Transformation the Avon Rubber way

Posted on 23 Sep 2014 by The Manufacturer

Avon Rubber, a manufacturer of rubber-based protective equipment and dairy solutions, opened the doors of its Wiltshire factory to TM’s James Pozzi to offer an insight into its transformation.

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The Metropolitan Police is a user of Avon Rubber masks.

If you map the major wars and conflicts of the past few decades, then it is likely Avon Rubber would have been integral in providing protective equipment to its combatants. The rubber manufacturer, established in 1885 and based in the sleepy town of Melksham in the Wiltshire countryside, boasts quite the customer base for its rubber masks as part of sub-division, Avon Protection Systems.

Its biggest customer, the US Military, uses its products for all four of its divisions – Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. But the decision to buy from Avon occurred after the first Gulf War, when stories surfaced of agitated soldiers offering to buy their British counterparts’ Avon-made masks due to their own equipment being ill equipped to deal with the extreme Iraq heat.

Other customers include everyone from the Metropolitan Police to oil & gas companies looking to preserve staff health from the potentially damaging chemicals they may encounter. Perhaps most bizarrely, its masks also made headline news when Justin Bieber was pictured wearing one on a night out in London in 2013. Given every mask is given a registration number, what’s more baffling is how it got into Bieber’s hands in the first place. Ebay was a popular suggestion.

Cluster Exchange Blue Box Ready to go to Farmer
A cluster exchange box ready to be returned to a farmer.

But to talk solely about military equipment does Avon a disservice. Its other major source of revenue is making dairy equipment used to aid the milking of a cow through its Milkrite brand. With strong business in North America, where it has a market share of 10%, Milkrite produces equipment designed to stop the costly business of milk becoming contaminated. Its most notable product is its mouthpiece vented liner (IP-MV), launched in 2010.

Bringing the IP-MV to market also saw an evolution into offering service-based models of dairy solutions. The company’s cluster exchange program enables a farmer to swap their clusters after excessive usage, with each one tagged, informing a farmer of any problem. While the lion’s share of its dairy market activities is based in North American and Europe, it is now looking to new markets such as the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates alone milks 120,000 cows a day; the dairy market in China is continues to boom.

Finding the right ERP solution

Underpinning its base of operations is Sage ERP systems. After seeing first-hand how its existing ERP system was inadequate to deal with growing business demands, it implemented Sage ERP’s X3 solution in 2012. This was to ensure one solution to bring consistency across its global operations, having previously used five different solutions. The roll out of this was a relatively smooth process, according to Mike De Pasquale, Avon Rubber’s group enterprise system manager.

A handheld device being used to track materials in Avon Rubber’s warehouse.

After considering rival solutions from SAP and Microsoft Dynamics, Mr De Pasquale said Sage won out due to the trust in the customer-provider relationship, noting the impracticality of him speaking to Microsoft in the USA every time he needed a conversation with them. He admitted that the biggest challenge was embracing change and getting everyone in the company to buy into the new solution.

But for any ERP solution to be fully utilised, the vendors need to know the business challenges associated with the company it is selling to. With productivity and innovation arguably the two most important things for modern manufacturers, results on the shop floor are critical. A demonstration of the ERP solution’s impact was best demonstrated in Avon’s warehouse located next to its manufacturing plant, hand held devices can track products instantaneously.

Implementing change on the factory floor

The production lines have also been a recipient of automation investment, owing to the fact that when a big order is received – for example, protective masks to be sent to Syria – they can run continuously for 24 hours. But despite the investment in highly technical machinery, the human element is also integral in attaching parts together to ensure requirements are met for sometimes highly customised orders. But employee numbers are now around 800 across the globe after the sell-off of other company divisions, a far cry from the 1980s when Avon Rubber employed 6,000 in the UK alone. And yet despite these figures, Avon Rubber and its two divisions are in a period of growth and profitability.

With revenues at an estimated £55m and export markets stretching all corners of the globe, Avon is one of the mid-market champions UKTI chief executive Lord Livingston spoke of as potential economic drivers at the beginning of the year. While its existing customer base is impressive, Avon has its eyes on a range of new markets, including the possibility of protective equipment for the emerging fracking industry. While its output is diverse, its growth plans remain focused and such large scale investment in its production, warehouse and ERP capabilities ensure it is robust enough to compete in the years ahead.