West-Midlands based PP Controls and Automation has achieved extraordinary success thanks to its strategy of working with clients at every level of the business.
We often hear that ‘customer is always right’, but in the complex world of manufacturing, customers need excellent suppliers to help them understand what is ‘right’ for current conditions and future growth.
Steven Barr talked with Tony Hague and colleagues at PP Controls and Automation – winners in the Customer Focus category at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2017 – about how they work with their customers at every level of the business to achieve their rightful reputation for excellence.
PP Controls and Automation is a contract manufacturer based in Landywood in the West Midlands. Its growth, yielding close on £25m turnover, has been extraordinary, at around 10%-15% a year since 2001 when Tony Hague joined as MD.
How did PP do it? “We were working with over 50 customers in multiple sectors,” says Hague. “Now, we clearly focus on working with larger market-leading OEMs, each typically producing 50 to several hundred relatively complex machines a year”.
That specialism allows PP to align its operations very closely with these customers, not only in delivery schedules, but also in supporting their design and product development.
Put simply, as an outsourced partner, PP can work with customers to help them build their own machines quicker, faster and better – helping them increase production capacity and reduce sales lead times.
Talking with members of the 200+ workforce revealed more about the attitudes and processes that underpin PP’s customer focus.
Employees are encouraged to think about PP’s customers and how they can make PP even more effective as a supplier. Each customer work area includes photographs, descriptions and data that leaves no one in any doubt who they are working for.
Customers are regular visitors to the shop floor, and workers also get to visit customers to see the results of their efforts.
Lisa Lawley (internal supply manager) is the ‘voice of the customer’, helping to ensure that increased customer demands can be pulled through the production lines. She is in regular contact with customers through email and phone, but also through their web interfaces.
“I can see into customer production schedules and help them deal with problems that would impact us at PP, as well as their wider supply chains”.
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One might think that such a strong focus on customer needs cost a lot of money and time. However, Sean Cayley (operations director) showed me how PP’s processes and systems are set up to maximise performance for PP and customers.
“In production we pay attention to just a few truly key performance indicators that keep us on the ball. We can see the numbers from our automated system at every stage of production on the large electronic screens around the factory”.
Start times are planned for each order, and the system monitors performance against plan for the build duration. Shop-floor time utilisation gives a primary indication of the state of play.
Production managers, such as Lee Aston and Rob Bentley, ensure that any issues in the flow of work versus the plan are dealt with quickly and effectively, using corrective action reports to gather information and potential solutions that are implemented through Kanban cards.
“Efficiency is a key measure of the production process, and we are constantly looking for ways of improving machine use,” says Aston. But agility is also necessary, as Bentley points out in describing how late changes can be accommodated, and how PP’s skilled workforce can simplify designs to make production cheaper and quicker.
The net effect of PP’s customer-focused operation is high productivity compared with industry norms. Their leading OEM customers remain loyal with a high proportion of repeat business, and bottom-line financial performance continues to be healthy.
Tony Hague believes PP can continue to grow, even in uncertain times for UK manufacturers.
“With UK machinery builders having strong order books and looking at increasing their capacity – without increasing their direct and indirect overheads and costs – we are well placed to support their growth and assist in risk management, in case demand does reduce in the future.
“We plan to double sales turnover in the next five years, building on the core principles of focusing on the important things and engaging with our customers through our people”.
The PP story highlights three tips for any manufacturer in a competitive market. First, ensure that communication happens at all stages of engagement with the customer – from end-to-end, from new business to orders, design, production and delivery.
Second, support staff to provide the personal touch, knowing and seeking to help customers via personal channels even (and perhaps especially) where information is shared digitally.
And third, concentrate on just a few KPIs that drive customer satisfaction and value, because that will also drive the bottom line.
With excellence in customer focus, who can doubt that PP will go from strength to strength? And your business too?
The Customer Focus Award at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2018 is sponsored by A. T. Kearney
Case Study: Printer upgrade
PP collaborated with a manufacturer of specialist printing equipment designed for printing cylindrical metal cans for the beverage sector. PP identified a superior motion technology system that the customer was not aware of and arranged for one of their automation partners to demonstrate its capability.
The technology platform was accepted and has been designed into the customer’s machinery, which has led to increased speed and accuracy as well as reducing the machine footprint.
Case Study: PP goes to Iceland
An Iceland-based manufacturer of fish protein recovery was seeking a design and manufacturing partner to assist in the development of an innovative new machine that could revolutionise the fishing industries.
Working with PP resulted in automation design improvements and standardisation. PP undertook the process of designing the controls so that they would be compliant for the North American market, and also introduced the customer to one of its technical partners who assisted in software development and general automation architecture improvements.
Dr Steven Barr is a chartered engineer and expert in manufacturing business strategy and performance. He is the managing director of Hennik Edge, The Manufacturer’s networked expert advisory team, and is an active contributor to university research on collaborative decision-making. Steven is a member of several industry panels promoting the adoption of digital technologies and new business models in manufacturing.