Many companies could tear off a strip from Finnish specialty fibre company Ahlstrom’s focus on continuous improvement and building excellence in global operations which span 39 manufacturing sites in 14 countries. Here in the UK, Ahlstrom runs two sites, one in Manchester and a large manufacturing plant in Chirnside, Scotland.
The Finnish parent develops and manufactures high-performance fibre composites and specialty papers serving multiple industry sectors, including food and non-food packaging, filtration, glassfibre reinforcement materials for marine, windmill and transportation applications, coated abrasive materials, crépe papers, pre-impregnated décor papers, pressure-sensitive adhesive labels, fibre-based sealing papers and vegetable parchment for food wrapping, baking, decorative laminates, and medical wraps.
The Scottish plant caters mainly for the food market, with four manufacturing platforms for non-woven production.
Plant manager Stuart Nixon explains that machines 21 and 22 are inclined wire paper-making machines, making filter materials and fibrous casing reinforcement for food applications.
Machine 23 makes medical nonwovens and wiping fabrics but is planned to close in 2011 as the line is currently under-utilised. Their latest investment is a specialised spun melt machine which has been designed and fabricated to make the next generation of beverage and infusion products. The €28 million investment is handling commercial orders already and is due to ramp up to full production next year.
“The new machine is purpose-built to manufacture the next generation of infusion material, termed BioWeb™. Its principal raw material is PLA (polylactic acid), a biopolymer currently derived from corn starch. This means that the raw material is based on 100% renewable resources, making it sustainable. It is also fully compostable by industrial composting,” says Nixon.
The Scottish site was initially acquired by American company CH Dexter in 1970. But the history of papermaking on the site goes back far longer. “Part of the historic façade of the plant is actually listed and there has been papermaking at Chirnside since 1830,” remarks Nixon. In 2000, Ahlstrom purchased CH Dexter’s non-woven business and acquired the site.
The Chirnside plant makes heat sealable teabag filter tissue and fibrous meat casings for continental sausages, like salami and pepperoni. About 75% of the products are exported to more than 60 countries. “Nobody else can or does make casing reinforcements the way we do. We have in depth knowledge of the fibres used to make these products and unique technology,” says Nixon.
Ahlstrom was floated on the Helsinki stock exchange in 2006. The company is a business which has an emphasis on building excellence in operations worldwide. Continuous improvement is considered paramount, and the Finnish group has rolled out a comprehensive programme called aPlus (Ahlstrom-Plus) which runs throughout the corporation.
Continuous improvement manager Andrew Gorvett is responsible for coordinating the aPlus process in the UK and the rollout process in France, India, USA and other locations.
Gorvett emphasises the importance of challenging established working practices and the benefit of working in teams to achieve lean improvement. “When you start challenging the old beliefs with a cross-functional team, there are real gains to be made,” he cites the example of a machine which was believed to have a certain maximum speed but, when a lean team examined the system, was found to have drives that could actually go far faster.
The key components of the aPlus process on the shop floor are:
● Focus on the key problems
● Document the improvement
● Work in teams to solve problems
● Solving problems based on data
● Use problem solving tools
● Have clear goals and a time frame for completion of teams
● Make improvement continuous
aPlus deploys the full gamut of CI tools, which include total preventative maintenance (TPM), six sigma and lean systems.
PKE and PKL Training
“We have two training programmes. One at a local level is called the Process Kaizen Leadership programme (PKL), which takes individuals on site through problem solving techniques and tools. The second programme, which runs at a group level, is called the Process Kaizen Engineering programme (PKE). This is provided in conjunction with a continuous improvement consultancy company. The programme involves a minimum of five weeks of training in seven modules, including: problem solving, process quality, industrial engineering, operations management, process reliability, early equipment management and training & education. Selected candidates take a year-long course, travelling to different Ahlstrom sites where they learn the particular modules and also learn about Ahlstrom’s different operations. After their year of training, the candidates graduate as Process Kaizen Engineers (PKEs). “At a group level the programme develops a pool of well trained problem solvers who have the skills required to improve our global operations in the future,” says Gorvett. Chirnside has seven PKEs including the plant manager, two production managers, the quality manager, regulatory manager and maintenance managers.
Nixon stresses, “This is not just a training course where you turn up for three days and go home with a certificate.
