06 October 2011

H C Starck: Winner, 2011 Judges' Special Award

This Wiltshire-based manufacturer of ultra-flat discs for semiconductor applications is insulating itself from the competition with its unstinting drive for continuous improvement.

The Calne facility of H C Starck is a refuge of technical expertise. This manufacturer of molybdenum semiconductor components – used as carrier and contact plates for silicon wafers in thyristors, transistors and silicon controlled rectifier diodes – leaves its rivals standing.

The key quality measure of H C Starck's discs is flatness. Just 12 months ago, a flatness tolerance of 15-20 microns on a 140mm diameter disc was considered tough to achieve. But following a rigorous overhaul of its processes, 4 microns is now standard at H C Starck – an achievement that provides genuine market differentiation.

This is no mean feat in heated powder metallurgy products, so how has it been achieved? Well, investment in new metrology equipment has played a huge role, particularly a new form measuring machine that monitors output from the automated lapping processes. This and other recent metrology investments have helped reduce this site's cost of non-quality (in-process rejects) by 50%.

Many of its competitors in the power semiconductor arena sidestep the issue of tight flatness tolerances by using PVD (physical vapour deposition) technology, but H C Starck's ability to achieve remarkable flatness using less expensive electroplating gives it enormous competitive advantage.

In-house plating processes such as rhodium and ruthenium represent 80% of throughput, although the method of successfully plating molybdenum (notoriously difficult) remains a closely guarded secret.

There are other technical challenges, too. Machining of the molybdenum discs, for instance, is difficult as the material is hard, dense and subject to delamination. For this reason, complementing the company's CNC machine tools are technologies impervious to some of these material traits, such as waterjet and electro-discharge machining.

As a technical and capable process, from raw material issue to vacuum packing, H C Starck is without doubt among the UK leaders.

However, it wasn't always this way. In the recent past, on-time delivery arrears were significant and growing, there were no lean initiatives and quality systems were under-performing. The turnaround came with the arrival of a new management team with CI as its core focus.

Alongside stabilised delivery (through daily production meetings, capacity planning and kanban), a rewritten quality manual and internal audit schedules reviews, arrived shopfloor restructuring, better process mapping, visual management, an inventory reduction plan, OEE, training matrices, Six Sigma project teams, an enhanced working environment and KPIs, five of which are linked to a bonus scheme.

On top of this there's now an established programme of kaizen events based on 5S, TPM, cost of non quality and SMED/workflow events. H C Starck has also started to use the site's monthly KPI cascades to drive productivity and efficiency improvements through the business.

The transformation of processes at Starck was vital in the decision of one key customer to offer a new three-year contract that guarantees 75% of its output will come to Calne, although this is currently 93%. The business has also had substantial new contract wins from Chinese customers, while it is further engaged in creating new value streams; its recently introduced 'Fast Track' service for raw material sales now represents 13% of revenue – up 100% in the past year. There's also potential in subcontract markets for expertise such as chemical milling and electroplating. Innovating at every level is clearly one of H C Starck's chief business differentiators.

Health and safety is another area where this company excels. There have been no recordable incidents since May 2007 – a total of 471,501 working hours at time of visit. Furthermore, job safety behaviour observations are completed with every layered process audit to ensure the company continues to instil a culture of safety improvement.

There have also been continued reductions in first aid accidents over the past two years as personnel undertake frequent refresher safety training and individuals take responsibility for their own areas. Commending HC Starck further is that potential safety issues and hazards are identified and addressed through a weekly action deck review.

With stabilised delivery, the implementation of core lean tools and invigorated quality systems, the transformation of HC Starck's Calne facility is nothing short of remarkable, particularly in such a short space of time. It proves that by adopting manufacturing excellence and engaging the workforce it is possible to turn things around, retain and add customers, and make a profit! A most deserving recipient of this year's Judge's Special Award.

Steed Webzell

Supporting Information

HC Starck Ltd

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