In the driving seat

Posted on 6 May 2009 by The Manufacturer

TM talks to seating manufacturer TS Tech about the unique and positive way it is using the global downturn to its advantage.

Founded in 1999, TS Tech, based in Swindon, Wiltshire, manufactures and supplies seating systems for Honda cars and has grown year-on-year since its inception, enjoying what it describes as six phases of expansion. At the outset, the size of the site was just 3000 square metres with a daily output of seating sets totalling 250; at the end of 2008, the facility had expanded to almost 10,000 square metres, with around 1,200 seating sets being built per day.

Supplying a key player such as Honda clearly comes with its upsides; but at a time like this, the drawbacks can become painfully evident. TS Tech has had to make redundancies as a result of a global financial crisis that has impacted particularly severely on the automotive industry. The company is also currently on a four-month shutdown until June, when preparations will begin for the production of seating for the new Honda Jazz, due to commence in October. “On the back of that, we’re hoping to return to [a greater] capacity than we’re currently running at,” confirms operations director David Stone.

New ways to improve
While such drastic alterations to daily business might spell disaster for some, TS Tech has adopted a uniquely proactive and positive way of dealing with the slowdown. “We try to be as open as we can,” administration director Malcolm Corcoran explains. “And what has helped is the training that we have started: those who aren’t at risk of redundancy have been doing or applying for training courses.”

The company is working in partnership with Swindon College, the National Skills Academy and Semta for the duration of the shutdown and into the future, to deliver a range of courses for its entire remaining staff. From Japanese language and project management to lean foundation, staff members can choose from over 50 courses (although some are mandatory), as around 430 have already done.

“When things are going well, people don’t have the time do anything [like this],” explains Corcoran. “We’ve got 50 courses available; for us to have undertaken that through last year would have been a nightmare to set up – we wouldn’t have been able to do it. During the downturn we’ve been able to get it set up and we’ve been able to secure the government funding, so we’ll be using it for our benefit.”

Staff must register on-site daily and are receiving basic pay throughout the shutdown; in return is the unique chance to take advantage of the self-development and new learning opportunities now on offer. Corcoran hopes the initiative will deliver significant benefits to the whole workforce when production resumes: “One of the things that I think the company as a whole should be proud of as a result of this downturn is that we’ve been able to secure somewhere in the region of £480,000 of government-funded training. In doing so, we’ve been able to set up a programme of which the long-term benefit is developing individuals. People have seen it as a means of improving themselves.”

Of course, the trick for any successful business – and one that TS Tech has clearly mastered – is to successfully turn a problem into opportunity. “We’ve been able to look on the bright side,” confirms Stone, “and see this as an opportunity to revisit a lot of the operations and processes that we were using that had maybe become cumbersome or inefficient.”

Management makeover
Corcoran agrees that the quiet period provides the chance to work on areas of training and development that are in need of improvement – and that does not exclude the management team itself. “We’ll be utilising the shutdown and beyond for developing our managers,” he confirms.

Stone agrees: “Our management structure is very different to how it was [a few years before the downturn]. Originally [there was] a very small team doing many tasks until the operation grew beyond the capabilities of the team; the management team then grew but perhaps some of the skills didn’t catch up with the organisation’s requirements. Now we’re slimming down the organisation slightly in line with our demand, we need to become more focused and we need to move things forward to try to recover some of the losses, and make sure that we’re more effective and lean into the future,” he explains.

The company is clearly committed to continuous improvement – four years ago it received an award from the Learning and Skills Council that recognised the training achievements within its workforce. And now it is setting its sights on further improving its lean capabilities – that is, building on the setup it already has in place.

“We’ve adopted a wide range of lean tools that we’re obviously very focused on,” explains Stone. “We’re a just-in-time operation and value stream mapping is very important to us. We also look at trying to minimise tooling changeovers in our welding operations, for example, and we use 5S. We’ve also adopted a scoring system from one of our sister operations in Canada, which was a process that they rolled out very successfully with very good results. So we did something similar, and we’ve also had very good results. We’ve moved forward with it now and we’re slightly modifying it to [best suit] our own individual operation.”

Experts in innovation
It can be argued that innovation is the lifeblood of any successful manufacturing
operation. Without it, and particularly in the current climate, even the best businesses can flounder. “Innovation within the product is very important,” Stone agrees. “We’re always looking for that cutting edge – though we obviously have to modify our operations and manufacturing processes in line with meeting the expectation of the customer. The actual [manufacturing] processes themselves are fairly traditional, but we apply cutting-edge technology to achieve them.”

The company has clearly struck a successful balance between the reliability of tradition and the imperative of advancement. Many of TS Tech’s processes, for example, are highly automated but, as Stone explains, there are crucial aspects that still rely heavily on the expertise of the company’s workforce. “Assembly and final assembly of our operations for both our Civic and CRV products – actually applying parts and building up the seats – are heavily manual. It’s very difficult to automate many of the variations. By having manual processes we’re also able to increase and decrease production quite easily. [This gives us] flexibility and also adaptability as the types of products that we’re dealing with can change quickly.

“IT is also very important to us – to have quick data acquisition and to be able to store important data as far as traceability throughout our products at any given time,” he continues. “We’ve also recently gone through installing a QAD or a MRP system, so in line with our IT, the operation has expanded and the technology behind that has also expanded. And the infrastructure across the operation has to be able to sustain that requirement.”

The company also has in place robust environmental policies and is clearly forward-thinking in its approach to recycling: “We are accredited with [ISO] 14001 and 9000,” confirms Corcoran, “and last year we recycled on average 90% of all our scrap. In doing so we generated £200k for the business.”

With a firm eye trained on its internal processes, TS Tech clearly takes a responsible position towards its role within the wider community as well, through contributing towards a number of external projects. “In terms of CSR, we also support local initiatives,” explains Corcoran. “So far this year we’ve contributed some money to a local trust and on Valentine’s Day they planted [around] 900 trees in a local community forest. We also sponsored the Christmas tree and lights in the Highworth Market Square – things like that.”

Demonstrating a responsible attitude towards the local community also extends to health and safety, as Corcoran explains: “We own part of the road outside our facility so we paid for traffic calming to be put there. There hasn’t been a survey done but I would imagine that’s cut traffic down on what was originally a rat run by about 90%. It’s certainly raised our profile in the local community – we are on the edge of the town; we’re in an area where you wouldn’t actually know what goes on round here – so we adopt a good neighbour policy [whereby] anything we’re doing on-site, we talk to our neighbours about,” he explains.

With such a positive and proactive approach to this debilitating period for the wider economy, it is unsurprising that Stone remains optimistic about future prospects for TS Tech. “We’re reviewing how we measure our business and obviously we’re looking to be back into production in June as a much stronger organisation, able to weather any future downturn in the market,” he concludes.