After each of the modules you go back to your respective site to run a specific project which demonstrates your understanding of how the module works. Then at the next module, participants are examined and make a presentation of the project they just ran.”
aPlus is run on a pillar structure along the lines of the TPM Temple. The key pillars are: safety; focused improvement (OEE); environment; process quality; planned maintenance; autonomous management; perfect value stream; training and education, “which is effectively the bedrock of the foundation we build on,” says Nixon; and early equipment management, which is focused on new equipment or new line introduction. “We believe it is important to assess the design of any new equipment from the outset to ensure that it works right first time.” Furthermore, aPlus encompasses lean flow and has had a particular impact on our supply chain operations, addressing the “perfect value stream to optimise supply chain management,” Nixon adds.
Like many change management schemes, initially there was some suspicion of the ‘unknown’. But good communication and a positive approach to education has encouraged take-up of the continuous improvement scheme.
“Once the staff saw the benefits some of the early teams were achieving in terms of better working conditions, they wanted to take advantage of these projects for themselves,” says production manager Mike Jones.
Detailed KPIs are monitored and maintained, including OEE, waste, safety i.e. accident frequency rate (AFR) and accident severity rate (ASR), quality, cost, delivery, innovation and motivation, as well as environmental metrics on water utilisation, energy consumption and waste-to-landfill. Waste-to-landfill has dropped year-on-year by 40% due to various team initiatives. “We constantly review our energy consumption and the new machine has a much smaller carbon footprint than earlier machines,” says Nixon. Ahlstrom runs energy teams to identify opportunities to manufacture products more sustainably.
Consequently, there has been significant water utilisation reduction amongst other improvements.
“We analyse factory data and select areas for improvement using a cross-functional team, taking care to ensure that the target identified for the team is achievable.
For example, optimising waste is a significant challenge in this business. So the team is encouraged to reduce waste for a particular single activity by 50% (say) rather than attempting across-the-board improvement initially.” Over the past couple of years, Ahlstrom has run about 90 teams a year in the UK, with major impacts on safety, productivity and the bottom line. Safety performance has improved at both sites; with reductions in waste; a rise in machine throughput; and improved on time, as requested, in full delivery.
Strong visual management is utilised, with KPI summary boards for each of the pillars located at the entrance to each production area. The company also uses large format Kaizen sheets and traffic light forms to track the progress of teams in each production area. A screen saver system is also used to summarise information about each machine platform. This information is also displayed on large TV’s around the site.
Care is taken to ensure ownership of performance improvement throughout the group. “The teams are not specifically management driven, but have six to eight team members to harness the knowledge of people actually doing the work to improve performance,” says Nixon. “We find there is an increased sense of ownership since deploying the continuous improvement programme.
People treat their equipment better and there has been an improvement in morale.” The corporation has an internal aPlus auditing team, and the Chirnside plant is one of the three sites worldwide which are termed World Class by these measures. “Improved quality goes hand in hand with improved process efficiency,” says Nixon.
There is also a reward scheme using tokens to encourage improvement.
“But our commitment to continuous improvement is by no means a token effort!” quips Nixon. People who join a team get one token. If successful with a project, they receive a further four tokens. The tokens can be used to select gifts from a catalogue, which range from screwdriver sets to laptops. “Frankly, many people need no incentive to want to improve their working environment or a particular machine. But it’s important for us to recognise people’s efforts in continuous improvement,” says Nixon.
Ahlstrom is an SVQ-accredited site and offers a variety of courses. Some are compulsory, such as the health and safety SVQ course. But employees working on the machines can augment their salaries by achieving the machine technical certificates. Ahlstrom also supports quite a number of employees through GCSEs, and Open University Courses up to and including Masters Degrees.
Looking to the future, Ahlstrom expects to build on the strong foundations it has established. “We are always under pressure to improve. Consequently, it’s a question of making sure we are at the top of our game in terms of safety, quality, efficiency and morale,” says Nixon. The corporation is now looking towards Asia as a major opportunity for expansion, along with Brazil, Russia and India. Ahlstrom recently signed a joint venture for medical materials production in China, producing medical papers and masking tapes, sterilization wraps and masking tape substrates.
To maintain its leading edge in specialty composite fibres, achieving aPlus is a grade that Ahlstrom is committed to live up to.