TM meets Fascia Graphics, a Wiltshire-based manufacturer of membrane keypads which has seen both profits and staff numbers hit an all-time high during the recession. It’s taking the supply chain along for the cost-saving ride, too…
Beginning life in 1994 with a customer base of 40 and first year turnover of £130,000, 2011 finds Fascia Graphics supplying in excess of 600 customers, with turnover nearing £3.26m. Having seen growth year-on-year, expansion into Asia, Europe and the United States, and an employee increase of 20%, this manufacturer of graphic overlays, membrane keypads, keyboards and switches shows no sign of slowing either. Indeed, such has been its rate of growth that in 2005 new premises were required: initially a 13,000 sq ft facility in Chippenham, which has been extended by a further 2,000 sq ft due to increased customer demand — including a remarkable 40 new customers during a two month period in 2009.
And the secret to the company’s success? “We’ve long prided ourselves on operating with industry-leading turnaround times,” says Michael Hole, Fascia’s engineering manager. “So, if a customer needs a product in a certain place at a certain time, we’ll add extra shifts to make it happen.” Indeed, coupling a 24 hour shift pattern with Fascia’s digital prototyping service — ensuring low cost, pre-production prototypes with very fast turnaround — means the company can operate at a speed which the majority of its competitors simply can’t match.
“For me,” says Gary Knowles, the company’s operations manager, “Fascia has an excellent record in customer service, and the quality of our product is second to none. I’d put our continued growth down largely to the expertise and experience our guys have gained and trained during their years of service at the company — an average of seven years per employee. We’re continually looking to pass on information, hints and tips about our processes to the staff in each department: from sales, engineering and design through to production.” Central to such joined-up knowledge is the company’s fully computerised production system, linking shopfloor and office alike, and enabling its controllers to accurately predict — and thus plan for — production requirements up to three weeks in advance.
Sounds like lean manufacturing to me. “You’re not wrong,” says Knowles.
“We worked with a company called Train to Gain in late 2007, kicking off our lean journey. Also, a number of the guys undertook offsite training with a provider through Wiltshire College, and from that we’ve brought on board a number of the techniques they picked up there.” More recently, Fascia has been working with the SW Manufacturing Association — “More on the 5S side of things,” continues Knowles. “It’s very much about improving your efficiencies, making sure that the areas you work in and with are tidy, and that you have the tools to work with rather than requiring a lot of transportation and looking for parts.” “The three supervisors who have been undertaking the training will disseminate the knowledge to their staff, promote it and then look to get everybody involved in the implementation of things,” he continues. “This is crucial; rather than bamboozling staff with complex diagrams and terminology, they are all involved from the outset. When it was being implemented in the first part of the business, people from the other areas were asking, ‘What’s going on? How we can get involved?’, and so on, which is hugely pleasing. The idea now is to roll it out over the entire site, while continually auditing and improving things as we go.”
Lean to green
To remain flexible, a company needs flexible staff.
“Apprentices are, of course, key to our continued growth,” explains Hole. “However, we’ve recently looked to bring in a number of experienced senior staff to complement such youthful vigour” — Fascia’s QA manager, Mike Blanchard, appointed in December 2010, being a case in point. With 25 years experience in quality management, bringing the management team’s expertise to over half a century in total, Blanchard has already begun to introduce process preventative action plans, and is currently reviewing Fascia’s quality management system, too.
Fascia Graphics – At a glance
At a glance
Location Bath Road Industrial Estate, Chippenham, Wiltshire
“Myself and Gary started on the shop floor, and worked our way up through the company,” says Hole. “Given that I work at the engineering and front-end stage of things, we spend much of our day looking to find solutions to customer requirements. The experience I’ve gained from the shop floor up means that, for me at least, I can rapidly understand the most cost-effective way of undertaking a project.”
And for Fascia, a manufacturer whose products are regularly used in the most hostile environments (bomb disposal robots and operating theatres, among others), cost-effective product quality remains the benchmark for world class production. “There are a handful of companies leading the way in our industry, of which we are one — as well as being the market leader in keypads and graphic overlays,” says Knowles.
“While our competitors largely all existed prior to Fascia’s inception, by covering the country with sales personnel we look to maximise opportunities wherever possible.” With six people in our sales team — three on the road; three taking enquiries as they come in — Fascia enjoys full coverage of the UK and Ireland as a result. Of equal importance, however, is the fact that as raw material costs have increased across the industry, those at the company have met such challenges with equally inventive responses. Says Hole, “Lean and the continuous improvement processes allowed us to swallow up a lot of the raw material costs without affecting profitability. By clever business practices internally, we’ve managed to maintain highly competitive costs to our customers. And word gets around that in tough times there is an industry leading company choosing to pass on price increases, so business almost wins itself.” Doing whatever it can to maximise these business wins, the company has undergone a significant sustainability drive: recycling its waste and implementing a power management system and motion-sensitive lighting to reduce energy usage across the shop floor. The savings don’t stop there, though. Working with customers who may require multiple deliveries per week, Fascia will look to implement an arrangement whereby deliveries are reduced and/or condensed — thereby saving time on the road and, as a result, the environment.
This initiative, together with Fascia’s Value Engineered Review (FVER) – which identifies cost cutting exercises across its customer base to avoid margin erosion, has realised savings of between five and twenty per cent for those in the company’s supply chain. “We can make suggestions around materials, adhesives, specifications of parts — you name it,” says Hole, “using our joint technical knowledge to ensure that customers receive the most costefficient, high-quality product possible.” A British SME ensuring its customers don’t get left behind in the savings game; things don’t get much better than that, do they?