Where the grass is greener

Posted on 6 Jul 2011

Gardening equipment manufacturer Husqvarna has found a unique way to respond to abrupt changes in demand and to tackle its dependency on weather conditions. Roberto Priolo investigates.

People ’s lives are greatly influenced by weather patterns, particularly in Britain. When the sun shines on a spring or summer weekend, we immediately flock to parks, spruce-up our gardens and invite friends over for barbecues. For Husqvarna UK, a manufacturer of outdoor power products based in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, a rainy summer can push sales down dramatically, just like a balmy spring can have them boom.

The company is part of the Swedish group Husqvarna, named after the town of Huskvarna, where the company was founded back in 1689. Then the group produced muskets for the Swedish Army, but since it has become a strange beast: with 37 factories in several countries worldwide, its products range from construction equipment to chainsaws and robotic lawnmowers.

In Britain, Husqvarna produces lawnmowers and gardenvacs, retaining a 45-50% market share. Its UK operations take place in two facilities in the company’s site in County Durham, where Husqvarna has been since the early sixties. One of the facilities is used for moulding and as a warehouse, while the other is used for the assembly of products.

Every year, Husqvarna experiences the alternation of a busy and a quiet period: its peak production season is between January and June, to make sure products are available to the end customer by the beginning of the summer, when demand is higher.

In response to this unusual working condition, the company has fluctuating levels of staff. With the exception of a supervision and technical team, workers are employed on temporary contracts.

Caraline Robinson, factory manager at the Newton Aycliffe site, says: “This year we have employed our maximum temporary workforce, which has been up to 450 people. We have very good production volumes. The weather has been kind to us this year, with no snow since Christmas.”

Husqvarna does its own recruitment, using an agency on an ad hoc basis (when, for example, it has to hire staff for weekend shifts). In the moulding facility, work is organised in three shifts; in the assembly facility, it’s two shifts five days a week.

“Our seasonal staff starts at the beginning of January, and from that point on we recruit about 50-60 people every week. It varies year on year, but we usually see about 30 per cent of people coming back to us,” Robinson explains.

The output can reach 35-40,000 finished products a week. However, in quiet times it can go down to less than 5,000. In a bid to address the impact of such variation, Husqvarna has a parallel, external business: it supplies plastic components and tooling to companies in the automotive industry, and is a second tier supplier to car manufacturers. This way the company secures a contribution towards fixed costs, which is particularly important during the low season.

There is little fluctuation in this external business and this is a testament to the skills of production planning staff. These indiviuals ensure customer satisfaction is guaranteed for two very different types of operations. “External work is stable business 12 months a year,” confirms Robinson.

Training temporary workers
It is easy to think that having to train new people year after year to work on a wide range of products can be a labour-intensive, time-consuming operation, but Husqvarna believes it’s got it covered.

“All the training is internal. The supervisors prepare people very actively as we go towards our busy period, making sure they are trained as quickly as possible and to the right quality standards,” says Robinson.

She admits that in terms of actual work content, many tasks are relatively easy to learn and understand: on the assembly lines, all of them being one-piece flow, the average takt time for a standard product is around 30 seconds. Training is delivered to ensure that operators work safely, and that products are of a high quality standard. According to Robinson, a crew can be brought up to speed within two to three weeks.

The company produces garden vacs, several models of lawn mowers and even robotic mowers. All these gardening tools are characterised by a smart design making them extremely appealing to the eye.

Husqvarna UK sees two main areas of growth within its product range. The first is represented by the Gardena-branded products, which are sold solely to European customers and therefore constitute a great opportunity in terms of exports. Husqvarna acquired German company Gardena in 2007, and has developed a range of Gardena and Flymo lawnmowers using a common platform approach: it can manufacture two different products from a standard set of tooling. The products are then tailored to appear very different but with small investment in specific tooling, and clever use of colour.

Delocalising the supply chain
Husqvarna has seen static volumes over the past few years. It managed to keep them steady even through the recession, during which the company saw its customers trading down and going for less expensive products.

“We work very closely with our sales team in the UK to try and minimise the amount of finished good stock hold. It’s about being more and more flexible every season.” The company holds an annual sales conference, during which all of the Husqvarna sales representatives have a chance to see what is in the pipeline.

It’s also a chance for the product development teams to get some feedback and ask them which products they think are going to sell well.

The lean perspective Husqvarna believes innovation is what sets it apart from the competition. Robinson comments: “A huge amount of money goes into R&D. It is the foundation of the business to make sure we keep ahead of the competition.

Products like Automower prove that we are achieving this as a business.” All the money the business invests goes into modifying production lines and developing new products. Early this year, three new products were launched, including Automower 305, a less expensive, smaller version of Automower.

Husqvarna also had to invest in new energy saving projects, especially over the last year. With a £1m annual energy bill, low energy lighting and inverters on moulding machines had become necessary measures.

The biggest change the company is experiencing, however, is the one related to the Husqvarna Operating System, the manufacturing strategy Husqvarna is implementing in order to become a leaner business.

As part of the programme, aiming to improve safety, quality, volume and cost, Robinson, and change agent Tony Day, take part in training sessions in one of the company’s worldwide sites every three to four months. In these sessions they are taught lean tools and techniques relating to standard operations, problem solving, and operating systems and material handling. Once back on site, they have the target of running workshops within the business to transfer their newlyacquired knowledge to all the 165 permanent workers.

Robinson explains: “The target is to train all the permanent workers in these areas. For example, standard operations is about understanding waste, elimination of waste, 5S and basically the value of developing standard operations, in order to be able to improve.” During these one-week workshops, there are two days worth of theory but the rest of the time is spent on the shop floor. “We have selected areas that have specific problems we want the team to tackle during the workshop. They have to actively work on the improvement, which we capture. The supervisors then present back to management,” Robinson adds.

“This is a program with permanent commitment; it is brilliantly supported by Husqvarna senior management and over time will result in a culture change in our business.”