On the road

Posted on 20 Feb 2008 by The Manufacturer

Gary Jones and Alan Beel of the Explorer Group tell Debbie Giggle how implementation of lean has slashed lead times and inventory

Nine years ago the Explorer Group manufactured caravans in batches of up to 100 and put the majority into stock. Today it can build in batches of five or seven, working directly in response to retail sales. In terms of productivity improvements, inventory reduction and cutting of lead times it has come a very long way.

Although there have been huge achievements in the implementation of lean, the Explorer Group realises that there is always room for improvement. Gary Jones, general manager, said: “We started our lean implementation from scratch in October 2003. We’ve achieved a lot, but with the investment programme we have underway and the incremental steps we are making in continuous improvement, we still have more to do.”

The Explorer Group was formed in 1998, bringing together three well established brands of touring caravans and motorhomes: Elddis, Buccaneer and Compass. The company has also added a new brand to their portfolio – Xplore – which will be launched in February 2008. Based in Consett, County Durham, the Explorer Group is the UK’s second largest caravan and motorhome manufacturer.

The north east factory houses a workforce of around 400, producing more than 5500 touring caravans and motorhomes each year. The company has its own research and development facility, using the latest CAD technology. The close link between caravan design and trends in interior décor means the company is continually responding to emerging fashion. The caravan and motorhome market is price-competitive making it reactive to downturns in consumer spending, so productivity is crucial.

“We recognised four years ago that a major transition was necessary,” explained Jones. “We needed to shorten lead times and improve productivity to such an extent that we could build in response to orders from retailers. We are proud to be making the transition in a comparatively short time. Lean has played a major part in this journey.”

Alan Beel, business process improvement manager, was brought in to manage the lean implementation. He has since trained two change agents who work alongside him. The lean strategy encompasses projects of three different types: policy deployment projects, daily management projects and capital projects.
“We’re using a variety of techniques,” said Beel. “We began by introducing simple 5S procedures with league tables and audits, and the whole company is involved.” An imperative, however, was reducing
batch size and lead time without increasing production costs.

“Lean thinking is being applied to every aspect of our operations – not just production,” continued Beel. “By using tools like value stream mapping, JIT process mapping and flow charts, we are looking at the whole value chain. An inventory reduction road map has been drawn up with the aim of reducing part numbers from 250 down to 50 on sheet material. The purchasing teams are also using lean tools to improve their processes.”

Explorer caravans are built on BPW galvanized steel chassis, and the motorhomes use the latest Peugeot HDi turbo diesels. The construction and fitting-out of each model is a complex procedure with more than 3,500 components involved in a single caravan or motorhome. To achieve its aims, the Explorer Group has combined investment in machines and equipment with streamlining of production flow. Over £1 million has been invested in new production facilities for the laminating shop. This includes installation of a new CNC machine for cutting and shaping of side panels and a new reversing spray line. The introduction of lasers has reduced set up times on the side benches. A new heated press has also greatly improved the speed of this process. Throughput time for a side panel, from cutting timber to a completed panel, has been cut from in excess of seven days down to 48 hours.

Lean techniques were used to decide how to adapt the previous production layout into a highly efficient one-piece flow production line in the laminating shop. Furthermore, significant sums have been invested in improvements to the fabric of the building, new manual handling aids, additional tooling, environmental extraction technology and other areas. In a separate project Jones tackled the manufacture of aftermarket furniture parts. “Traditionally, aftermarket parts were manufactured within the main production environment but this wasn’t cost-efficient, did not offer the customer a good service and lead times were long,” he explained. “To improve on this, a designated production area was established with its own staff. This has enabled us to reduce lead times in this area from 56 days down to 14 days.”
Jones completed the project as part of his Level 5 Diploma in Operations Management funded by the Explorer Group’s staff training scheme. The company’s focus on development and training goes much further than this.

“Our production methods are specialised and there definitely aren’t people out there with the right skill set just waiting to work for us,” said Jones. “We have a number of initiatives already underway to fill the skills gap and give us the potential to grow. We have 11 apprentices at present and get out to schools, colleges and universities to talk about career opportunities. This year we’ve also run a series of on-site visits enabling 14 and 15 year olds from local schools to see manufacturing at first hand. At the other end of the age spectrum we have research graduates from Durham University working on projects and are involved in a knowledge transfer partnership with Newcastle University.

Looking forward to 2008, the development of its training initiatives continues to be a priority for the Explorer Group, but there are other key projects within production. “We are in the middle of a £500,000 investment programme to streamline production in our motorhome factory – a project that was started
18 months ago. The next step is to evolve our machine shop from its existing layout into a more efficient flow line for the manufacture of the furniture. This involves an investment of £250,000 and will take two years to complete.”