IMI Precision: A tradition of reliability, a future of innovation

Posted on 25 Oct 2018 by The Manufacturer

IMI Precision Engineering’s flagship UK factory near Lichfield is something of a statement of the modernising vision of the company’s leadership.

At The Manufacturer MX Awards in 2017, this long-established maker of motion and fluid control technologies won the prestigious TM Editors’ award for ‘Manufacturing in Action’.

Steven Barr met plant director, Charles Bamford (R) and Andrew Ball – finance director (L) to find out how leadership in innovation is helping to drive continuous improvements in productivity.

IMI Precision Engineering – The 2017 winners of the prestigious TM Editors’ award for ‘Manufacturing in Action’: (L) Andrew Ball – finance director; (R) Charles Bamford, plant director.

You’ll have benefitted from IMI Precision products, perhaps without realising it. Just a few examples: their door control systems make sure we can all get on and off trains quickly and safely.

In other tough operating environments, like offshore oil and gas platforms, their precision controls avoid expensive and dangerous outages. Their industrial automation products, such as valves and actuators, keep production lines around the world moving.

IMI Precision has built its reputation for reliable products in key sectors, and lean manufacturing principles have been at the heart of its business for many years.

Charles Bamford describes the impact of winning their The Manufacturer MX Award in 2017, “We learned so much from having the judges scrutinise what we were doing, and I’ve kept in touch with them to learn more from their experience.

“We were excited by winning the award – so much that it gave us the courage to go even further with our lean journey”.

Within a few months Charles led the demolition of a building in the factory, making space for an innovative pilot project. This Kaizen event has delivered substantial improvements in an actuator production cell, and the team is now consistently achieving 100% on-time delivery to a key customer.

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The shortlist for The Manufacturer MX Awards 2018 has been revealed. Click here to view the shortlist in full.

All around the factory I could see many examples of how the innovative spirit of Charles and Group CEO, Mark Selway, is building on core lean and 5S principles.

Maria Collins (engineering apprentice) and Ben Briguglio (former apprentice and now production engineer) delighted in showing me the new Excelon Plus range of air preparation units and its highly agile production line.

Its layout was developed by the operators using cardboard mock-ups, and the installation can be modified as needed. The ergonomic handling of parts and the ability to vary the number of operators on the line allows different products and changing order patterns to be accommodated with ease.

Sharing the learning

The success of the Excelon Plus line is attracting other IMI plants in the UK and around the world to look and learn.

“Learning from each other is a strong part of IMI culture,” says Ray Last, team leader for electronics and software development. “We test new ideas and roll them out to other sites, so core standards improve and the benefits multiply”.

IMI’s highly agile Lichfield production line for the Excelon Plus range of air preparation units.

“IMI Precision is in the early stages of a digital journey,” says Charles. “One of the IMI Group companies in the US is a world leader in using cobots to make manual handling more efficient, and we want to learn from them”.

From supply-push to flow-pull

Another digital innovation is being trialled on the Kaizen event actuator production cell and is transforming the traditional supply-push approach. The aim is to improve efficiency with a Takt flow-pull process to feed components to the assembly line exactly when they are needed.

This requires a fundamental change to the factory’s MRP (manufacturing resource planning) scheduling and ordering system, and a change of job descriptions.

Yukiko Nell is one of the ‘water spiders’ who replenish the small stocks of components to keep up with production. Her attention to the flow frees up line operators to concentrate on assembly, with demand for new supplies flagged up literally and automatically through the ‘twin-bin’ storage system.

Orders and deliveries from suppliers are now being triggered flexibly by the pull signal through the MRP system rather than at fixed bulk order times.

The company’s website already supports customer online ordering, and the new IMI Norgren Express App has been designed by the team to make that process even easier.

Customers can use a smartphone to scan the QR code on an IMI product to order a replacement or take a picture for the Express team to advise on. The App can even identify the IMI substitute for a competitor’s product!

IMI’s people are clearly the most important element in sustaining operational innovation. There are a number of robotic cells around the factory, allowing continuous running.

But as seen in the development of the Excelon Plus line, the input of the operators has been fundamental to good layout design and effective use of technology of all kinds.

Now they are driving build quality and also production flexibility, setting a new standard for the Group.

There seems to be a strong culture of teamwork through a matrix organisation around product lines and technical disciplines such as new product development, most obvious in the Kaizen projects.

And it looks fun – not least in the team building challenge with its ‘Top Gear’-style leader board proudly displayed on the canteen deck.

‘Manufacturing in Action’ sums up the modernising, innovative spirit of IMI Precision’s Lichfield workforce.

Everyone, from Yukiko Nell the water spider to Charles the plant director, is leading the way to greater efficiency and productivity, ensuring that IMI Precision continues to be an industry leader in product reliability.

And, as Charles discovered, entering The Manufacturer MX Awards can be a valuable introduction to experts and insights to inspire innovation in your business to make top gear.

TMMX 2018 - Gala Dinner & Ceremony Promo

Dr Steven Barr is a chartered engineer and expert in manufacturing business strategy and performance.

He is the managing director of 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.