The wheel deal

Posted on 9 Apr 2011 by The Manufacturer

Less than a year after consolidating two of its production facilities, Edward Machin talks to Chris Bevan, general manager of mobility products manufacturer Invacare UK, about building Lean houses — one brick at a time.

With global headquarters in Elyria, Ohio, the Invacare Corporation is an undisputable global leader in the $6bn home medical products industry.

Central to maintaining such prominence, and located 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, in Pencoed, is Invacare UK — the first European site the corporation purchased, more than two decades ago. “We’ve actually been manufacturing wheelchairs in South Wales for well over half a century,” says Chris Bevan, Invacare UK’s general manager. “Firstly as Zimmer Orthopedic, which then became Carters J&A in the late 1970s; Invacare acquired the company in 1988.

In the UK we can sell any and all of the Group’s products: something could be made in the USA, France or Germany, but it will be part of our product portfolio at Pencoed.” After a European consolidation exercise in 2006, the volume of both powered and manual wheelchairs made by Invacare UK decreased. Bevan takes up the story: “The parent company decided to install two European Centres of Excellence: one for manual wheelchairs (Sweden) and one for powered (Germany). It left us largely with products that we only sell into the UK market, so it didn’t make sense to set up continental supply chains.” All was not lost, however. Invacare acquired MSS, a manufacturer of wheelchair cushions and bed mattresses, previously based in Treforest and “with the wheelchair side of the business based in Bridgend, and given Invacare’s strategy of continual growth, it simply made sense to base everybody at the one facility.” On the pressure area care side of the business, Pencoed is the Centre of Excellence for the Invacare world.

The UK is the only European site that manufactures such products and, accordingly, it distributes a wide range of both pressure reducing mattresses and cushions to the organisation’s global sites.

Invacare ships to order approximately £6m per month, of which a fifth is traced to the company’s pressure area care products which when added with in house wheelchair production amounts to 40% of the daily shipping figure; the remaining percentage is distribution of product manufactured at Invacare’s other sites around the globe. Indeed, the latter was one of Bevan’s greatest challenges in merging the two plants. “I think perhaps we underestimated the logistics in shifting the factory’s warehouse and distribution operation. After the huge success of the manufacturing move from Treforest, which was thought to be the more difficult part of the merge, I simply expected to be able to pick up the warehouse and move it to new premises. Given that we were so busy due to the company’s continued growth, this certainly proved to be a much bigger challenge than expected.”

Leading on lead times
“We build to order, and therefore hold very few manufactured products in stock. Everything Invacare UK makes is done with a maximum lead time of five days: cushions in under two, and wheelchairs and mattresses in under five, with further improvements just around the corner.” This ultra efficient approach to manufacture can be traced to 1993, and the input of Eric Michel, General Manager of the Invacare French Operation. “Why hold superfluous inventory, they said, so we went from Kanban to one piece continuous flow in little under five years.” Things were not always so for all products. “When we acquired the plant at Treforest, work was done in large batches, with queuing, silos — you name it.” By merging the processes Invacare used in wheelchair manufacturing, things improved rapidly. Lead times in mattress manufacturing reduced from 28 days to five, with on time delivery performance increased from 10 per cent to 100.

“Very seldom we fall off the one hundred per cent mark, so that’s a nice improving picture, but it’s not come without its hurdles,” says Bevan.

In order to maximise such growth, Invacare UK has implemented an organisation-wide 5S programme, of which value stream mapping exercises remain an ongoing — and critical — component. “Before 2008 we were shipping £50,000 worth of spare lines per day; a spares planner was charged solely with ascertaining how many lines we could dispatch in zero to two days,” says Bevan. “That was another challenge: if you order on Monday then it’s delivered to the customer by the Wednesday. Equally, if Pencoed doesn’t hold something in stock we’ll have it ordered from Europe in double quick time. Because purchase and sales orders have been tied, nothing sits on the floor gathering dust; it’s booked in, the guys can immediately see the sales order and the part is shipped out as soon as it arrives. This is a relatively new initiative for us, but one that is proving revolutionary to the way we work.”