Xerox employees who work alongside them, but provide a useful buffer against demand fluctuation.
Mindful - in the memorable words of a previous Best Factory winner that 'a free brain comes with every pair of hands', the factory has an extensive array of education, training and personal development initiatives in place.
The work of the continuous improvement teams is very evident, as are some of their suggestions. The judges particularly liked the replacement of log books in supervisors' offices with washable memo boards attached to each machine: a simple yet surprisingly effective communications device. Equally powerful has been the adopting of a single set of flow solder settings for every product - an instance of process consistency that, in Zucconi's words, 'means that we're no longer conducting a chemistry experiment with every batch'.
Xerox Electronics Manufacturing Centre
Activity: Printed circuit board manufacture
Task: Low-cost production of medium-sized batches in a market-testing environment
Size: 260 employees
Outstanding Features: Cost-cutting initiatives, process control, human resource management.