The wheel deal

Posted on 8 Mar 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 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, as is the case now.” On the pressure area care side of the business, as those at the company call it, 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. “We have 120 guys on the shop floor, predominantly making cushions and mattresses – operations which were, until last year, undertaken at our Treforest site,” he says.

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 products 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.

Joining forces

In January 2011, Invacare announced a new partnership within its Specialist Rehab Seating Range, offering the Leckey KIT and MYGO range of products throughout the UK.

The new KIT Seating System is highly adjustable and designed in a modular format for teens and adults with moderate to complex disabilities. With its innovative Pelvic Cradle, three part backrest with ball and socket joints as well as multi-positional leg guides and footplates, KIT gives clinicians the tools to meet the requirements of the most complex individuals.

The Mygo Seating System further allows therapists to optimise the postural care of children with moderate to complex needs. The seat base, backrest and pelvic harness have been reinforced, and the Size 2 option can accommodate windsweeping of up to 30°. Of the partnership, Mark Babb, the company’s national sales manager, says, “The Leckey KIT and Mygo products complement our expanding product portfolio. By addressing the needs of individuals with complex disabilities from infants to adults we are committed to delivering high value solutions that improve quality of life.”

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 a new premises – job done,” he says. “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.” Further improvements are 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 who visited Bevan’s corner of South Wales. However after the initial training the UK pushed on further. “Why hold superfluous inventory, they said, so we went from Kanban to one piece continuous flow in little under five years; each and every part of a wheelchair, for example, is made for that product alone.” 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,” he explains.

By merging the processes Invacare used in wheelchair manufacturing, things improved rapidly, lead times in mattress manufacturing build to order products reduced from 28 days to five, with on time delivery performance increased from 10% 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.

And yet, with the major share of the UK market for its powerchair products, and over half the market share for its manual chairs and pressure area care portfolio, such obstacles are proving more than negotiable for Invacare UK.

While the company is continuing to pinch work from its major competitors, “We are simultaneously looking to diversify into sectors beyond mobility: primarily the bed and lifting markets, which we’ve earmarked as areas of huge opportunity for 2011 and beyond,” he says.

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.”

Invacare – At a glance

At a glance
Invacare’s UK operations were founded in 1856, and the company now employs over 250 people. Based in South Wales, Invacare provides the UK healthcare market with a range of wheelchairs, scooters, beds, bathing, mattress and cushion products. Invacare’s commitment to product design and quality has resulted in a comprehensive range of solutions for independence and mobility.

Address Pencoed Technology Park, Bridgend, Wales

Employees 250

Turnover £60m


The house that lean built

Bevan, an MSc Lean graduate from Cardiff University, has long been focused on driving lean through the company: “Since last March we’ve been laying the building blocks – climbing the lean house, so to speak.” On 14 February, he oversaw the value stream mapping of Invacare’s cushion area, with many action points around safety, quality, delivery, cost and inventory reduction identified as a result.

“We started a similar project for mattress manufacture last August,” he says. “One of the key points to come from it concerned the fact that at Treforest operators would cut material before sending it away for screen printing – after which it would return to Bridgend for welding, sewing and packaging. Because two days were lost in this process, the screen printing operation now sits in our factory; we simply pass the work to the printer as it comes off lay-cutting and they pass it to high frequency welding – one piece continuous flow.” During the project inventory reduced by a massive 33% and customer lead times reduced by a further 20%.

“On 29 April we’ll measure our progress on the cushion project in terms of safety, quality, delivery and cost, so it’s very much all hands to the pump at the moment,” says Bevan. “What we’ve inherited with blending the two plants is hugely exciting. I think that previously some of the supervisors at Treforest perhaps felt a little bit removed from the processes; now we’ve empowered them, and they’re running the show.”