In the West Midlands a company has developed a product that will save hundreds of thousands of hours on fastening structures like panels to frames, for the energy generation and construction industries. Edward Machin meets Alcoa Fastening Systems UK to talk company-wide staff training and global performance systems, and gets to grips with the unique BobTail®.
Manufacturers up and down the land boast about the revolutionary, one-of-akind nature of their designs and products. But talk can be cheap. For Alcoa Fastening Systems UK (AFS) — a subsidiary of Alcoa Inc, the world’s third largest producer of aluminum — however, the current mood is that of a company with legitimate reason to wax lyrical. The Telfordbased manufacturer of fasteners, lockbolts, blind rivets and installation tools may just have a sector-defining product on its hands.
Launched to overcome the inherent weaknesses of standard lockbolts, the BobTail fastening system is designed without a traditional pin-tail, delivering the elixir that Alcoa’s industry has long sought: zero wastage. Stefan Biela, the company’s manufacturing manager, takes up the story. “Essentially, fasteners designed with a nut and bolt feature require periodic retightening. With the BobTail you do it once only — a process that takes two seconds maximum, with no waste material whatsoever,” he says. The BobTail is much quicker to apply and fasten than a conventional thread fastener, using the special applicator gun in an operation that takes seconds. “When you’re talking about solar fields [concentrated solar power, or CSP], which may require hundreds of thousands of these mirror devices, we’re saving the maintenance team a lot of time.”
With a single order of 300,000 devices being installed by a customer in mid-November, those at AFS are understandably energised by their new discovery. While not designed with solar power technology in mind, the company is registering interest in markets well beyond the BobTail’s predicted sphere of influence. “I’ve been told that you can see the solar farms from space, and we’ve got a fundamental component of this burgeoning technology,” says Alcoa Business System manager, Jonathan Griffiths. Purchasing both the raw materials and from within the UK and further afield, not only is the wider UK supply chain benefiting from a bona fide success story, but Telford — not immediately considered as a manufacturing hub — and the local community find themselves benefiting from AFS’s success, too. “If BobTail was based on nuts and bolts then, yes, the work might go to China,” adds Biela. “But we’ve got the technology, techniques and skills to sell — the result of which means that this industry-leading product is, and will continue to be, manufactured in the UK.”
Getting down to business improvement techniques
“The first thing many companies do during recessionary times is cut back on staff training – we did the opposite,” says Griffiths. In 2009, co-funded with Telford College of Arts & Technology, AFS undertook a programme of NVQs for every employee on site: Level 2 in both Performing Manufacturing Operations and Warehousing, and Level 3 Business Improvement Techniques (BIT) for those in management roles.
“Sixteen people finished the NVQ BIT programme in June, with another batch currently going through the course,” explains Biela. “All activities and learning are conducted on the job. It’s similar to a doctor’s surgery, where the assessors come to us once a week and staff update them as to how the previous week has gone.” Unlike standard NVQs, the Business Improvement Techniques qualification is considered degree-level study, centering on the methods and tools of lean manufacturing, based on the Toyota Production System.
With all trainee engineers, deputies and cell managers being NVQ Level 3-accredited, Biela and his cohorts are looking to roll out Level 3 qualifications throughout the manufacturing side of the business. Unlike the other NVQs, which are necessarily more focused on assessing whether the person does his or her job to a national standard, the NVQ BIT has a stronger focus on delivering back to the business, be that in terms of cost, quality, time, or health and safety metrics.
Jonathan Griffiths says this focus on continuous improvement is a particularly pleasing aspect of AFS’s drive to combat what have been challenging times for British manufacturing. “We regularly receive visits from both management and engineers in the US, France and further afield, because the staff development work we do is looked upon favourably across the group,” he says. “In the US, for example, there isn’t any form of national qualification like the NVQ. They’d love to take the BIT programme and implement it in their plants, so we’re very much an exemplar in that respect.”
Lean on me
Central to maintaining AFS UK’s global reputation within Alcoa is the Alcoa Business System (ABS), a group-wide performance standard. The integrated set of systems, tools and language is organised around three core standards: (i) make to use (ii) eliminate waste, and (iii) people are the lynchpin in the system. “We don’t always want to reference Toyota,” says Biela, “but every one of their global plants works along a single system. Where I see the strength for our location is that we very much attack the business in a similar way. I mean that there is a huge difference between ordinary production and the ABS, the latter being focused on a multi-departmental approach to the way our business runs. It’s a complete shift towards lean manufacturing philosophies, in other words.
“We conduct regular continuous improvement activities so as to achieve this holistic approach to manufacturing.
Last week, we undertook an exercise with distribution and customer services around how to improve information flow. With ABS, things go from very production-heavy changes to the softer side of how an organisation runs. I’ve lost count of the times I hear about business failings due to inter-departmental communication blockages; for that reason ABS is heavily focused on people.” Because Alcoa sites are attuned to the benefits of the organisational approach, the AFS Global head office in Waco, Texas continuously benchmarks each business unit’s performance. “When we report to Waco, detailed discussion around our site’s ABS figures is expected. If it isn’t raised the inference is that we don’t consider it important,” says Biela. “A lot of companies that ‘do’ lean give it twenty minutes here and there. At AFS it’s fundamental to the fabric of our operations: health and safety; continuous improvement; quality – every single day.
Yes, the acronyms and buzzwords have their place, but the big principles remain so much more important.” At the operations level, having recently recorded November’s ABS metrics, Griffiths reports an exposure rate of 65% — the percentage of employees on site who have been involved in ABS for any particular month. Measured both internally and by AFS’s external operational excellence audit, Telford was awarded three Best Practice grades on the last review. These techniques are shared with the wider group. “The company is due another audit later this month, which we can’t wait for,” says Griffiths. “We’re sprinting into 2011, and relish each and every opportunity to both demonstrate and benchmark the advances being undertaken at Telford. To the future, then!” Meanwhile, quite how much the BobTail fastener will revolutionise the fastening applications market remains to be seen. Judging by the size of the single 300,000 unit order last month though, AFS is bullish that the solar energy market and other general engineering applications will take its company even further up the growth curve. Productivity will be essential, however, and the NVQ BIT programme is confronting that question with solutions.