UK: ENGINEERING INDUSTRY - BEST FACTORY. - Sponsored by Siemens Nixdorf PDM Solutions Division - Pilkington PE.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Sponsored by Siemens Nixdorf PDM Solutions Division - Pilkington PE.

Pilkington PE

Activity: Production of electro-optical devices

Task: Manufacture, assembly and test of hi-tech glass, plastics and metals to exacting tolerances and product specifications

Complexity: High

Size: 480 employees

Outstanding Features: Breadth of complex manufacturing and product technologies, development of laboratory processes for production purposes, people involvement

The Pilkington Optronics' factory in St Asaph, Clwyd contrasts sharply with engineering category winners of previous years. Mass production, humming assembly lines and kanban-driven just-in-time procedures are noticeably absent. On the contrary, as general manager Denis Welch declares bluntly: 'We're a Class A MRP (manufacturing resource planning) factory - and proud of it.' It is soon apparent, though, that there is much else here for Pilkington to be proud of. In producing what it does, the factory operates at the boundary of the technically possible. And if the pace at times resembles that of a research laboratory, it is because many of the processes on show are only one step - if that - removed from the laboratory.

Competitors evidently find it difficult to emulate certain of the factory's capabilities. Take hi-tech 'head up' displays: vital instrumentation which is built into the windscreens of - especially - military aircraft to help pilots react instantaneously. Over the past 25 years, Welch points out, the factory has produced 'more displays than every other competitor put together'. Since the entire output of this product over the quarter-century amounts to no more than 12,000 displays, it is clear that something less than mass production is involved. But the factory has the distinction of being the only sole supplier on the US F16 fighter programme, for example. 'It's a British success story,' proclaims manufacturing manager Michael Peoples. 'No one else seems able to master the hologram technology.'

In addition to head-up displays, the factory produces sights for fighting vehicles such as Chieftain, Challenger and Warrior, image intensifiers, imaging systems for military aircraft - also for rifles - and laser protection for pilots' goggles.

It is a complex range of products, calling for mastery of numerous manufacturing processes and technologies, mostly under exacting clean-room conditions. Efficient and reliable assembly of what are inevitably small batches are also an important aspect of the operation.

So is an ample capability in the area of design and development. But the factory 'builds to print', as well as to its own drawings. ('At the manufacturing level, we can certainly tell the difference between the two,' according to Welch.) In a well-equipped machine shop, computer-controlled machining centres work - to impressive tolerances - on plastics, aluminium alloys, stainless steel and titanium. In the optical shop, over 200 grades of optical glass and infra-red sensitive materials are precision ground to make lenses, prisms and mirrors. Thanks to heavy investment in equipment - such as laser interferometers - grinding and polishing of glass are relatively straightforward. Some of the more exotic materials are another matter. 'With KRS5, it's like polishing a piece of cheese,' says Peoples.

Having been polished to specification, most optical components are vacuum coated under clean-room conditions. Electron beam guns and ion-assisted deposition units apply one or more of 300 coatings, depending on final application. But this pales by comparison with the holography unit, which is said to be 'one of only three manufacturing units of this scale in the world' and capable of producing over 100 holograms a month. 'Some people struggle to do that in a year,' says Welch. The process was developed in-house and its adaptation to production needs earned the factory a Queen's Award.

Nor has the people side of the business been neglected. Continuous improvement activities abound under the CAPS - Common Approach to Problem Solving - banner. ('We don't like the word kaizen,' says Peoples.) An education and values-generation programme has helped the operation adjust to the newly competitive military commercial environment. This factory may differ in certain respects from others that the judges have seen in recent years, but without doubt it's a worthy winner.

Engineering Award - Sponsor: Siemens Nixdorf

PDM Solutions Division

Siemens Nixdorf is the largest European IT supplier with a turnover of DM12.8 billion.

The company employs 37,000 worldwide and operates in more than 45 countries.

Siemens Nixdorf provides IT solutions for industry and has the capability and resources to manage the largest and most complex IT projects. Through a partnership with SAP, the company offers the R/3 enterprise resource planning system and through a dedicated division markets industry-leading Product Data Management (PDM) solutions.

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