10 October 2011

Carl Zeiss NTS: Winner, 2011 Best Electronics & Electrical Plant , 2011 People Management Award and 2011 Health & Safety Award

With the UK moving towards an economy based on high value manufacturing, Carl Zeiss NTS shows just what excellence looks like – a benchmark from which others can learn

Over the years, about three in 10 of the hundreds of companies that reckoned they were good enough to pick up a Best Factory Award have actually made it to the shortlist, hosted a visit from the judges and walked away with a trophy or a highly commended certificate.

So it takes quite some outfit to get to the winners' rostrum – but to be nominated for consideration in five categories and chalk up outright wins in three is an achievement with few precedents.

That is the magnitude, if you'll forgive the pun, of Carl Zeiss NTS's achievement this year; one made all the sweeter by lean manufacturing manager Chris Warner's observation when Carl Zeiss took its first tilt at the awards in 2009. "Our journey has only just started towards world class," he prophesied before collecting a well-deserved but more modest Judges' Special Award commendation.

But however many prizes Carl Zeiss NTS wins for its manufacturing prowess, it has, says MD Bob Taylor, a bigger prize in mind; one that may be as many as 10 years down the line before it is won. At Harvard University, the Cambridge company's Sigma scanning electron microscope (SEM) is deploying advanced analytical microscopy to map the brain of a fly, a mouse and, the biggest challenge of all, a human. The prize? Cures for diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Alongside the Evo HD, the workhorse – if such a finely engineered thoroughbred can be called a workhorse – of the SEM world, the Sigma is the high end of two product lines entrusted by the German-owned Carl Zeiss Group to the Cambridge subsidiary that is a part of its semiconductor technology division.

It enjoys a heritage that goes back to Charles Darwin, includes custodianship by the Cambridge Institute and ownership by the world's most famous lens maker, Leica.

NTS? That stands for Nano Technology Systems and gives rise to the company strapline: "Enabling the Nano-Age World". Or to put it another way, "at a one million times magnification, cough and you'll see it on the screen".

And the global demand for seeing things up close, particularly from the emerging economies, is growing apace. Sales and orders have almost doubled since 2009: unsurprisingly, China heads the destination board with a 20% slice of the market. It's a figure that will reach 30% by 2015.

Strategically and on the shopfloor, the site that looks more like a laboratory than a factory is doing all the things you'd expect of a 21st century manufacturer making a 21st century product.

Or, as the BFA judges summed it up, it is "an excellent example of the implementation of lean manufacturing, especially one piece flow and visual management, by a low volume, high value manufacturer. The factory has seen good results, with cost down, manufacturing lead times slashed, delivery performance significantly improved and, importantly, a healthy and growing order book".

The manufacture of some key components are outsourced (to Hungary); a lean project for the whole company that began in June 2008 is now deeply embedded; daily 10-minute quality Pareto table meetings between key process personnel iron out quality problems that are holding up the flow line, while similar set-ups at all key suppliers have solved getting on for 100 quality issues over two years. Workplace organisation is through 6S (5S plus 'second nature – the Japanese way') and visual management abounds.

The tiered daily meetings principle also underpins people management at the plant; there are regular Gemba walks – daily by team leaders, weekly by managers and monthly by the managing director – and daily escalation meetings to ensure that show stoppers get swiftly pushed right up to MD level. Skills development features leadership and technical ladder advancement programmes that ensure employees have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

"There is a commitment to training and education for all the employees and a management team working on getting everybody actively involved in improving the business, not just in manufacturing but in other areas, too," the judges said.

And while it may be dangerous to ever say that a plant's safety record speaks for itself, the fact is that while near misses and minor incidents are conscientiously monitored, no reportable injury accidents have occurred there since at least 2006.

This is an all-round performer that fully justifies its treble achievement this year.

Ken Hurst

Supporting Information


Carl Zeiss Ltd

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