Exploring every avenue

Posted on 8 Apr 2009 by The Manufacturer

Caravans are here to stay. That’s the message from County Durham-based Explorer Group. In the wake of leisure industry manufacturer casualties, this manufacturer of touring caravans and motorhomes is gearing up for a bright future

Explorer Group, based in Consett, is a major employer in the town and one of the UK’s leading manufacturers of touring caravans and motor homes. With a heritage spanning over 45 years, the company strives to meet ever-changing customer demand and last year had its credentials confirmed, winning Tourer of the Year at the Caravan Industry Awards. Explorer Group’s motorhomes bask in the limelight too, having swept the boards at the Caravan Club’s prestigious Design and Drive Awards for two consecutive years. Explorer Group’s achievement represents the fruit of years of hard and smart labour which has put the company in good stead to weather the current economic storm.

“Our position today at the forefront of our industry is thanks largely to the way we acted during boom times,” says general manager Gary Jones. The company currently has over 300 employees and a production output of three to four thousand units per year, despite the downturn. “If we had rested on our laurels back then, this downturn could well have had a very different outcome. Sadly, many respected caravan manufacturers have fallen by the wayside in the last year and we have re-evaluated all our processes to strengthen ourposition.” As it is, the wheels are still in motion at Explorer Group and this business has positioned and restructured to survive today and thrive tomorrow. And tomorrow it will improve some more.

Though the cautious outlook enforced by the credit crunch remains, there are certainly signs in this particular market that inspire a little optimism. Membership to the Caravan Club – an association that offers services such as booking and insurance to its members – is up 40 per cent this year. According to Explorer Group’s marketing and communications manager Rachel Moncrieff, the world of caravanning has had some strong public endorsement recently, with much positive PR on radio, television and in the press. Even housing minister Margaret Beckett revealing she has a particular penchant for this type of jolly. This, Moncrieff insists, proves that there is a growing and very varied caravan fan-base, proving that the caravanning demographic is far more diverse than the previously negative press-fuelled misconception the industry has faced.

“There is a real surge of interest in caravans and motorhomes and the freedom and flexibility they can offer,” says Moncrieff. “While people have less [available] cash and the pound is low against the euro, a lot more people may want to holiday here in Britain. We’re looking at all possible routes to market for our products to enable us to capitalise on that.”

Caravans from Explorer cost from £10,595 for the award-winning entry-level Xplore range to £22,495 for the ultimate top-of-the-range Buccaneer grand tourer. The Xplore, launched little more than a year ago, has enjoyed meteoric success, offering a choice of five lightweight layouts with a comprehensive specification that belies its budget price tag, without compromise. The Xplore, according to Practical Caravan magazine, “represents great value for money, considering how much caravan you get for just under £11,000.” The success of Explorer Group’s motorhomes, too, is perhaps due to a tried-and-tested, solidly-built van that beats off the competition with a starting price of just £26,899. All good news for the value-conscious, bargain-seeking consumers we’ve all become.

Keeping it simple
Explorer appointed a new managing director a year ago, with former finance director Rob Quine stepping up to the challenge. With many continuous improvement programmes already implemented and many more in the pipeline, Quine’s job was to bring everything back to basics. “Simply put, it was about identifying reasons for people to buy our products,” says Jones. “And this required a completely new approach.” To this end, six ‘champion’ teams have been selected from Explorer’s existing team to make sure these areas of the business operate to their full potential. These six teams are: service, price, appeal, reliability, quality and delivery. “This ensures we have every aspect covered,” Jones explains.

Quality, reliability and continuous improvement
Five years ago, the Explorer Group manufactured caravans on three production lines in large batches. Materials were delivered to the lines by forklift trucks on pallets of up to 40 parts at a time in order to meet seasonal demand. From its initial vision of a single, continuous, one-piece flow caravan production line, it has made significant inroads towards meeting this dream.

There have been many improvements during the journey; in particular, the implementation of a Tugger truck material delivery milk round and the reduction of the three caravan production lines to one.

The Tugger truck delivers materials, from a stores picking cell, to the line on a four-ticket kanban system that is triggered by the operator who requires the part. The truck runs to a pre-determined timetable, which is set by the takt time (customer demand). This has reduced stock levels significantly on the production line. Benefits include less stock, less damage to components, less packaging on line, having the right part at the right time, more accurate bills of material and more space; as well as the health and safety benefits to manual handling and ergonomics.

To assist in the move to a single flow caravan line, approximately 200 employees were trained in B-TEC and Business Improvement Techniques (BIT) level II over a five-day period. During this time the operatives reconfigured the caravan line from the previous three line layout to the new one-piece flow caravan production line.

