Going to print

Posted on 8 Dec 2010 by The Manufacturer

Product diversification, investment in innovation and communication with suppliers made FFEI a leader in the digital imaging market. Roberto Priolo investigates.

When John Mortimer talks about his company, the word “fantastic” comes up quite a lot.

He has good reasons to be content. FFEI, the company he works for as operations director, has had its strongest first six months of the year in the last decade.

A designer and manufacturer of digital imaging products and technologies, FFEI has 170 employees, a £20m turnover and a full order book. In 2008, the company spent £2.1m on new facilities and kept investing in its workforce, coming out of the recession stronger than ever. “We lost money like everybody else, but we didn’t lose sight of our goals. We believed in our technology and pushed on. The fact that we exported a lot also helped us when times were tough,” Mortimer says.

FFEI exports to 65 countries, with 25% of revenue coming from China alone. Its ability to choose the right partners (it doesn’t directly take its products to market), inside and outside the UK, has proved pivotal to making the company such an important presence in the market of image digitalisation, management and reproduction. For CTP (computer to plate) technologies, for example, FFEI partners with Fujifilm. It also gained the number one market share in both China and India, partnering with Founder and TechNova respectively.

To understand how the business achieved this level of success, it is important to analyse its two main growth strategies. Firstly, extending the life of products and leaning out processes to keep costs down and enter new markets such as China and India and secondly, investing in new technologies for longterm markets (like micro scanning and industrial inkjet applications).

To better manage work, FFEI separated into five business units: CTP, inkjet, life science, workflow software and technical support and spares. “They are like small businesses within the business. We created them to be able to track our progress,” Mortimer explains.

Being extremely diversified requires a clear and wellorganised approach. FFEI manufactures products ranging from a scanning system that can magnify the cell 40 times (for the life science unit) to Caslon, an industrial inkjet solution that can print 25 metres of high quality digital images per minute (the production of this item has doubled this year and the order book is full till next spring).

While FFEI’s CTP technology is a mature business unit whose products have been in the market for a long time, life science and inkjet are newer units within the company that are characterised by a very aggressive approach to market (life science was four times as strong this year as the company thought it would be). They represent FFEI’s longterm investment and vision for growth.

The range of computer to plate products, which generate 42% of revenues, was the well-proven base through which FFEI was able to keep strong even when facing delays with the inkjet and life science technologies when the company’s R&D centre was devastated by the explosion of the Buncefield depot in 2005.

New facility, new business
“We invested in the new facility and in the diverse technology we needed for our very different manufacturing environments,” says Mortimer. The new facility, Graphics House, is still located in Hemel Hempstead and the company relocated to the new site in December 2008. The move opened up an opportunity to introduce new thoughts and ideas to renew the way the products were conceived and the business was run.

In early 2009, the business achieved ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and ISO 13485 accreditations (the latter being related to the medical market, an accreditation necessary to supply the micro scanning machines). Many of the employees have been working with FFEI for many years, allowing it to maintain a certain amount of core knowledge and retain business continuity even with the loss of the R&D department in 2005. New team members were also brought in over the last two years.

FFEI boasts over 60 years of experience in the graphic arts (the original company, Crosfield Electronics, was started in 1947). This, together with a dedicated team and a well-devised working system, creates ideal conditions for the business to thrive in a competitive market. “The team we have here to bring the technology through from R&D into manufacturing are real innovators in their field. The internal relationships that are built through all areas of the business are critical for the development of our products,” Mortimer says.

Working with suppliers
To revise its performance and save money FFEI decided, in February this year, to send a survey to its main suppliers.

Mortimer explains, “Managing materials is key, especially in a moment of economic uncertainty, because that is where a lot of the money is absorbed. The goal of the survey was to see what we could do to improve internally and to learn how to manage the expectations of our suppliers and customers by asking our suppliers what it is like to do business with us.” The surveys came back, and the data was analysed. In April, 50 representatives of FFEI’s top tier suppliers were invited to the factory for a full day. Mortimer describes the organisation of the day and its importance, “The day was designed to establish a clear point of contact that aligned our supplier base with our strategy for the next three years. We also understood the untapped potential that our suppliers offered and held workshops that generated more than 200 ideas for ‘easy to do business’ policies and procedures for future material management cycles.” FFEI also focused on in-house material management, asking its business project manager, Alastair Ferguson, to produce an inventory data pack that is reviewed month after month to make sure everybody is aware of their developing responsabilities. These measures have saved the company almost £500,000 worth of materials.

Including the workforce and the ideas of everybody contributing to the organisation is evidently an important part of FFEI’s approach to running the business. Recently, for example, everybody (including Mortimer) took part in a relaying and painting weekend at the factory. Measurements are made on a regular basis to keep the plant efficient: every unit’s performance is measured against targets every month, while key performance indicators (including labour efficiency trackers, lost time, rework and overtime) are managed weekly.

“We don’t measure for the sake of measuring, but only to add value,” Mortimer says. Other measurements include Production Order control, the tracking of scrap material and non conforming material (NCM) and On Time Delivery (OTD).

“We have installations every month and installation reports are given to the guys here once a week in what we call a Q-UP meeting. We stop manufacturing across the facility, we have customer services, engineering, quality and production all together and we talk about the impact that we could be having on customer satisfaction and review the latest issues and improvements.”

Training and lean
Skills are an important element to FFEI’s success story. The company invests a lot in training, up-skilling and helping its workforce perform to higher standards (through both an in-house training centre and external support). As a result of government-funded activity with a group called Penmark, 12 operations based candidates are looking at business improvement training. There is also provision for leadership training, NVQ qualifications, CMI management training, health and safety training (especially in the manufacturing environment), an induction programme and Department of Transport training to name just a few of the up-skilling and professional development opportunies available to employees.

To achieve growth and efficiency, FFEI has also built up lean understanding. In September 2009, the engineering team put together the ‘Lean Toolbox’, that was delivered to all operations teams in the business. This guide includes information on how to run the facility efficiently and explains the reasoning behind layout changes, process mapping, line side material storage and team involvement.

FFEI’s business strategy is based on 3-year planning, always keeping in mind the 4C model: customer (satisfaction), cash (management), certainty (of business strategy), capability (of the company). Performance in relation to these four principles is reviewed monthly at executive level to ensure targets are met and that teams are focused on the key issues, while managing director Andy Cook also provides quarterly updates to compound buy-in and integrity in the system.

The company has proved strong on the sustainability front as well. The business, that is also considering turning to photo-voltaic generation, has far exceeded its corporate objective of 10% annual saving in its carbon footprint by achieving approximately 20%. Reducing lighting and heating, monitoring waste and switching off unused items were the simple means by which this result was achieved, together with the advice and guidance the company sought from government bodies.

From many perspectives, from design to sustainability, to production and lean, FFEI’s story is one of endless reinvention, dedication and focus on always offering the best products and service to customers. “It took a lot of work and determination, but we are in a fantastic place today. The business is very diverse, that’s why it is so healthy: people here learn every day,” concludes Mortimer. Strategic partnering with ‘Blue Chip’ companies, investment on skills and innovation, attention to quality and a rigorous approach to policy are fundamental elements to the success of FFEI. The company has proved fully committed to “tapping into the potential” – of its workforce, facility layout and suppliers.