ACTIVITY: mobile telephone manufacture
TASK: high-volume manufacture of printed circuit boards (PCBs) and assembled telephones
COMPLEXITY: low to medium
SIZE: 1,200 employees
OUTSTANDING FEATURES: cellular manufacture, successful transition to high-volume production, innovative working patterns
At the time of last year's awards, there were around 100 million cellular telephone subscribers around the world. There are now roughly 200 million - and by next year, forecasters are anticipating over 300 million. In addition, existing subscribers are upgrading, exchanging their present mobile phones for ones that are even smaller, have longer battery lives and are packed with more features.
The Swedish electronics giant, Ericsson, one of the market leaders in telecommunications, has seen that growth reflected in its European mobile phone manufacturing operations - and, in particular, at its Worksop plant, this year's Most Improved Factory. In a world that has grown accustomed to seeing volume increases largely met through productivity improvements and automation, such extraordinary growth - and the attendant pace of new product introduction and innovation - can easily become too much to handle.
The challenge for the Worksop plant has been twofold. For most of its life, it has been a facility designed to manufacture a very different range of products: large base stations and other telecommunications infrastructure, rather than mass-market, high-volume handheld devices of ever smaller sizes. New products, very different manufacturing skills, phenomenal growth: could the factory cope without compromising quality, productivity or cost-efficiency? The answer, as the plant's annual submissions to the Best Factory Awards process makes clear, is yes.
It has not been easy, admits Rash Sahota, operations director. In just a year, he explains, the factory has doubled its workforce, from 600 to over 1,200 - necessitating a massive amount of training, and placing an exceptional reliance on the factory's quality and manufacturing systems. These cleverly blend Japanese-style techniques aimed at low levels of work-in-progress and rapid defect detection with strategies to wring every ounce of utilisation out of the factory's equipment. 'We think of it as cellular production in a mass-production environment,' says Sahota.
The component stores that feed the printed circuit board surface mount lines are driven by kanbans originating from the pre-kitting trolleys that are adjacent to each machine. Out on the assembly lines, the same slick process takes the boards and marries them to the cases and other component modules that are required to turn them into phones. As each successive generation of phone enters production, so the cells themselves have become more sophisticated in their use of ergonomics: jigs, tools and racks of components placed close at hand, minimising wasted effort and squeezing more output from each hour of production.
The drive to increase the utilisation of equipment has also brought about a change in working patterns, explains Sahota. Employees used to work 8-hour shifts, 24 hours a day over a five-day week, supplemented by a 26-hour weekend shift - 'which meant that three-quarters of the workforce rarely saw management'. Now, they work 12-hour 'continental' shifts, on a seven-day basis, following a pattern of two days on, three days off.
Employees themselves selected this particular pattern from around six that were presented to them by management.
The change met managerial objectives: contact is much greater, continuous improvement initiatives have received a boost and additional capital expenditure that would otherwise have been necessary has been avoided. It has also proved popular with employees. The pattern chosen not only maximises the number of weekends off but means that one weekend in two is three days.
What's more, enthuses Sahota, as the working pattern cycles around each month, 'it's extremely predictable - so everybody knows where they stand.
If someone has a wedding to attend in five months' time, they know immediately if they are supposed to be at work then or not.'
Recognised as one of the most crucial factors in improving business performance, company location is rising to the top of the boardroom agenda. For the first time location is being identified as a major untapped source of change, capable of delivering long-term competitive advantage. Government agency CNT can help businesses throught the maze of options. It has the expertise and choice of top-class locations to make businesses better.