Callum Bentley heads to beautiful Dorking to see how Johnston Sweepers is cleaning up its field after 75 strong years of street sweeper manufacturing.
It’s a common misconception that industrial plants should be excluded from the city limits, shunted to the industrial zones on the outskirts of modern cities. The idea is a hangover from the dirty, heavy industry days of the past, when noise, pollution and heavy traffic were rightfully seen as something better carried out away from the general populations’ eyes, ears and noses.
However with the modernisation of today’s factories and manufacturing processes, it’s becoming more common to see these facilities nestling in to more picturesque, countryside surroundings – some are even breaking down dated, preconceived ideas and making their presence felt in the midst of city centres.
It is in one of these settings here in the tranquil Surrey countryside in Dorking amidst the vineyards that dominate the rolling hillside that you will find the new Johnston Sweepers factory. It’s by no means a small plant. However the fact it is the most modern sweeper production plant in the world does it huge favours when it comes to straight up aesthetic assimilation with its surrounding environment.
It should come as no surprise then that the facility itself was built with sustainability in mind – after all, the products rolling off its production line are the only road-going vehicles that actually work on a zero pollutant basis, collecting the dust and particulate matter as they go about their business.
It’s here at the Dorking factory where I sit down with operations director, David Bishop and UK sales and marketing manager, Graham Howlett to talk about how this still young factory is pushing the boundaries of sustainability, driven by solid exports, inspired innovation and a truly engaged workforce.
Prior to the new £11m Johnston Sweepers facility being officially handed over to management at the end of August 2013, the company ran its operations from three plants in Ash Vale, Sittingbourne and Dorking. The move was no small feat, with David Bishop stating the challenges of not only moving large amounts of kit, but convincing a significantly sized workforce to move with their factory.
“We had a phased move,” Mr Bishop says. “The first thing we did was move skid production and the paint shop in September from within the Dorking site to the new building creating space for 4,500m2 fabrication plant to be transferred from Ash Vale in December. Finally, Compact sweeper production relocated from Sittingbourne in January 2014.
“We went through a comprehensive consultation process with our employees. We gave them 18 months notice that we were going to move and put an incentive plan together, promising no job losses unless they chose not to stay with the company. The plan was to move, support them with travelling, and for them to come and work for us for a minimum period.”
It actually turned out that the Sittingbourne plant was ready to move six months sooner than the original 18-month time frame. However, Bishop says it was important to stick to the 18 months they had already outlined in order to keep their promise to the employees – a lot of whom were moving their home base.
“The Sittingbourne plant was quite large and complex,” Bishop says. “It had no sheet metal working, but it had welding, painting and assembly of Compact sweepers which are 3.5 tonne and 7.5 tonne GVW vehicles.
“At the time there were 100 employees to manage and we had to move that factory without any loss of output. I told the guy who had the job of project planning the move that I wanted it to take no longer than three hours, and I think we were pretty successful in achieving that.
The production line being moved was a flow line. As each work station in the line completed the last build it was packed onto the back of a truck, driven an hour to the new site, unloaded in position and immediately re-commenced production. This took three hours per station and so loss of production was planned to be minimal.
“It didn’t go perfectly, but I would say we lost no more than three days’ production”, says Bishop
Back to normality
The new, more modern facility in Dorking meant that the business could now begin to focus on meeting a growing international demand for its products. This meant that new recruits had to be found. Johnston Sweepers has had a solid apprenticeship scheme in place since 2005, with Bishop stating that five per cent of the company’s total workforce is made up of apprentices.
“In terms of training and investing in new people, after closing two factories and opening this new one we were in the situation of having 100 new employees, most of whom had never made an electrical or hydraulic connection before,” Bishop says.
“On the assembly side we employed the National Fluid Power Centre to design a ‘three levels of training’ course specifically for Johnston. On level one, we’ve taken 60 people through a one day training course on hydraulics, cleanliness and the basics of hydraulics and electrical fitting. On level two the trainees learn how to read a hydraulic and electrical circuit but specifically using the components and circuits that fit on our machines. And on level three they cover fault diagnostics on our machines.”
However, one of the most prominent feathers in Johnston Sweepers’ cap is the successful Welding Academy, set up to recruit new local talent to fill much needed positions in the company’s expanded weld shop.
