Weaving the future

Posted on 5 Jun 2009 by The Manufacturer

Innovation in all areas and the drive to find new business opportunities explains Toray Textiles’ remarkable success in an extremely challenging market. Caroline Merz talked to associate production director Matt Nicholson about moving out of the comfort zone.

Textile businesses have suffered more than most in the rapid market decline faced by UK manufacturing over the last decade. Confronted with increased imports of cheaper textiles from the Far East which reduced the demand for EU-produced products, and then with the decline of EU garment production as customers relocated their manufacturing operations to lower-cost regions of the world, many UK textile manufacturers have gone under. But for Toray Textiles Europe Ltd (TTEL), the situation has been a catalyst for change and renewal.

The company, a subsidiary of the giant Toray Industries Inc. of Japan, operates a fully vertical weaving, dyeing and finishing textile mill on a greenfield site in Mansfield. When Toray bought the business from a long-established UK textile company in 1989, it invested £60m in the new factory’s construction in order to produce polyester filament textiles for the fashion apparel markets in the UK and Europe. Ten years later, structural changes in the garment supply chain made a complete rethink necessary.

‘Innovation by all’
“We had to restructure our business from a three site- to single-site operation, and deal with overnight closures of key raw material suppliers,” says Nicholson. This led TTEL to rethink its long-term strategy and to reposition itself in the European textile market. “Firstly, we had to diversify into completely new markets with new applications, through focused product development. At the same time we consolidated traditional products to support the remaining apparel business. It also meant we had to look deeply at our sales and operational planning processes to find better ways of serving our customers, while minimising unit cost and working capital.’’

“For this strategy to be successful we had to harness the experience, resourcefulness and tenacity of all our employees to an ‘Innovation by All’ plan,” continues Nicholson. “This wasn’t just a slogan, it signalled the start of practical change in all areas; we had to be creative in how we were going to face the market.”

Toray is one of the biggest textile producers in Europe, and the transition from being a volume led operation to a business led by market and sales involved a real change of mindset. As the spearhead of the company, the sales team was challenged to work more closely with existing customers and find innovative solutions to how it could better serve their needs, while at the same time reducing exposure to value-added inventory. Beyond this, they had to find completely new markets for filament textile products.

The result has been remarkable diversification into markets including active sports, surgical, interiors and industrials, in addition to traditional performance and apparel fields. The application of specialist technology has led to the development of highly innovative products such as See It SAFE, an antimicrobial and anti-static textile used in the healthcare sector.

Total transformation
The transformation in production has been equally radical. “We went from a business model of large order volumes on each product to a more fragmented one, where customers were ordering smaller runs and demanding more product differentiation,” explains Nicholson. “This required a more agile operation capable of responding more quickly, and led to a major rethink of how we planned our business and how we worked with raw material suppliers to improve flexibility and minimise working capital. We also invested in a capital project to build an in-house textile development centre to explore small-scale production of fabric concepts, and offer a quick response to customers’ sampling requirements.”

The product range was reviewed and the total number of fabrics reduced to minimise the number of upstream components, resulting in greater flexibility in the weaving operation and a reduction in value-added work in progress. The number of preferred raw material suppliers was also reduced by 40%. “Having a lot of suppliers had become cumbersome, so now we work instead with about 15 secure partners,” adds Nicholson.

A recent technical challenge was to produce a range of very lightweight nylon fabrics for use in down-filled jackets, sleeping bags and sports equipment. This led to the launch of the innovative Evolution 20 range of fabrics, which has been very well received.

Excellence across the board
Employee and product safety and quality management is a vital part of the Toray culture. Nicholson describes the company’s approach to continuous improvement of safety as “obsessive”, remarking that detailed reporting of the most minor incidents leads to effective and sustained solutions. “The key is to grow an environment where all employees take responsibility, in part, for their own zero accident performance.” A 30% reduction in minor injuries year-on-year since 2005 marks the success of this approach.

5S is an important tool in helping the company maintain a clean environment and product quality. “Once such a culture has evolved, it generates constant improvement and frees up resources to focus on value-adding activities. We have a similar approach to the prevention of product quality problems.” Early detection and local decision making within the process has contributed to significant year-on-year reduction in the cost of quality and fabric rejects – which in turn has contributed to a reduction in waste, and an impressive 98% delivery on time performance.

‘Innovation in all areas’ means just that, including very successful waste reduction and energy-reduction projects. A £200,000 capital investment project to switch the boiler fuel from natural gas to coal mine methane gas extracted from old colliery workings 400m below the factory paid for itself within a year, while the factory’s water supply is extracted from underground via boreholes.

Most recently, Toray’s parent company has approved a £15 million capital increase to support the continuation of innovative activities. It’s recognition of a diversification strategy that’s having remarkable results.