Racking up the improvements

Posted on 22 Mar 2012

On the face of it, making storage and shelving systems doesn’t seem like the most obvious branch of manufacturing to apply lean principles to. Storage systems are designed, steel is rolled, welded and painted, and goods go out the door – how much value can you really add? Vast amounts, Operations Manager Michael Rudniak tells Will Stirling.

APEX Linvar, Milton Keynes based storage solution design and manufacture experts, have made significant investment in the last 3 years in new equipment and technology to improve their manufacturing processes (see TM, September 2010). This included two new rolling lines, which increased productivity on a range of core components in excess of 40%, an automatic welder that is three-times quicker than the previous process and two rapid colour change powder paint booths significantly improving the changeover process.

A business improvement system, Lean Production Operating System (LPOS), was introduced in 2008 and was the first step in a substantial culture shift within Apex. A significant element of the process was the introduction of LPOS daily cell meetings, involving team members and management, in which employee relations, production and business issues are raised and problem solved within a team environment. “No LPOS meeting has been cancelled or rescheduled in it’s three years of operation and management are rotated to ensure representation at each cell meeting every day,” says Mr Rudniak, whose recently completed MBA featured lean management. “The implementation of LPOS was piloted within Operations and has now been replicated within indirect functions at Apex, a process facilitated by our Quality Manager, Doug Smith.

Since TM’s last profile on APEX 12-months ago, the Company has changed its name from LINPAC Storage Systems to the original APEX Linvar, following an acquisition from Chamonix, a private equity firm which bought five non-core businesses from LINPAC in 2010.

In October 2011 Apex has appointed a new chief executive to lead its ambitious drive for growth. Anthony Finlayson-Green has taken up the newly-created role at the Milton Keynes-based business. With considerable experience in senior management, Anthony was most recently managing director at Cert Octavian, whose transformation is well documented.

2010 saw the development of a successful partnership with leading training provider develop-u and the beginning of a long-term investment in a lean manufacturing tools and techniques programme. “We are now reaping the benefits of this investment in our people and have realised significant business improvements and enhanced our employee engagement” says Mr Rudniak.

Michael Rudniak (Operations Manager) explains; “As a company we identified the need to implement sustainable organisational improvements focusing on the 3P’s…Processes, People and Projects”.

Paint Line Project

In 2010, APEX Linvar (then LINPAC Storage Systems) purchased 2 state of the art Paint Line Booths, with new technology affording the team highly efficient colour changeovers, with a change to any colour in the range performed in less than 10 minutes.

Production process improvements involving the paint process since last September include:

  • A powder paint saving of £150K. “We use almost 30 per cent less powder on product on these lines, with no negative effect on the paint durability,” says Mr Rudniak, who adds that Apex works very closely with its powder supplier, Liverpool-based Invar, on the new system. “On top of the saving, the main operational and commercial benefit is the rapid colour change time which has reduced from a high of six hours to less than 10 minutes.”
  • Energy saving, by reducing air consumption in the painting process.

Factory Dream

Factory Dream is the biggest physical project tackled at APEX in the last few years.  “We analysed our factory layout and prepared a new, ‘dream’ layout. It was all carried out internally,” says Mr Rudniak. The main improvement was reorganising the production flow of galvanised products into a cell format, a project run by Simon Smith, Manufacturing Engineering Manager and Peter Simmons, Production Services Supervisor. The factory had developed organically over 20-years, with machinery installed without a strategy based around product flow. “The work was carried out by our staff during weekends, with no disruption to production and the entire operations team were involved.” APEX is half way through the project, and already there is a “significant improvement,” he adds.

Have you measured the efficiency gains from the new factory layout? “We have reduced handling of galvanised material by 60 percent, we’ve reduced material handling needs by one forklift truck and handling hours equivalent to a cost of £30,000 per annum. The payback will be within 1.5 years.”

And there’s more. APEX has also recorded a reduction in; storage costs by 20%, plastic Linbin’s material handling by a massive 75% and has greatly simplified its stock management process.

Company Training Plan

In 2009/10, APEX overhauled the training and development focus within Operations and implemented a new employee development programme. The project, run by Siân Bishop, Human Resources Manager comprised of a three-year, skills-focused Employee Development Plan and a new Personal Development Review System (PDR). The PDR system, says Mr Rudniak, is one of the Company’s biggest achievements in the last 12-months. “We’ve introduced a new skills grading structure, and aligned our skills matrices to afford full transparency between competence, training requirements and pay,” he says. “Each department holds an individual skills matrix that demonstrates the skills required for each grade.”

However, the key for us was sourcing a training provider with not only a proven track record for learner engagement and achievement, but also one that shared our vision and values for operational excellence through respectful collaboration and one equally who would not shy away from ‘Challenging the Status Quo’. To say that we were finding it hard to find such a provider was an understatement until I was invited to visit a then sister company of APEX Linvar (formally LINPAC Storage Systems), Linpac Packaging based in West Yorkshire and was introduced to develop-u.

“Two things very close to my heart were that I needed our employees to realise their potential for continuously contributing to the long term successes and sustainable improvements which would drive our business ever forward, as demonstrated across all departments in our sister company” Says Mr Rudniak.

“We chose develop-u, a small training company because they were a little bit different from the larger training providers we had previously researched, even their business cards state, ‘develop-u, Training Re-Invented’, How very apt!  What was also truly refreshing to me was the fact that develop-u wanted to be a part of the cultural and behavioural changes that we desired for our business”.

Apex Linvar
Apex Linvar

After an initial successful pilot phase involving employees from all departments including Apex’s senior management team, It was agreed to roll out a further 3 phases engaging more than 90% of the organisation’s workforce. Everyone co-operated in achieving an NVQ Diploma in Business Improvement Techniques.

Mr Rudniak recalls, ‘Straight from the off it was clearly noticeable that the passion, positivity and enthusiasm generated by the entire develop-u team was having a beneficial knock-on effect. Very quickly an air of ‘Positivity’ was evident, individuals took ownership and there were even whispers of a ‘No blame culture’ being nurtured. The whole place had a new energy.’

In summary, I would say our original objectives of the ‘Factory Dream Project’, increased productivity, employee engagement and reduced process variation have all been realised with remarkable year-on-year financial returns. However, for me, the crowning glory is that it has turned APEX Linvar into a true learning organisation, through the identification and facilitation of team learning and development.

World Class Performance and CSR

In terms of benchmarking, APEX Linvar has audited itself to find out how close to achieving “World Class Performance” it has come. The audit covers all areas which have been improved recently, summarised as:

  • Manufacturing efficiency measured, addressed and constantly improved
  • TPM: Preventative strategy successfully adopted
  • Strong Continuous Improvement culture among majority of workforce
  • Big investment in people and equipment
  • Significant cost improvement projects completed
  • Great level of flexibility and productivity improvements
  • Very strong safety culture

Michael Rudniak says APEX is passionate about engaging with the local community and the education network, and wants to raise the image of manufacturing as a career path of choice.  “We are working with our local university, The University of Northampton, and we are planning to host an open day for students within the local education providers,” says Rudniak.

“From 2007 to where we are today we have undertaken a massive journey. For example, On-Time-In Full delivery performance (OTIF) in 2007 was 62 per cent. Our annualised result for last year was 98.6 per cent – a huge improvement.”

As for sustainability, APEX Linvar continues to improve its robust processes and grow their reputation as a modern, people- focused successful British manufacturing organisation.