“We advertised it through Facebook and Twitter, and we got over 100 enquiries,” says Graham Howlett, UK sales and marketing manager. “Then we had an open day where anyone could turn up. We had a team of people who conducted the initial interviews and from those initial interviews we sent 43 people through to do a weld assessment.”
From here, the applicants went for a more detailed interview with the welding manager, Julia Schmitz.
From the 43 people they selected, 15 qualified for the practical training. 15 weld bays were set aside to do the training with new recruits under daily supervision for 12 weeks. New trainees also received one day per week in a classroom delivered by an outside expert.
“Out of the 15, 13 were successful,” Howlett says. “There were different levels of capability at that stage. Some have gone on to manning robots, some have gone on to welding simple work and others have gone on to welding full sweeper bodies, which is a highly complex application. The process proved very successful.”
The task at hand
Johnston Sweepers exports 70% of its products. The company is not exempt from significant global events, with demand fluctuating substantially depending on global economics and international policies and governments.
Operating primarily in two markets – municipal and construction – the company tends to see demand fluctuate as housing and construction markets increase.
“It varies significantly. The UK market has recovered very strongly compared to other markets,” Bishop says. “The interesting thing that has changed is who we now have to sell to compared the past four or five years. We’re strong in Western Europe, but largely they’re not buying as much as they once did, so the big story in exports is trying to find new markets.”
Howlett agrees, saying the UK housing market has had direct implications on the business.
“The road surfacing sector has been quite busy after the government put quite a substantial amount of money there to replace and improve road conditions,” he says.
“And then there’s the housing market. Councils require new housing estate construction sites to be regularly cleaned by a street sweeper so the housing market is an important sector for us as well – especially in the South East where construction has increased. This has made a significant contribution to increased volumes on the truck mounted sweeper market by about 40% over previous years.”
But not every global market is the same, and as new markets are penetrated, R&D and sustainability must also follow in order to maintain competitiveness for Johnston Sweepers.
Keeping up appearances
The pressure on municipal sweepers to operate as environmentally responsibly as possible enforces constant pressures on the company to constantly develop and innovate its products. A sustainable factory is one thing, but sustainable products are another.
“Most municipals are under pressure to be more sustainable in their operations so there is greater demand on their suppliers, such as ourselves, to supply environmentally responsible products,” says Howlett. “More and more tenders now request details of our environmental policy, there is a huge amount they want to know about our impact on the local environment, on manufacturing; where it’s produced, and green miles.
“The sweeper is the only vehicle on the road that captures particulate matter or harmful dust. Every other vehicle on the road puts pollution into the atmosphere; the sweeper actually captures that, which has an impact on air quality.
“All of Johnston’s products already have the industry standard EUnited maximum three star rating but we want to take this even further, so have invested in our own facility to conduct dust capture tests as part of the development of a new European standard. The floor of the structure will be laid with a fine material – calcium carbonate – and the various machines will sweep through, capturing as much of the dust cloud as possible with air quality being monitored throughout the process.”
The ultimate aim is to limit the amount of dust going into the atmosphere, improving air quality in city centres.
“We invested in our own test centre to allow us to conduct unlimited tests on-site as part of our environmental development programme,” says Howlett. “Each test performed by the EU regulators costs around 5,000 Euros making it very expensive to actually test how well your sweepers are performing, so it was a worthwhile investment to get all the development testing done in-house in preparation for official tests with the EU inspectors.
“We’re also one of the only manufacturers to offer a water recirculation system on our sweepers, saving about 900 litres of water a day in a typical municipal environment, and significantly reducing the number of returns to base needed for re-filling.
“It’s all part of our on-going drive to improve the environmental performance of our machines to make sure we are class-leading on sustainability,” continues Howlett. “We’ve done a great deal to improve things, not only in the manufacturing process but the way in that gets to the product. Our customers are very environmentally focused even though recession changed that a little bit more towards cost cutting. We have benefited from both and have focused heavily on fuel consumption as well. The new JCB standard engine we introduced into the municipal sector saves about 10-13% fuel over our previous engine that we supplied. All these considerations have made a significant contribution to the long-term sustainability of both our products and our business.”