A senior purchasing manager at Mercedes-Benz recently explained why his company, which spends around £200m a year on British components, bought from only 60 out of 2,400 potential suppliers. It seemed that lower quality, persistent late bids, out-of-specification designs and a slowness to adapt to Mercedes’ needs were the chief culprits. Throw in UK manufacturing’s poor labour productivity performance around two thirds that of the US and Germany and it becomes clear why British manufacturers are being hit so hard at the moment.
It’s easy to blame poor, incompetent or bumbling management. But British management is committed to improvement. And UK manufacturing industry has made huge strides in addressing the appalling labour relations and productivity standards that characterised so much of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s.
But with the nature of competition now extending to market responsiveness and engineering-led quality improvements, are manufacturers making the most of the opportunities and technologies available to them? Almost certainly not. With economists now conceding that Britain’s manufacturing industry has technically been in a state of recession since the end of 1997, smaller, owner-managed businesses need to look even more closely at their strategies if they are to survive.
Cost cutting provides only partial relief. Improving response to customers looks a better bet, in terms of the issues customers such as Mercedes-Benz are complaining about. Innovation will have a part to play as, with cost competitiveness threatened by influences outside their control, businesses will be forced to shift their unique selling points to other competencies. Faster time to market will become essential.
Of course, Britain’s beleaguered small businesses have heard such nostrums before. They will often respond by saying they lack the management resources and the time.
But there are now tools available to small companies that can make faster and more innovative responses to customers possible.
Almost every manufacturing business relies on processes of some kind to transform raw materials into components or products. And virtually every one of those processes is a potential bottleneck that can limit competitiveness.
For the last three to four years, the science of process modelling has taken enormous steps forward. Science and high-powered computers have provided an astonishing insight into the precise workings of the most common industrial processes forging, plastic injection moulding, casting and so forth.
Today’s powerful desktop computers and software mean that no longer will guesswork, trial and error and hard-won experience be the only development partners that a company has. The process in question can be modelled to determine the correct manufacturing parameters and procedures either in the development laboratories of a company, on its own computers, or, even more cheaply, using specialist time-sharing computer bureaus.
Take plastic injection moulding, for example. Simpol, a process modelling package, will run on an ordinary desktop computer and addresses the main questions asked by mould designers, injection moulders and cost estimators: how can I ensure that the cavity and runner dimensions allow the mould to be filled with a specified material and grade by the chosen moulding machine? What are the necessary moulding conditions? What are the optimum ones? What are the fabrication costs, and how can they be minimised?
It’s powerful stuff. And because process modelling improves the right-first-time rate and the ‘guesstimating’ phase in set-up conditions, it has a bearing not just on cost competitiveness but also on customer responsiveness, by making set-ups faster and readily reproducible.
So what is holding back the use of process modelling? One barrier is the availability of data about how processes actually operate, affecting the credibility or accuracy of the results produced. This does not just mean how processes operate most of the time on the most typical operations. It means how they operate reliably right up to the limit of what is achievable, enabling businesses to take their processes to the same demanding limits. Thankfully, government-funded projects are in hand at a variety of institutions, including the National Physical Laboratory, to fill in the missing pieces of the jigsaw.
With forgings, for example, a lack of firm understanding over the point at which ductile fracture will occur means that designers have had to rely on trial and error, or empirically based rules-of-thumb, to avoid a level of deformation that will crack the component during the forging process. It’s not exactly hit and miss, but it is woolly. But now, researchers at the University of Bath, working on an Engineering and Physical Sciences-funded forging modelling project, have come to a much closer understanding of the inter-relationships between plasticity, friction and thermo-mechanical linkage that apply as metals deform.
This is meaningless if businesses don’t take advantage of these new insights. The biggest barrier is probably a lack of technical expertise, particularly in smaller manufacturing businesses. Here, the trade associations can be helpful.
They know how to exploit process modelling packages and can also provide access to these packages, often at preferential rates. In times of economic adversity, such bodies are often little more than hand-wringing forums. Now they may offer a lifeline.