Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Fujitsu Telecommunications Europe

Activity: Telecommunications products

Task: Design and assembly of telecommunication devices for telephone utilities

Complexity: Medium

Size: 530 employees

Outstanding Features: Pre-production design and modelling capabilities

The Judges' Special Award was created in order to recognise factories which have achieved impressive levels of performance in particular aspects of their operations. Past awards have been made, for example, for the superb implementation of assembly cells at Belfast-based European Components Corporation, and for the automated transfer lines and cells supporting mass-production of electronic devices at Honeywell Control Systems' plant in Scotland.

This year's winner, Fujitsu Telecommunications' Birmingham factory, offers another of those breaks with tradition that seem to typify these awards.

At Fujitsu Telecommunications, manufacturing excellence is found off the factory floor, rather than on it. Specifically, the judges were highly impressed with the computer-based pre-production activities that support factory-floor operations.

Many factories possess some capability in Computer Aided Design (CAD).

Few take CAD to the lengths seen at Fujitsu Telecommunications - or link it so comprehensively to manufacturing processes, both internal and at suppliers. 'Full board simulation' of a printed circuit board, for example, is often fudged or simply forgotten. One reason is the investment required: hardware modelling machines can cost £250,000. But to neglect full board simulation means that some faults will only emerge in the field, or perhaps in trials undertaken with prototypes. Not at Fujitsu Telecommunications where, says managing director Tim Pickup, 'We're now getting a lot of our designs right first time'.

Using specialist computational thermal dynamics software, the factory can also model the air flow around groups of boards, and so predict where generated heat will build up inside a cabinet. A single PCB might take an hour to simulate on a fast workstation. Larger simulations might run over a weekend, and a big cabinet filled with boards might need up to a week to produce the answers. But the answers will be ready before a single real PCB is manufactured.

Nor is this design excellence confined to electronic circuitry. With injection moulding equipment, mould flow analysis is used to predict how the tool will fill with molten plastic. With steelwork such as cabinets and casings, the computer cleverly 'flattens' the design into a sheet, showing the location of the laser-cut slits that will enable the steel to be folded into a cube. 'We've had to go up-market in terms of our supplier base in order to exploit this capability,' says Pickup. 'Suppliers do need to have computer-controlled machine tools.'

The benefits extend beyond quality, cost and shortened development times: 'We've had people turn up at suppliers with a CAD file on disk, and drive away an hour later with the component that we needed,' says Pickup. 'We aim to eliminate the divide between design and manufacturing,' adds manufacturing director Malcolm Aylott. Goods inwards inspection is straight from the CAD screen, not from the drawing. Similarly, computer-programmed machine tool instructions come from the CAD file, avoiding the need to go through intermediary stages: 'That way we cut out two sources of error,' Aylott points out.

If this sounds all very Japanese, there is little else in the factory that comes from Japan, in spite of the name. In fact, the business goes back 100 years and until 1991 was wholly owned by British Telecom.

BT was once the sole customer, but these days a growing share of output goes to other utilities around the world. Aiming steadily at the growing optical fibre market, the new owner Fujitsu has pumped in massive amounts of investment since 1993 - some £17 million, in fact, excluding the cost of moving to a new site. Otherwise, says Pickup, the Japanese parent has adopted a hands-off approach to the Birmingham operation.

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