06 October 2011

Brüel & Kjaer: Highly Commended, 2011 Best Electronics and Electrical Plant

Brüel & Kjaer's factory in home counties Hertfordshire certainly has the X-Factor and is, you might say, shake, rattle and rolling all over the world

It is not often that you come across a manufacturer that is picking up good vibrations all over the world, let alone one whose influence extends as far as checking out life on Mars. So meet Brüel & Kjaer VTS, whose stock in trade is manufacturing vibration test systems.

Known until last month as LDS Test and Measurement, the UK business has now changed its name to Brüel & Kjaer VTS to reflect its ownership by the global sound and vibration specialist, Brüel & Kjaer.

The vibration test systems unit makes shakers and amplifiers and their controllers primarily used in the automotive, aerospace, telecoms and electronics markets. Straightforwardly put, its systems can be found ironing out potential vibration problems in the glove compartment of your car or, more critically, in the wheel hub unit-axle assembly.

They shake things up at NASA's jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena and ensure that Mars Rover robots creep quietly about their business of seeking out life on the red planet. And rather more mundanely, they make sure your mobile phone doesn't give you earache.

Unusually for a manufacturing facility, this Royston plant operates a flexitime system on a single 38.75 hour shift that is flexible to 57.5 hours. It clearly suits the 105 staff whose average length of service is a commendable 11.5 years.

Plant operations handle 16,500 SKUs across processes which are primarily coil winding, electro-mechanical assembly and testing, but also include resin casting, vacuum aeration, heat treatment, shot blasting, welding, adhesive bonding and potting.

"We needed to understand our customers' needs," says head of operations Andrew Turner. He concluded they wanted their product faster, and that meant having to be more agile. The flexible hours helped, as did improving reaction time for supplying parts from an eight-week lead time to two, establishing a two-week turnaround time from receipt of order for repairs, delivering on time and in full, and training staff so that each is competent to undertake three job disciplines, plus lean manufacturing techniques.

But it was the role of inventory in the process that led to the adoption of what Brüel & Kjaer calls its X-factory philosophy.

The business had concluded that build to order was too slow for its customers and build to stock too expensive for its shareholders.

The solution? To go for 80% batch production (standard product) and 20% job production (special product). Armature build and coil winding and electro mechanical parts assembly – standard product – is kanbaned from the bottom to the lowest cost stocking point towards the centre of the X and then configured to deliver the greatest customer agility to fulfil order requirements at the top.

The net effect has been to reduce lead times from 12 weeks to between four and six weeks.

As the judges concluded: "This site's customers want fast delivery and through its X-type factory, it has been able to rise to the challenge and, what is more, be faster than the competition.

The introduction of lean and the reconfigured factory have allowed the company to supply a wide product range made up of standard and customised products in half the time it used to take; a shift in customer lead times from months to weeks."

People as well as processes are important to the Royston site's pursuit of its goals and its successful implementation of lean manufacturing improvement through a bottom-up approach to business improvement training, the application of Six Sigma for quality improvement, and work and organisational structuring.

The fundamentals of pay are taken care of through basic remuneration plus overtime as required plus an annual bonus, while the company's lofty vision is to be both a profitable business and a great place to work.

Skills development embraces the challenge of managing change, performance management, training and development, recruitment policy and delivering sustainable organisational performance. And its people management strategy is built around the pillars of communication, the right policies, an appropriate organisational structure, good employee relations and a no-blame culture in which trust, leadership, ownership and empowerment are important.


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