Benefits include standardised processes, operator buy-in, reduced costs, improved delivery, improved quality, reduced variation, improved productivity and less stock on the line.

The Explorer Group is not standing still, even though times are difficult. Despite the credit crunch, they are continuously improving to meet customer requirements.

One of the further improvements is the decision to vastly reduce batch sizes.
This has helped in two ways – better customer service and a reduction in waste. On an overall scale, the company now produces five of a model at one time whereas it used to produce forty, reducing its stock-holding. This is an especially pertinent development, given the recent difficult trading conditions.

Components are now delivered lineside in kit form. “Instead of having lots of parts flying around which could get misplaced or damaged, we only have at hand what we need. “It’s quicker, more efficient, quality is up and waste parts are down, which improves our cash flow,” Jones said.

The most impressive stats however, are reserved for the improvement in the time it takes to make side panels for units. It used to take up to two weeks from start to finish to press together the sandwich-like plywood/polystyrene/aluminium structures; but thanks to an £1.2m investment in new CNC machinery and heated presses, it now takes 35 minutes. And that’s just for the first one; for each additional one they need, it’s seven minutes per panel.

Service – keeping the conversation flowing
Information technology (IT) is often seen as inaccessible, convoluted and foreign – a mind-boggling topic for some of the best of minds, but IT at Explorer is all part of the simplification process. “We have to make it easy for people to do business with us,” says Garry Lees, IT manager and service champion. “People have high expectations today and expect a hassle-free experience.” The company already has an on-line system in partnership with suppliers – its Vendor Rating System – and is now looking to provide the same benefits to its retailer network as an ongoing improvement.

The service team has been considering how to improve this customer experience through looking at both processes and the introduction of new technology. An example of this new focus is the imminent release of a standardised parts identification system – eParts. Previously, if a customer needed a part they had to phone or send an email and attempt to describe successfully the item they required. The automated service will allow the customer to select exactly what they want online and place an order.

“Putting products on-line is relatively easy,” Lees says, “but behind the scenes you have to ensure the information is accurate and up-to-date. For example, we have done a lot of work on parts descriptions – things that are meaningful to production are not necessarily understandable by retailers and customers.” To that end, the team has created a standardised way of describing parts to ensure that they are easily identifiable.

After this is up and running, the team is looking to build upon the application, putting as much self-service capability in the hands of customers as they need. “We want the Explorer experience to be a good one. The team feel that they can certainly contribute to this.”

Appeal – creating products customers desire
The ‘appeal’ area of the champions’ team is headed up by financial controller Angela Wallace. She and her team gauge reactions to Explorer products by talking to customers at trade shows and issuing questionnaires; they also converse directly with retailers to get their points of view. The reactions are fed back into the design team and the overwhelming recommendations are incorporated into the forthcoming model – whatever those suggestions are. “It’s about supplying a caravan that people actually want, not one that we think they might want,” says Wallace.

Improvements can be anything from changing the dimensions of furniture or swapping one material for another, to rearranging the location of television sockets or adjusting the height of a mirror. “It’s about making a model functional, practical and aesthetically pleasing,” adds Wallace, “and the best-placed person to decide that is someone who actually uses it. It just makes sense.”

Together with colleagues refocusing on product development, quality, service and business improvement, Moncrieff heads up the ‘delivery’ team, “which is in effect working closely with our retailer network, our trade partners and the enduser – our customers – to ensure that we are the manufacturer of choice.”

In the past year, Explorer Group has taken bold steps with a completely refreshed marketing campaign and has enjoyed renewed coverage in the press, with improvements being recognised and applauded.

“Dealing with Explorer Group should be an enjoyable experience and the feedback we are getting is that our customers and trade partners appreciate that we are an approachable, not faceless, company; we’re hands-on and encourage colleagues to be customer-facing. We do everything possible to support our retailers and to build mutually beneficial and prosperous relationships.”

Skilling up
Half of the company’s employees have completed the British Safety Council’s Level 1 qualification and over half are currently involved with literacy and numeracy training levels 1 and 2. Some company staff have undertaken foundation degrees in operations improvement and business management diplomas, while others are involved in initiatives such as the Women at Work scheme and Association of Accounting Technician (AAT) training.

The future
Overall, this is a company that will undoubtedly flourish when it emerges onto fresh asphalt at the end of this bumpy road. And that’s because it’s taken things back to basics. It is always looking for ways to do things simpler, hunting down ways of making processes more effective, seeking out ways of making relationships more efficient and always exploring the best ways to do business.