Harnessing Lean

Posted on 10 Dec 2009 by The Manufacturer

TM associate editor Edward Machin talks to Unitex UK about the significance of Lean in ensuring that it remains a best in class manufacturer of webbings, slings, and safety products

Three’s company Staffordshire-based Unitex UK is a multi-faceted international manufacturer comprised of three legally distinct, yet intrinsically linked, subsidiaries: Marling Leek, Miller Weblift and RidgeGear.

Founded in 1942, the former is one of the UK’s foremost producers of webbings for the commercial and automotive markets, having developed the first automotive seat belt and one-piece woven airbag. Miller Weblift manufactures a range of web slings, round slings, nets, and load restraint systems for market segments including the ever-demanding and non-forgiving offshore industry.

Lastly, RidgeGear design, manufacture, and test advanced height safety products including full body harnesses; safety lanyards; fall arrest blocks; rescue equipment with high profile customers including British Telecom and Sky.

Says Andrew Bradley, Managing Director, Unitex UK Finished Product Division: “Within the European market there are a great many manufacturers who, for example, solely produce lifting gear or safety products from previously acquired materials. Crucially however, Unitex is unique in the industry, given that we manufacture our entire product portfolio from concept — including the sourcing of raw polyester yarn, design, and production of marketleading devices.”

As a finished product manufacturer Unitex thus retains a hugely competitive advantage across its processes, in that the company is able to circumvent the sourcing and subsequent testing of raw materials. Moreover, because each of its subsidiaries operate from a single manufacturing site, Unitex’s lead times are significantly reduced when bringing new products to market. Says Bradley: “The fact that we are not relying on an external source who — with the best will in the world — simply does not have the same investment in our developmental strategies gives the company a tremendous sense of coherence and urgency in all that we do.”

The Journey
Central to Unitex’s continuing success has been the adoption of a culture of lean within the organisation. Its genesis began with a recognition that lean was to represent the foundations of Unitex as an organisation operating within an industry of intense rivalry. Bradley explains: “Our product types particularly lend themselves to outsourced production and economies of scale — i.e. China, Vietnam, and Taiwan, among others. Given this intensification of competition and driving down of the bottom line, without seeking to actively reduce our cost base and overheads while increasing productivity we are in danger of conceding our position as a best in class manufacturer.”

Coupled with this fiscally-based, external need, Unitex held the organisational benefits of lean as equally important to its strategic efficiency drives. Says Bradley: “It is one thing having wonderful plans for improving flexibility and reducing waste, but without the commitment top down and without the continued support of the shop-floor any strategy implemented is always to be seen as “flavour of the month”. Without empowering the shop-floor and ensuring that all advances are made completely visible through the organisation, however, the potency of a hard-drive’s worth of strategies will be rendered futile.”

Intriguingly, while Lean is enabling Unitex to reduce its cost base, it does not equate to a need to marginalise the company’s cost advantage. “There are a number of market segments that Unitex supply to, and not all segments are driven from a price perspective. For example offshore lifting is driven by a competitive fit for purpose product but it is service and delivery that is key to success. As such, price ceases to become the driving force — delivery is. The onus must therefore be on increased flexibility and throughput while simultaneously reducing lead times and waste in the system, ensuring that the required parts are available at any given point in time,” says Bradley.

(C)leaning up The implementation of Unitex’s Lean journey began in 2008 with a robust 5S programme which resulted in the removal of 75% of extraneous items on the shop floor. In spite of the considerable benefits entailed in such a process, it nonetheless presented a logistical problem for the company — namely how its material lines were going to be fed most effectively.

To combat this predicament, Unitex implemented Kanbans at strategic positions throughout the production process, both within its internal systems and the supply chain itself. Says Bradley: “The fact that our suppliers are working to Kanban not only assists us with cashflow considerations and in keeping the shop floors organised, but has eradicated the need for purchasing on multiple items because of the self managing nature of the process.

That being said, arguably the most exciting opportunity that our embracing of a lean ethos has enabled is in combining the manufacturing facilities of Miller Weblift and RidgeGear within a single production unit.” Working with considerable involvement from the kaizen Institute, the combination will enable Unitex to transform what is primarily a batch manufacturing system into cellular operations. Practically speaking, says Bradley, this will enable the company to increase throughput by 30%, and reduce rework and stock levels by 20%, ensuring that Unitex remain a leading manufacturer within Europe with long term competitive advantage.

“The project will be largely implemented by our staff, albeit with guidance from the kaizen Institute,” says Bradley. “We have deliberately created a team of multi-skilled individuals from across departments, given that we feel it hugely important to both lean and cellular that their benefits aren’t simply limited to the shop floor.”

Start up the engine
With continued lean endeavours remaining central to Unitex’s organisational strategy, the company is taking ever more innovative steps to ensure its remaining ahead of the chasing pack. The majority of Unitex’s management team have backgrounds in the automotive sector, an industry renowned for its utilisation of lean doctrines.

Consequently, says Bradley: “The company has undertaken a three year continuous improvement commitment to attain the international automotive accreditation standard ISO/TS 16949. This will primarily enable us to differentiate Unitex UK as the only manufacturer of its type within the industry to attain such an accreditation.

We all know the automotive industry does not suffer fools, and quality is engineered into each and every process ensuring the customer is always the reason for change and improvement. If we can tap in to this culture and the benefits it can bring then the long hard road we are about to undertake no longer seems a daunting exercise, but the greatest challenge that Unitex has ever encountered. More importantly it is a challenge that we have decided to take – it has not been forced upon us.” Prior to the commencement of Unitex’s lean journey, it was asked how much implementation would cost in practice. Says Bradley: “The question should always be what is the cost of not entertaining lean practices? Very simply, it will cost nothing if you do it, but a great deal if you do not.

While Unitex is in the relatively early stages of its journey, we continue to discover new and exciting lean applications on a daily basis. When coupled with our distinctive ‘concept to production manufacturing’ model, it is this commitment to placing lean at the heart of our long-term strategy that will ensure Unitex’s continuing success as a best of class manufacturer.”