UK: MANAGEMENT TODAY - BEST FACTORIES AWARDS 1993. - Small Company Award - Best Small Company - Dalau.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Small Company Award - Best Small Company - Dalau.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) - the space programme by-product found in non-stick cookware, plumbers' tape and heart implants - is inert, naturally slippery and an electrical insulator. Within a temperature range of +260oC no known chemicals will attack it. Nor will it melt, degrade or carbonise. Dalau, a small family-owned company on an industrial estate at Clacton, Essex, specialises in doing things with PTFE that few other businesses can do.

Dalau was founded - in his kitchen - in 1955 by chairman David Sage, father of the four sons and one daughter who run this 80-strong company today. At first the business was based wholly on the manufacture of insulator mouldings for Marconi. Later came developments in extruded PTFE, using equipment designed and constructed by Sage himself, while the mouldings side expanded gradually in parallel. Rolled film and strip followed on - not for plumbers' tape, as it happens, but for engineering applications such as gaskets for Daimler-Benz. These days almost three-quarters of the factory's output is exported.

The transition from manufacturer of other people's semi-finished raw material to producer of finished components came about largely by accident. 'We were always getting calls from people saying: "How do you machine this stuff?"' says David Sage junior, managing director since 1990. It was a reasonable question. A machine tool bit that will cut brass for days on end may last only a few hours when working with PTFE. And yet, since PTFE has no melt-flow properties, tiny components only a fraction of an inch long have to be machined individually. Today the machining of components dominates the business, and occupies the greater part of the factory area.

Other processes, it's true, are highly economical with floor space. Extruded rods of PTFE are produced in an area whose ground plan is little greater than that of a domestic garage. However the process extends almost three storeys in height, the rods being slowly extruded, one press stroke at a time, into deep pits in the floor. Moulded blocks are veneered into strips in a workshop which takes up only a slightly bigger area. The remainder of the 14,000 sq.ft which the company occupies is given over to machining.

A lot of machining activity has been packed into this space, which also contains most of the obvious examples of excellence in manufacturing. Yet Dalau's style is nothing if not understated. Management seems scarcely aware of all the razzmatazz so frequently associated with manufacturing in the 1990s - which was so loudly trumpeted by some other entrants to this year's competition. The company has already achieved the kind of cultural environment that many managements - especially those in larger businesses - are so painfully and publicly striving towards. The visitor will look in vain for noticeboards recording the progress of manufacturing cells in their struggle for continuous improvement, or any of the other paraphernalia of Total Quality programmes. What he will see are workers quietly going about their business, setting machines, taking micrometer readings, pacing themselves through their own weekly schedules.

Dalau has brought in skilled machinists and setters from all over the country, willingly paying relocation expenses to get people of the right quality. Thus Larry Warren will happily explain the intricacies of the carbon-tipped tools he is using, and knowledgeably discuss PTFE's malleability characteristics at varying thicknesses. Clive Arber, who has been with the company five years - and like Warren has a general engineering background - is working under production conditions in the training room, and driving himself hard. If he makes the grade as a cell setter he will have four machine-tools and an operator to keep busy.

Statistical process control is employed extensively throughout, the operators entering their readings into the computers and interpreting the results themselves. Software for the system does not come off-the-shelf. It was written in-house by the company's own programmer - on the principle that 'We couldn't find exactly what we wanted, and we weren't going to settle for second best'.

Other companies might measure their performance against the Japanese or the Americans. Dalau tracks the Swiss. Its biggest European competitor is based in Switzerland, which is also where its slickest precision machinery comes from. (It was developed, interestingly, under the influence of the Swiss watchmaking industry.) Swiss influence might possibly explain the company's attitude towards finance, which is neatly summarised by Sage. 'Cash positive and self-financing,' he says.

Activity: PTFE extrusion, moulding and machining

Task: Manufacturing components for the medical, aerospace and automotive industries

Complexity: Average

Size: Under 100 employees

Outstanding Features: Empowerment, quality control, use of space, precision machining.

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