Muscle building

Posted on 7 May 2008 by The Manufacturer

Investment in automation is the muscle behind HPP’s growth plans as Debbie Giggle discovers from operations director Martin Hill

When it comes to buying a new fitted kitchen, every customer, whatever the budget, is as demanding and fashion conscious as a Manchester United WAG. Retailers need to respond rapidly, offering fitted kitchens and bedrooms that look a million dollars at a minute fraction of that price. To supply this sector you need to be sharp, flexible and efficient.

This is the marketplace in which HPP operates. Formed in 1991 it is a family-owned business supplying a wide range of full and processed sheet material, vinyl wrapped furniture doors and furniture fittings. Managed by brothers Stephen Hill (managing director) and Martin Hill (operations director), HPP started life serving the Greater Manchester area, but has grown rapidly and now supplies customers across the UK.

The product portfolio comprises three categories: board, doors and fittings. Sheet material was where the company started. Today it offers over 150 decors based on materials such as MFC, MDF, HDF and laminate. It prides itself on excellent relationships with suppliers like Kronospan, Egger and Finsa and offers a cut-to-specification service in addition to stocking standard widths.

Since The Manufacturer last interviewed HPP in 2006, the company has made major moves forward, driven by an ambitious capital investment programme and concentration on lean manufacturing. Operations director Martin Hill explained: “Our customers require a very fast turnaround and don’t want to hold stock. They need us to deliver within a tightly defined window to suit their installation schedules.”

Hill agrees that, despite being an entirely different industry sector, the supply chain has similarities with the automotive industry. “Production speed and efficiency is crucial,” he commented, “hence our investment in automation.”

The £1.2 million investment has brought improvements in board production, door manufacture and IT. “In the panel production area, we have recently installed a third IMA edge-banding machine,” said Martin Hill. “This high-production machine with auto-stacking has enabled us to gear up from four sheets at a time to 10. In the last year productivity has increased 25 per cent with six fewer operators needed to manage the line. Cutting is now a one-man operation.

“In door manufacture we have installed a SCM CNC router with automatic loading and a Wemhoner vinyl press with pinbed and turnover device. Productivity has increased by around 35 per cent with five fewer staff required. We’ve also been able to improve quality, reducing reject rates in the door department from eight per cent down to less than two per cent.”
This has brought big benefits for customers, as Martin explained: “Our computerised stock requirement system logs the orders picked during the day and creates a manufacturing schedule. As we run on a 24 hour production basis, this is picked up by the night shift and replacement stock is manufactured overnight. So, by the next morning stock is replenished, enabling us to maintain our customer service levels.”

So how does HPP manufacture to bespoke sizes without long lead times or punishing production overheads? “Our nesting software will enable perhaps 50 different orders to be combined in one production batch and works out how best to optimise material and minimise waste.”

Once an order is taken in the sales office the De Facto manufacturing system automatically batches orders together and creates a text file which is read by the Licon nesting software. This organises production in the most effective way, taking all orders as a whole, and the batches progress through the works. At dispatch, the picking teams bring together the various elements of each order ready for delivery. Every business function links to the same system so there is no rekeying from start to finish.

“It’s a sophisticated system,” agreed Martin, “but we’ve got further to go. We’re working on new work tracking functions that will give our internal teams and customers more visibility for monitoring progress of orders.”

HPP has also invested heavily in training. One area includes upskilling of employees in lean manufacturing techniques with the help of training courses at the Manufacturing Institute in Manchester. HPP is also a member of North Lancs Training Group (NLTG), which provides supervisory and managerial development. “We’ve got a very stable, steady workforce. People tend to stay and grow with us,” said Martin.

How much of the company’s success does he attribute to HPP being a family-owned business? “So far it’s never been a hindrance,” he joked. “Stephen and I know everyone by name. There’s no big hierarchy. It means we can make decisions quickly, and our business needs that flexibility.”

And finally, Martin hints that there could be some new portfolio products available from HPP for the first time during the coming year.