'Inspirational' was the judges' reaction to Allevard Springs in Clydach Vale, Mid-Glamorgan. The factory positions itself as a 'high quality, low cost producer' of vehicle springs. There is no contradiction in this claim, managing director Gerry Long insists. 'We take the view that if you get your quality right, your costs come down.' The manufacturing process is straightforward. Steel rod is cut to length, heated to 930oC, tightly wound around a mandrel, quenched, tempered, shot peined and painted. The decision to concentrate on coil springs dates from 1990, when the company was acquired by Allevard, the French spring manufacturer, and installed in its present purpose-built factory. Its commercial strategy these days is to concentrate on particular corners of the coil spring market, and provide a high quality service to its three customers - Ford, Vauxhall and Rover/Honda.
The factory has its own CAD system for spring and tooling design. However the main effort has gone into developing production expertise. The key piece of plant, the coiler that turns straight rods into springs, is the fastest in Europe. 'We looked all over the world before buying it,' says Long. Much effort has gone into rapid changeover techniques. Although Clydach is already the fastest factory in the Allevard group, management knows what it must do to be quicker still. As far as possible, changeovers are engineered to be 'right first time', with no resets. This applies above all to the bottleneck coiler. Reliability and preventative maintenance procedures are in place. And machine down-time is collated and analysed by spreadsheet - in the case of the coiler under 40 distinct subheadings.
In another industry, Allevard Springs' performance would have made it a strong contender for Best Factory of its sector. Being in the tough automotive components business, however, it has to settle for being the Best in Wales. Nevertheless, the factory has many lessons for businesses all over the UK.