Executing improvement

Posted on 10 Dec 2009 by The Manufacturer

As a member of the polymer industry, Icon Polymer Group supplies a wide range of products across a diverse application base. Tim Brown finds out from managing director, Tim Pryce, how process management improvements on all levels have ensured Icon manufacture products to an exceptionally high reliability standard for the transport, aerospace, defence, and power generation industries.

Icon Polymer was formed in 1999 with private equity funding provided by Lloyds Development Corporation. Between 1999 and 2005, it expanded through the acquisition of three existing UK rubber companies and then consolidating these facilities into two sites in Retford and Burton. In 2006, Tim Pryce, who had recently departed his role as president of a US polymer company, undertook the position of interim managing director and began to truly integrate the facilities and cultures within the business.

Ever since, undertaking improvements in every aspect of business operations has become a fundamental focus at Icon. The goal has been to distinguish the business from its competitors not only in terms of the quality of its products but also through its high level of service. Combining significantly reduced lead times with improved customer satisfaction has been possible by perfecting operating processes says Pryce.

“We decided to differentiate ourselves by lead time. The first step to achieving a significant reduction in lead time was simply defining a new standard. As we changed our own expectations we then set about arranging our supply chain so that our vendors understood the new benchmark level. Today we have a highly efficient supply chain that provides many benefits to us as a group.” Prior to the setting of these new benchmarks, Icon had a large supplier base for many of their outsourced materials. By working very closely and communicating their specific goals to elements of their supply chain, Icon was able to streamline the number of companies from which they sourced products. For those suppliers that remained, Icon developed much closer working relationships and now receive a better level service and greater flexibility.

For instance, Icon reduced their toolmaker supplier list and now work very closely with a small number who have extremely fast turnarounds and are very accommodating to Icon’s needs.

In another example, Icon used to source its required metal components, over which rubber is moulded, from a large range of different suppliers. After spending a considerable amount of time with these suppliers explaining the expectations of the new management team, Icon was able to reduce the number of sources to those that were capable of meeting those expectations.

Having successfully streamlined its supply chain, Icon also needed to perfect its internal processes. While operations were already quite sturdy, the implementation of a new role greatly assisted the company to undertake a host of different operational advances.

Just under a year ago, Icon hired a gentleman into the newly created position of Process Improvement Manager. According to Pryce, “his sole job is to make sure that every process is robust. He literally goes through every one of our processes drilling down and down until we remove the probability of errors occurring.” “With the process improvement manager we have really achieved genuine lean manufacturing…To me lean is about understanding your processes through effectively challenging the status quo, that exists within all businesses, and then making sure any needed change is successfully executed.” “Since we’ve put the process improvement manager in place,” says Pryce, “we’ve seen our returns decrease by 90% and that is within an 8 month period.

They were pretty low already but he has certainly made a difference not only within the business but also to the customers. We are also seeing a steady decline monthon- month on internal scrap as well. I would say that by the end of the year he will have paid for himself by a factor of four times. This four-fold saving is on tangible costs which is particularly impressive considering that on the typical quality iceberg most of the costs are hidden..” A simple example of a successfully executed process improvement involved the part marking of vacuum cleaner belts. Icon manufactures 60% of the world’s vacuum cleaning belts. All of the belts are part marked, however with a very low percentage, the ink failed to adhere and dry properly. After an initial investigation, it was inferred that this was an unavoidable result. While the occurrence was very infrequent, with several million belts being shipped every month, that small percentage added up to be a fairly considerable quantity.

Pryce says that after providing the operator with more appropriate tools, such as colour coded dispensers and mixers, they haven’t had a single reject.

By perfecting operations, Icon has developed a globally recognised name for the quality of its products and has further expanded several important areas. One such area is the transportation market, particularly subway and rail.

The Group’s fability in Burton, called SilentBloc, has, over the past few years, experienced a 50% growth. Pryce says that much of the growth is coming from the rail market, including aftermarket in the UK and the new build market in continental Europe. “We are taking an increasing share in aftermarket because we have reduced our lead times and we’ve become far more competitive in the way we run our business, both from a procurement side and with regards to importing from Asia. The same applies to our success in new build applications. Where a typical lead time could be 16 weeks, we deliver in four.” The rubber to metal components that are used in the rail market are also used in off-highway vehicles, such as those produced by Caterpillar, JCB and Terex. Icon have been working with such companies to supply components to assist them to extend the life of their vehicles. “We have a component on a vehicle currently where its life is reported to be 50% longer than the incumbent following testing in quarries all over the world,” says Pryce. “That particular vehicle builder is experiencing a significant gain through the use of our technology. In this particular case, the previous part was failing within the warranty period and thus the OEM was extremely keen to find a component that not only met the warranty but far exceeded it.” Icon considers the defence industry to be another important area of growth.

The company has for example a large number of components to be fitted on the Joint Strike Fighter. The build rates for that particular aircraft alone are projected to increase substantially over the next three years and the company is forecasting rapid growth in that area. Pryce highlights that the continued support of the defence industry and its related suppliers by the government is imperative and of great assistance for economic growth. “We have 238 employees with 60% living locally supporting the local community and creating jobs. In turn, both directly and indirectly Icon supports numerous other national businesses. If the government supports businesses related to the UK defence industry it would be a considerable help to thousands of people both here in Retford and nationally.”

With the financial backing of Lloyds Development Corporation, Pryce and finance director, Shaun Finn, completed a management buy-out of Icon in July of this year. This further consolidation of control will undoubtedly lead to even more developments at Icon. The continued expansion and enhancement of what Pryce refers to as the company’s ‘toolbox’ combined with intensive continuous improvement is likely to keep Icon in top shape in to the future. The next few years are likely to see not only continued growth in Europe and the UK but also a further development of Icon’s Asian focus both in terms of market share and supply chain.