Catering for change

Posted on 26 Feb 2009 by The Manufacturer

Following a major strategic reorganisation and relocation, catering equipment firm IMC has seen its profits soar. MD Tim Tindle discusses developments at the company post-move

Imperial Machining Company (IMC) – part of the Lincat Group – is now 102 years old. From its roots as a potato peeler manufacturer, its commercial catering equipment market share has expanded steadily, thanks to the introduction of successive niche new products.

“IMC began by manufacturing vegetable preparation machinery such as hand cranked potato peelers and chippers, which were developed and superseded by the motor driven machines manufactured today. In 1956 commercial waste disposers were added to the range, followed by stainless steel bar systems and back bar refrigeration in the 1980s,” explained managing director, Tim Tindle.

“Now we’re heavily into waste food composting, the idea for which came about following a conversation with the Prison Service which went along the lines of, ‘I’ve bought this industrial food composter and it doesn’t work – could you sort it out?’

“This developed into a two-year research project with Imperial College, looking at what you need to make good compost out of food waste. The resulting systems are now installed in the first proper eco hotel in the UK, the 02 dome, the Milton Keynes shopping centre and about 26 prisons around the UK. It’s just what IMC does – it’s a niche product.”

Back in April 2007 when The Manufacturer last visited IMC, the company was undergoing a huge consolidation and a move to new premises. “Initially, 2007 saw us taking a huge breath and a sigh and saying ‘thank goodness for that’,” said Tindle, “because in the last two years we had relocated the organisation from a location in Germany, a location in London and a location in Shotton, to a new factory in Wrexham.

“This was a huge task. As well as the relocation we had to recruit something like 85 per cent of staff as most people chose not to relocate, but that gave us a chance to build a new team and a new culture based on winning and continuous change. At the same time there was a huge amount of investment in the move, in the new premises and in new plant and machinery – about £5 million in all – and for an £8 million turnover company as it then was, that is kind of difficult to justify in a way.”

Once the big move was out of the way, the company was then able to make more incremental changes within its manufacturing operations to maximise on the resultant benefits of the reorganisation.

While lean manufacturing methodology has been involved in improvements at the site, “our manufacturing model is not a lean manufacturing model per se – when you have such varied products you have to have a modicum of stock to hand. But it has still changed our philosophy and how we do things, and there have been specific improvements around the factory,” explained Tindle.

One such improvement was the application of the 5S principle to a bench unit used to assemble the base units for food waste disposers. “By simply tidying that area up and creating an ergonomic layout we’ve saved between five and 20 minutes per machine when we’re manufacturing it. Although that may sound like we were very inefficient before, the reality is we probably were but we never realised it!” Tindle admitted.

Despite stock holding being a complex area for IMC due to the range of variants of each of its machine products, the firm has still sought to reduce inventory where possible. “Running from three sites as we were previously was in itself quite inefficient. Now, through lean processes and the stock control systems we’ve put in, we’ve managed to reduce our stock holding – dramatically for us.”

When it moved to Wrexham, IMC chose to move its supplier base along with it, saving costs in the process. Since then – and perhaps more significantly – “we’re just in the process of bringing back our sourcing of castings from eastern Europe to foundries in the UK, because they’re competitive once again and the quality is better, which is great news, and we often forget that we also now manufacture in house some components we previously sourced in China!”

The firm also made investments in new machinery, such as four axis CNC machines. “These are being used more and more as we increasingly re-examine the way we manufacture components. For example, taking previously fabricated parts and assessing whether they can be made quicker in a machined form,” said Tindle. “These are ideas that are typically coming from the guys on the shop floor rather than from design engineers or from accountants looking at the cost savings – which is brilliant.”

The arrival of the company’s most recent machinery investment – two new 3.5 metre press brakes worth a total of a quarter of a million pounds – is being eagerly awaited. “Because of the work we’ve done we’ve identified that the main constraint we have in leaning ourselves down further and reducing batch sizes is in the press brake area – the area where folded panels are produced. This is particularly so when we have so many components being fabricated upfront,” Tindle explained.

With the new press brakes, new product designs can be checked for production feasibility before manufacture, saving significant amounts of lost time. “This way, the computer software the designers use talks to the computer software that manages the bending operation and can say ‘no I can’t bend that, send it back,’ greatly reducing the number of iterations between the designers and production. Furthermore, the multiple set-up technology employed by the press brakes themselves dramatically reduces set up times, allowing us to have lower batch sizes going through the shop. This in turn will reduce our lead times, which will make the entire factory, we believe, more flexible and a lot leaner.

“It’s funny,” Tindle continued, “we should be looking at putting in things like seam welding and robotic welding, but we do so many variations it’s actually economically very hard to justify. We are one of those companies that is successful because of the flexibility we offer to the final user, and sometimes that means you can go down the automated CNC machine route, and other times you have to say well, the capital investment doesn’t make sense, it’s far better for us to just build up our staff skills base and make use of their abilities.”

IMC’s strategy has certainly paid dividends, as the statistics prove. The company has seen its turnover grow by 15 per cent, to over £10 million per annum in the space of 18 months, and raw materials stocks fall 30 per cent, efficiency grow 20 per cent and operating profit rise 46 per cent.

“The most important thing for us was the relocation. We employed deliberately tough selection criteria – everyone had a series of interviews, most up to five – but it really paid off in terms of all of us being dedicated to the company, to each other and to what we are trying to achieve here, and we continue to build on that.”

But the relocation had perhaps another part to play in the motivation of those employees. “Princess Anne very kindly came to open the new factory last year, and I can’t emphasise just how empowering it was having a Royal visit. You feel very special when the Queen’s daughter comes to visit you!” Tindle smiled.

And rightfully so.