Building on success

Posted on 1 Mar 2010 by The Manufacturer

TM meets Premier Interlink (Waco UK), a modular buildings manufacturer for whom continuous improvement and staff engagement drives sit at the heart of its achievements. Edward Machin reports.

Producing over 200 modules — i.e. 7,000m2 — per month at its facility in Brandesburton, Yorkshire, Premier Interlink design and manufacture steel-framed modular buildings for both sale and hire in the custodial, healthcare, education, student accommodation, construction and commercial markets. Formed by the merger of Premier Transline Group and Interlink Building Systems in 2004, Premier Interlink, also known as Waco UK Ltd, is a subsidiary of Waco International Ltd — a £400m turnover group with corporate headquarters in South Africa and a global staff count totaling 4,000.

Says Production Director, Chris Walker, “Waco International’s subsidiaries are market leading producers of modular structures, formwork and scaffolding solutions in Australia, New Zealand, Southern Africa and Chile.

Within the UK, and in addition to our modules for sale, we have a hire fleet of approximately 5,000 units, turnover of £60m and a staff of 200.” Central to Premier Interlink’s position as an industry leading manufacturer is, maintains Mr Walker, its breadth of product portfolio. “Quite simply, we manufacture the most diverse, robust and efficient range of modular structures currently on the market,” he says. “Moreover, the company oversees one of the largest interchangeable hire fleets in the country, utilised by Bovis Lend Lease, Mace, Westfield Shoppingtowns, Stansted Airport and Royal Bank of Scotland, to name but five.” Regarding the former remit, the company’s products include PremierCell, a modular secure prison building which has received Ministry of Justice approval for use in Category B and C regimes and PremierPC, a steel framed unit for police custody suites and related uses. Clients include West Midlands Police, Trumpington Magistrates Court, the Scottish Prison Service and secure HMP sites throughout the country. PremierOne, the latest addition to the company’s product offering, is an economy class, single storey building currently being used in Wigan Hope School, among others.

Says Chris Walker, “With both ISO9001 and ISO1401 accreditation, Premier Interlink manufacture each building to the highest specifications, meeting Part L2a, DDA, and all sector specific regulations, as well as providing a 40 year guaranteed warranty on our structural and external cladding materials — far exceeding industry standard.” Furthermore, approximately 80% of the company’s construction is done off-site, a fact which is considered particularly important for the healthcare and education sectors — given that many of Premier Interlink’s projects are undertaken on ‘live’ sites, where installation efficiency is paramount.

Indeed, the most popular and most adaptable product in the company’s product portfolio, PremierPlus, has found particular success in catering for the medical market; installing multistorey modular buildings in healthcare facilities including Addenbrooke, Haywood, Stoke, Leicester, Manchester, Norwich and Bristol.

Confirms Walker, “We are increasing gaining traction in the healthcare sector, and, pleasingly, are winning the majority of our new business thanks to word of mouth recommendations between NHS trusts.

Together with repeat business from individual trusts, it is this willingness of clients to advocate on our behalf which ultimately demonstrates the viability of the Premier Interlink product portfolio and the expertise we have built up over the years.”

Go with the flow…
Since 2007, Premier Interlink has undertaken a fundamental transformation of its manufacturing processes, given both a synergy of production between the aforementioned merging companies and a decision to concentrate solely on the production of modular buildings.

“As a result, we implemented a flowline-based approach to manufacturing,” says Walker, “as well as incorporating work stations to ensure that the development of our new product ranges was done with optimum economy.” Accordingly, the company invested — to the tune of £250,000 — in a portfolio of machinery to effect the mandate, significant crangeage equipment being one such example.

The investment reaped almost immediate benefits. Says Walker: “Coupled with the craneage machinery, and installing state of the art CNC driven overhead routers and bandsaws, we also undertook a considerable investment in moving products around the facility as efficiently as possible.” Moreover, the company sought to minimise the amount of forklift trucks in operation, bringing tugs to move products within the manufacturing areas in their place. By keeping products as close to the ground as possible, says Walker, workplace safety is put at the forefront of the businesses’ remit. Such is evidenced by the company’s winning the British Safety Council’s prestigious ‘International Safety Award’ in 2009, presented to an organisation which demonstrates a clear commitment to health and safety practices.

“In addition to investing a significant amount in developing a culture of safe working practices,” says Walker, “the company has focused heavily on product engineering, ensuring that all that we manufacture is done with optimal efficiency and time to market.

Critical to this are the continuous improvement and lean principles, such as kaizan and six sigma, currently being undertaken on site.” In taking its first steps on the road to doubling production efficiency since 2007, the company’s management executives gave monthly presentations to the factory floor — selling the message, in other words. However, so keen were staff to contribute to Premier Interlink’s lean journey that idea-generating work groups were convened in each area of the business — a practice of continous improvement which continues to this day.

Ultimately, says Walker, the common theme within Premier Interlink is that its staff — be they executives, management or floor operators — do not resist change, and take both cultural and manufacturing advances in their stride. The gains made within the production unit can, in many cases, be directly attributed to the company’s operatives — a fact that, says Walker, “Explicitly highlights the internal autonomy of our organisation.”

Such independence, moreover, extends to the entire Waco family, with all operational decisions for UK manufacture remaining on British shores. While this is particularly liberating, assures Walker, “Our journey of continuous improvement coincided, somewhat fortuitously, with a drive by the international board of directors for similar practices throughout its global businesses.”

Structurally sound
As such, and with regard to sustainable manufacturing, the majority of materials used by Premier Interlink are selected from environmentally friendly resources. Indeed, says Walker, “A great number of our clients are multinational corporations, for whom an ethos of environmental protection remains central to their operations. As a result, many enforce policies whereby they only purchase from manufacturers who consider sustainability to be equally as important.” Accordingly, 65% of Premier Interlink’s waste is recycled, a figure that is regularly monitored by the company’s clients — given their requiring both a dedication to, and investment in, the environment from the organisations they deal with.

And so, with a new decade upon us, what does 2010 — and beyond — hold for Chris Walker and Premier Interlink? “We will undoubtedly continue to place great emphasis on our R&D activities,” he says, “as it is a facet of the business which marks us out as a sector leader. Indeed, by remaining ahead of the competition in our product offerings, we will continue to win work on recommendation, arguably the most objective barometer of our company’s manufacturing strengths.” “For example, we are currently producing a concrete flooring option within our modular buildings, which will enable Premier Interlink to advance technology and improve product performance in markets such as laboratories, hospital theatres, plant rooms and police cells. Given that we are a largely product-led company, our immediate future is concerned with ensuring that the Premier Interlink’s offerings are suitable for both current and divergent markets. While we are excellently positioned for 2010, beyond that largely rests on the market’s whims.

What can be said, however, is that we will remain at the forefront of developments in our sectors, while continually looking to transition into adjacent markets as and when it is considered appropriate for the business.”