ACTIVITY: production of telecommunications equipment
TASK: low-volume manufacture of technically complex products
SIZE: 315 employees
OUTSTANDING FEATURES: ability to manufacture and test low volumes of technically complex product
The annual Judges' Special Award is designed to recognise factories which achieve impressive levels of excellence in particular aspects of their operations, even though their overall level of excellence might fall short of that exhibited by other entrants. The award grew from an observation by the judges that although all-round excellence is rare indeed, many good factories were reaping the rewards of efforts made to transform particular aspects of their operation.
Previous winners have included the superb implementation of assembly cells at the Belfast-based European Components Corporation, the automated transfer lines and cells that support the mass-production of electronic devices at Honeywell's Motherwell factory, and the extensive computer-based pre-production activities that support factory floor operations at Fujitsu Telecommunications' Birmingham factory. It should not be imagined that the award is a consolation prize. It is a genuine recognition of world-class excellence in a highly focused area.
The winner of this year's Judges' Special Award is another telecommunications company: Siemens Communications' Beeston plant. The factory produces telecommunications equipment, notably 'switches', or exchanges, for private business-use voice-related networks - internal telephone systems. Paul Maher, the operations director, is quick to point out that such a description now rather belies the complexities involved, thanks to multimedia, ISDN, GSM, video-imaging and the internet. In just six years, the number of connected personal computers for business use within the UK has tripled, far outstripping the growth rate of telephones within businesses.
'The world is in transition,' explains Maher: not only is the amount of bandwidth reaching the average desktop growing exponentially but the requirements of business customers themselves are changing. Thanks to downsizing, teleworking and the onset of the 'virtual' organisation, businesses' preference is towards smaller and more customised switches. 'Five years ago, the typical switch had 500 lines,' says Maher. 'Now it's 200.' The leading-edge networks that the company installs for customers such as Ford, Glaxo, Asda, Marks & Spencer and IBM are designed to embrace all of these, seamlessly terminating at a computer on a desktop, the telephone adjacent to it, or the cordless phone the users carry when away from their desks.
From the manufacturing point of view these two trends pose a difficult challenge. The printed circuit boards that comprise each switch are very complex - containing up to 14 layers of internal circuitry. The Beeston plant is the only winning entrant in this year's awards whose complexity score, contained in the box above, rated as high.
With this complexity goes the challenge of exceptionally low volumes: the average batch size, says Maher, is less than 30 boards. The solution? A rigid approach to standardisation. In addition to slashing the supplier base from 400 in 1994 to 130 in this year, a lot of work has gone into what Maher describes as 'standard loading'. This aims to ensure that components are in standard positions on the insertion machines, and that board designers then utilise this standardisation (as well as the reduced supplier base) to employ the same components wherever possible, thus avoiding unnecessary changeovers. 'Set-ups take just minutes now,' says Maher.