06 October 2011

Robert Bion: 2011 Judges' Special Award Highly Commended

A special process – perforating – and a special company, Robert Bion, make for a worthy highly commended in this year's Judges' Special Award

At Reading-based Robert Bion & Co, perforating is a way of life. Indeed, the products passing through its factory are all around: light fittings, audio panels, baking trays, cooker grilles, microwave doors, exhaust tubes and electronics enclosures, to name but a few.

And while making holes in metal or plastic sounds easy enough, there are many complex factors at work here to ensure the barriers to entry for potential competitors remain high. With a staff of 28, investment levels run at around £150,000 per employee, for example. Furthermore, all products are bespoke, a mix of repeaters or unique specification, while the varying sectors served all require different product characteristics.

At Bion, there are three perforating lines offering 80, 160 and 250 tonne pressing force, while further operations can include notching, levelling, shearing and forming. Levelling is a particular skill set cloaked in secrecy. It's notoriously difficult to predict how material will react to perforation without contravening flatness tolerances.

ut by using Bion's expertise together with specialist levelling equipment costing around £300,000, it's possible to anticipate and prevent unwanted effects such as curvature. Other contributing factors include special tooling alignment methodology, and a partnership with Brunel University to develop software that models the perforating process, giving rise to greater understanding of factors such as cutting clearances, slug retention and hole distortion.

In this market, business responsiveness is vital. Accordingly, Bion provides quotes within 24 hours (KPI-measured) and can switch capacity on and off quickly – a third (night) shift can be activated with seven days' notice, for example. Visibility is short, typically around two or three weeks, demanding a flexible manufacturing facility capable of absorbing extreme variation in throughput.

For instance, Bion perforates 60 billion holes in 4,000 tonnes of material per annum on a make-to-order basis, but May this year saw twice the invoiced sales of April without any lengthening of lead times.

Responsiveness is part of the privately-owned company's 3R customer satisfaction strategy, with Reliability and (low) Risk the other two. Price is also important and although Bion aims to have the lowest costs in the market, it sets itself apart with added value, production engineering and quality leadership. All of this bolsters the company's rising UK market share, which currently stands at 10-15%.

Other market differentiators include in-house tooling design and manufacture, allowing Bion to react quickly to convert a tool from 0.6mm thick mild steel to 2.0mm aluminium, for instance. What's more, skills such as these sometimes allow Bion to find means of producing high quality products from cheaper and/or more readily available material, giving further competitive gain.

Other systems deployed include TPM, process planning, OEE, SMED, SPC and an energy use reduction programme, making this an engineering plant of distinction.

As well as being passionate about perforating, Bion is also passionate about its people. New starters are carefully nurtured, with an appraisal after 13 weeks followed by quarterly reviews. A comprehensive induction and roll-out training plan offers continual development via internal and external providers. There's also a profit-related reward scheme.

Engaging people is vital here. With this in mind, the production team, consisting of multi-skilled, transferable operators, has the opportunity to identify one key item per week that it feels will most improve efficiency.

Additionally, the company is currently using an external training organisation for skills development which is based on the Acas line manager model. It has the goal of increasing the bonus pool (linked to uptime, scrap, delivery performance and customer rejects) by making individuals accountable for their actions. Bion also operates an open-door policy and a suggestion scheme. No wonder then that the average length of service is an impressive 11.5 years.

The ultimate goal for all Bion initiatives is better business performance. Earlier this year, a Bion shift team leader gained a Six Sigma green belt following a project funded in conjunction with MAS. The participant championed a team involving setters, toolroom and maintenance staff to reduce scrap around one of Bion's largest customers, from 4.8% to 2.5%, largely by reducing process variables.

In fact, last year Bion won a regional best practice award from MAS, with meriting factors including visual management, the company bonus system, SMED and Six Sigma. This is a distinguished UK SME in every sense.

WM

Supporting Information

Companies
Robert Bion & Co Ltd

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Dirk Villé, general manager, Atlas Copco Compressors UK & Ireland