Made in Hull

Posted on 13 Aug 2008 by The Manufacturer

The transformation continues at Smith & Nephew’s Wound Management facility. Robert Pols turned for an update to Paul Adams, senior vice president of global operations for Wound Management

Hull is where the heart is. That’s true, at least, for Smith & Nephew’s Wound Management division, and last year’s Manufacturer Awards confirmed that it’s a healthy heart with a vigorous beat.

In fact, Hull houses the headquarters of Smith & Nephew’s Wound Management global organisation and has done so since the company’s foundation in 1856. But the town is also home to a world class manufacturing facility that’s central to the Wound Management division’s operations and aspirations. The Hessle Road site is one of three in-house manufacturing operations and it accounts for around half the division’s sales. The division’s manufacturing encompasses pharmaceutical products, advanced dressings and electrical devices, of which the first two categories are currently manufactured at Hull. The spotlight is shifting, however, and is coming to fall more intensely on converting the polyurethane films and foams and applying the adhesives that go to create today’s advanced dressings.

“That’s what forms the core competence of our manufacturing capability,” explained Paul Adams, senior vice president of global operations, “and it represents a significant strategic advantage for the company. We are, quite simply, able to manufacture in a way others cannot.”

Understandably, therefore, the aim is to strengthen this capability, and recent years have seen a significant investment programme that has transformed (and continues to transform) the site’s capabilities. As dressings have evolved from traditional first aid products into highly specialised dressings that support the healing of patients, manufacture has needed to transition from cottage industry to one which embraces world class standards and processes.

“We needed to create a manufacturing environment where we could make these advanced products at high speed with equipment capable of converting more than one product,” Adams observed, “and our investment in lean manufacturing and automation is directed towards tackling this problem.”

Investment is also being channelled into a major manufacturing shift, as the division winds up its wound management manufacturing in America and builds a new plant in China. But Hull, he added, continues as centre of the company’s thinking. “Our people and our engineering capabilities in the UK are really valuable. The competence we have here is a step above what we can find anywhere else.”

Investment in the site’s people is vital to sustain that competence, and one major initiative is to raise the engineering skills relating both to the technology of the products and to the manufacturing processes. But culture is important as well as skills, and this is informed by the knowledge that Smith & Nephew products actually change lives for the better.

“We’re promoting at operator level the importance of what people on the site actually do,” said Adams. “What we do goes beyond profit and operational targets – we help people regain their lives. This purpose drives our standards and performance.”

Also essential to the culture is a willingness to break new ground and to take risks in order to make advances. The company is concerned with innovation rather than off-the-shelf solutions, and it seeks to give people the freedom that this requires. Clearly, the policy works, for one current three-year project is now at the breakthrough stage in manufacturing capability despite the gloomy insistence of consultants that it just couldn’t be done.

No company exists in isolation, so Smith & Nephew is concerned about the calibre of those it works with. “Our structured outsourcing programme seeks to better utilise the proven skills of selected strategic partners,” said Adams, “and we try to develop innovative ways of working more effectively with our suppliers, and will even inject capital investment to help them maintain capability and quality. In this industry, you enter a higher risk environment when you outsource, and anything we take from a supplier has to meet our own high standards. So we’re becoming more and more selective, and we’re increasingly conscious of the need for the highest quality in supplies of materials and finished goods.

“We’ve been through the business of driving cost out, but there comes a time when there are diminishing returns, and we’ve learnt that the cost of getting it wrong is way above the cost of getting it right first time. So we’ve structured our procurement process to become more than a buying function, and we’ve involved engineers and quality specialists to ensure that ‘right first time’ is the key principle of the process.”

This concern with high standards also extends to environmental matters. Energy use has been steadily cut and overall waste has been reduced. In addition, new channels for recycling have been opened up by the discovery that some waste material can be utilised by other companies. The business admits to some pride in the environmental steps it has taken so far, and its view was endorsed last year when it was a finalist in The Manufacturer’s 2007 energy and environment award.

But then, 2007 was Smith & Nephew’s year as far as The Manufacturer Awards were concerned. The company emerged as winner in world class manufacturing, skills and productivity and manufacturing operations. What’s more, to set the seal on this series of successes, it was named the overall Manufacturer of the Year 2007. One might be forgiven for thinking that you don’t get better than that – except, of course, that the Hull operation intends to.

“Moving forward, we are continuing to invest in the Hull facility as a lean and automated environment. We accept it won’t be easy to bring together all the skills we need as we advance, but we’ll achieve it by investing in the development of our existing people and by attracting new people as well.

“We’ll continue to develop partnerships with our key suppliers, and we aim to get our operations footprint sharper with an ever firmer focus on where our competences lie,” he concluded.