Precision approach to design and manufacture

Posted on 7 Oct 2010 by The Manufacturer

One of the key issues in business is how to get an edge. During dark recessionary times this is a particularly urgent issue for manufacturers. Precision sheet metal sub-contractor KMF seems to have found a formula for success.

Established in 1971 by three former work colleagues Ken, Mick and Fred, the Staffordshire based manufacturer continues to go from strength to strength, led by current managing director Gareth Higgins and supported by original founder Mick Higgins. KMF is a privately owned company and has a turnover of just over £24m.

The company has 260 permanent ‘team members’ and is the largest privately owned sheet metal manufacturer in the UK, operating from a 100,000 square foot purpose built manufacturing plant in Newcastle-under-Lyme. KMF prides itself on meeting the needs of its customers through Design For Manufacture (DFM), producing a wide variety of sheet metal products, from electronics, industrial, electrical distribution and aerospace, to retail point of sale units, control systems for rail, to medical and scientific equipment and gaming machines. Most products are supplied to the home market and about 15% are exported, including a substantial contract in the USA Originally KMF was set up as a traditional engineering firm, with a strong focus on manufacturing competency. But latterly focus has shifted towards providing customers with a complete service solution. “Unlike traditional sheet metal manufacturers who simply take a drawing and convert it into a product, we prefer to engage with customers early in the design process utilising our two full-time design engineers to ensure that new products are optimised for quality, cost and fast delivery to market,” says Business Improvement Manager Keith Nicholl.

The company offers a variety of software packages to meet diverse customer requirements, including Pro- Engineer, Windchill for product data management, and 2D and 3D, Radan for sheet metal design and automatic flat development. KMF invests about £1.3m annually in new technology to keep ahead of the game and to fend off overseas competition.

In March, KMF held a Design Open Day which was attended by leading machine manufacturers including Trumpf, Amada UK, Salvagini and Wilson Tool. 25 customers attended the event, receiving an overview of the latest technology aimed at design engineers.

“Our aim was to invite some of the designers out of their traditional comfort zones, to bring them closer to latest thinking on sheet metal manufacturing techniques. The ultimate goal was to help our customers design products at best cost to meet their requirements,” says Nicholl. The event proved so successful it was repeated in September.

KMF was originally based nearby in Stoke-on-Trent, with operations spread over a number of sites, but moved just over six years ago to consolidate operations in a modern, purpose-built facility. “We consider that maintaining a competitive edge is inextricably linked to our investment strategy of employing the latest automated technology, while also being focussed on building great customer relationships and making a demonstrable investment in our people,” says Nicholl.

Last year, KMF invested in a £750,000 training facility which supports skill building across the company, and an ongoing Advanced Apprenticeship Scheme. Currently 16 apprentices are going through the four year scheme. Recently KMF was awarded the prestigious MWP award for Best Practice in Training.

New Product Introduction
KMF has taken care to optimise customer relationships in a highly competitive market where steel product manufacture is increasingly outsourced to perceived low cost manufacturing regions overseas. “We have introduced a New Product Introduction (NPI) process, staffed by a full-time New Product engineer, to ensure that when an order for a new part is received customer requirements are quickly squared off against our internal processes, as an extension to the standard contract review process.” The plant features seven of the latest Trumpf CNC cutting machines, including a combined laser and punch machine.

A selection of manual press brakes from Trumpf and Amada are used for sheet folding, in combination with two Amada Astro robot folding cells and two Salvagini P4 panel benders, handling up to 3m sheet size and gauges typically up to 6mm. The fabrication and welding section has 11 fully equipped MIG and TIG bays, supplemented by two ABB robot cells. Two years ago, KMF invested £1.3 million in a major upgrade to its existing Gema electrostatic powder coating facility. This now provides two independent paint lines which can be linked to enable efficient application of two-coat systems, primarily for outdoor products. A fully equipped electrical and electronic integration facility was set up a few years ago, which enables KMF to offer a complete manufacturing solution.

Nicholl joined the company four years ago from the SMMT Industry Forum, where he was a senior engineer on lean manufacturing implementation. Over the past four years he has worked at taking the company through a lean manufacturing initiative, which is now considered integral to its success. “My primary role is encouraging the adoption of waste elimination throughout our organisation simply by doing the basics right.” KMF recognised early on that the production team leaders were central to delivery of company objectives, and initiated a two-year intensive education programme starting in October 2006.

During the training programme, the team leaders were taken through the four building blocks of lean: 5C for workplace organisation; simple visual control; standardisation; and waste elimination using the 7 Wastes.

“We’ve set up a process approach to true lean implementation, rather than an activity/project driven approach to fixing problems as we come across them. We set out a series of meaningful objectives that are deployed over a twelve week period and monitored closely via a weekly progress review.” As a result, KMF now operates with very low inventory levels, with 27 stock turns a year “which allows us to offer an agile, just in time response.” Customers benefit from short lead times of typically 5-14 days, and also greatly reduced batch sizes because of the flexibility.

Reward scheme initiative
This year KMF launched a Productivity Share Scheme which openly and transparently communicates and shares the results of our improvement efforts with our employees. “If we hit our targets, at the end of the financial year a bonus of about £400 will be paid out to scheme participants,” says Nicholl.

Since the adoption of lean methodology there has been measurable improvement in the company’s internal and external ‘right first time’, delivery schedule adherence, and productivity metrics.

Energy efficiency and sustainability
KMF is compliant with BS18001, ISO14001 and ISO9001 for health and safety, environmental performance and quality. The new training school was built with energy efficiency in mind, using sustainable materials and with an underground source heat pump for under-floor heating.

Waste streams are segregated and scrap material recycled. In addition, deployment of new CNC technology and software for dynamic nesting, means improved sheet utilisation, which results in lower unit cost to customers and less impact on the environment.

Looking forward
The next goal, according to Nicholl, is to extend the lean thinking approach throughout the supply chain. In terms of new investment, KMF has just purchased an additional 10,000 sq ft manufacturing unit adjacent to the current building, to specialise in medical, scientific and aerospace operations. “We aim to undertake these operations in one self-contained building to provide the higher levels of traceability and control demanded by these customers.” In the longer term, KMF is committed to continuing investment in people and acquisition of the latest manufacturing technologies, in order to provide world class service to an ever growing customer base.