Smooth running for Air Bearings

Posted on 8 Oct 2009 by The Manufacturer

A culture of continuous improvement remains central to Air Bearings Ltd’s position as best of breed in the manufacture of drilling spindles. TM assistant editor Edward Machin investigates how a cellular shop floor has transformed the company’s daily operations.

Established in 1993, Dorset-based Air Bearings Ltd are the world’s leading provider of air bearing solutions, specialising in the design, manufacture, and service of drilling spindles for applications such as ultra high speed PCB drilling, precision grinding, and non-ferrous turning and milling.

In 1996, Air Bearings entered into a partnership with a large Japanese multinational specialising in high-technology services. Given their significant global market share, the fact that Air Bearings represent the prime supplier of spindles for its PCB drilling machines has been particularly judicious, says Gary Waldron, Manufacturing Manager, Air Bearings.

“We export weekly to Japan, with our end customers located across Asia, but particularly in China, Korea, and Japan.

However, Air Bearings remains, for all intents and purposes, an autonomous organisation. While there are certain corporate mandates which we are understandably required to follow, we have the considerable benefits of retaining our parent company as a customer, yet largely dictate our own sphere of operations,” he says.

Continuous improvement
Air Bearings design spindles that run up to 350,000 revolutions per minute, and with tolerances significantly finer than those found in traditional manufacturing, often within the half micron range. As a result: “It remains crucial that we undertake a robust range of quality control, testing, and certification procedures to ensure the optimal running of our processes,” says Waldron. Indeed, the company regularly benchmarks both machine availability and quality as part of a larger culture of continuous improvement.

“Central to our continuous improvement process is the active engagement of our staff in all that we do. Given that many have been with the company since its inception, we greatly value the knowledge and experience they have of our technologies, processes, and aspirations.” Says Waldron The company promotes a flat structure, with management actively engaged with shop floor activities. Explains Waldron: “While obviously our roles are delineated to an extent, we feel it important to engage with our workforce wherever possible.

Indeed, for staff to be genuinely involved in our company they must be made aware of what we are seeking to achieve.

More than that, however, they need to sense that their voice and contributions are fundamental to our successes – past, present, and future.” A further impetus behind much of the company’s efficiency drives has been its regular contact with the South West Manufacturing Advisory Service (SWMAS), a government funded organisation created to advise manufacturers with productivity and best practice initiatives. Says Waldron: “Air Bearings initially engaged with SWMAS in 2008. After a three month consultation period in which we set out our latest continuous improvement benchmarks, SWMAS advised us as to the most efficient ways to implement them.” “These consultations have been invaluable, in that SWMAS acts as both an external resource and sounding board for the processes which will keep Air Bearings ahead of the chasing pack.

Moreover, the sessions serve to further reinforce our company ethos, as we actively seek to engage with impartial bodies who are passionate about continuous improvement.”

A hard Cell?
In line with the company’s total efficiency drive, in 2007 Air Bearings began a move from process based manufacturing to cellular operations. Explains Waldron: “Originally the floor was structured so as to position the turning, milling, and grinding in distinct and separate locations. However, to manufacture our products with maximum efficiency we structured the floor so as to accommodate five cells, each designed to produce complete components.”

While the process remains ongoing, the initial benefits were immediate, with both lead times and cost reducing, together with a noticeable rise in employee engagement. More significantly, the company’s decision to approach cellular manufacturing lead it to Lean. Somewhat unusually, however, says Waldron: “Lean is an area that we almost approached backwards. Indeed, we felt that the cellular operations the company is in the process of implementing on the floor should represent merely one aspect of a wider efficiency drive.” For example, the continuing development of 5S — a workplace organisational methodology to increase efficiency, safety, and staff moral — has been central to Air Bearings’ move into both cellular and Lean operations. In spite of its being a “deceptively simple” process, Waldron asserts that 5S will make a considerable difference not only to the company as a whole, but within the cells themselves.

“While our Lean journey is still in its infancy, the effect it has had on the cellular structure is noticeable. However, we are keen not to get ahead of ourselves,” he says. As a result, the company installs cells individually, creating another only after a thorough review of the support, efficiency, and processing benchmarks for the previous one has been undertaken. Air Bearings initially targeted early 2010 for completion of the five cells. “In fact,” says Waldron, “we are expecting to go live across the shop floor by November of this year. That is not to say that the process ends there; far from it. It will be a case of consolidation, ongoing refinement, and regularly benchmarking the cells against one another. In other words, continuous improvement.”

Cutting edge technologies
With only a very limited number of similar companies, Air Bearings Ltd operates globally in the sub-sector of air bearing based PCB drill production and is one of only two manufacturers working at such high tolerances. As a result, research and development remains a vital aspect of the company’s remit. Says Waldron: “We commit a significant amount of both time and money to exploring new technology, processes, and intellectual properties, with approximately 25% of our total staff working under engineering manager Jevan Smith and R & D manager Dr Ralf DuPont ” He continues: “Given that we are — to a large extent — the sole market operator for sub-micron, high-tech air bearing solutions, it makes sense that we keep our R&D primarily in-house.” As such, the department undertakes ‘pure’ research into new materials and processes, together with the methods by which it applies those processes to prototype spindles and related products.

Indeed, the economic downturn has seen Air Bearings actually increase its investment in R&D activities. Says Waldron: “It would be incorrect to claim that the financial climate has entirely bypassed Air Bearings Ltd.” That being said, the company’s ongoing commitment to research, product development, and ultra high specification technologies means that it is ideally placed to continue operating as a best in class manufacturer when the economy does upsurge.

“Moreover, the affiliation with our parent company means that we have the capacity to engage in pioneering independent research, secure in the knowledge that our owners not only condone such practices, but actively encourage us to do so.” “After all,” says Waldron, “the achievements of Air Bearings Ltd are largely down to our workforce. Without the dedicated staff that ensure our continued successes, any advances we make in research and development, cellular manufacturing, or Lean operations would be impossible.”