Phil Popple, head of production at Thermoseal, discusses how the group’s manufacturing facilities are set up with central amalgamation of its production processes to streamline its facilities for efficiency and quality control.
With an initial £5 million injection into the project, Thermoseal Group began manufacturing spacer bars in 2010 from its Wigan site. This required setting up a bespoke manufacturing facility and adjoining technical centre from scratch. When I joined the group in March 2013 the project was already well-established and millions of metres of spacer bars were successfully being run off the production line and supplied to the UK market.
Striving for excellence in manufacturing is something I am passionate about so I jumped at the opportunity to work for a business that is investing in continual improvement and sustainable growth. There is always a job to do in achieving a consistent high-quality product output – it requires a smart production model with centralised allocation and monitoring of raw materials, machinery, staff and production output, rates and waste.
At Thermoseal, we have four UK sites and a range of export customers ordering large volumes of spacer bar, corner keys and decorative products. When it comes to spacer bar, many of our orders are manufactured with bespoke customer printing, which is carried out on our lamination machines. When you consider that we manufacture both Thermobar and Thermoflex in a range of colours that come in a wide range of sizes, we need to have a solid centralised system in place to monitor all stock and orders.
The system we use means that all of our sites can enter their customer order requirements on a central database. This translates into a total production volume that is centrally allocated to each machine for extrusion. Individual customer orders are then allocated to our lamination machines which, when they come off the production line, are immediately packaged and put into stock.
In terms of stock monitoring and allocation, we have a bar coding system that monitors all raw materials and stock across all sites. It also means that we can trace our products back from each customer to the raw materials and the machine they were processed on. We can also see which operators were running the machines and what the settings on the machines were at time of operation. Everything is time and date stamped.
Our overall production output and efficiency is subject to continual monitoring. On a daily basis, each spacer bar extrusion and lamination machine is given a target for production and a tolerance for minimal waste. Targets are displayed on a digital board above every machine so that information is made transparent for teams and individuals to monitor and improve. We have production monitors fitted to give our teams live information as to how their work is meeting or beating targets and achieving minimal waste. This data is then collated centrally for analysis and review of production progress.
The success of Thermoseal has meant that we always have tight production schedules. Even when we added further machines to increase production, the efficiency of our sales team meant that we were soon manufacturing to capacity. For this reason, we can’t allow our machinery to break down. To avoid significant production down-time we have fitted sensors measuring the pressure and wear on the machines. These continually feed the data into our central database, which is translated into telemetry trend graphs showing areas of increased pressure and other indicators of potential problems. These graphs are monitored so that we can address any areas of concern and replace parts before they become a major issue that could significantly impact on the production schedule.
Our machines are all fitted with lasers to measure the dimensions of both Thermobar and Thermoflex along the production line, and should any of the dimensions go out of tolerance, an alarm is triggered on the machine to stop production.
For Thermoflex, we compound the rubber in-house to specific measures that have been up-scaled from our agreed test compound formula. All batches of compound are then tested on the onsite Mooney Viscometer, Rheometer and other analytical equipment to ensure that it is suitable for production. This data is recorded and information is stored on our own Quality Control (QC) Cloud. This cloud is where all of our QC data is pulled together for complete analysis of combined data to aid with traceability and continual product development. A sample of each batch is packaged in an airtight container and submitted to our technical centre for traceability.
Our technical centre is run by chemists who also perform batch testing on our brought-in goods.
In production, we work closely with the technical centre that has QC communication points across our production sites where our staff are trained to perform batch testing on each factory process. These communication points show what elements of product quality are to be considered, including samples and definitions of acceptable and unacceptable products. Production staff also have periodic training days to clarify and reinforce QC considerations and tolerances.
Thermoflex contains a desiccant compound that is subject to moisture adsorption. We therefore run the fresh compound straight onto our production line. The Thermoflex is then vacuum packed and bar coded straight off the lamination line to maximise its longevity.
In a fast-paced manufacturing environment, training and development is paramount in achieving the best productivity. And especially in a facility where none of the machinery and methods are an out-of-the-box solution. Therefore, we have developed our own specialist government-funded apprenticeship scheme, where we work with a training provider to enable us to take on young unskilled workers and develop them into home-grown production specialists.
Each of our production lines have a structure whereby production staff report to team leaders who report to shift supervisors who oversee production during each shift and ultimately report to head of production. All new staff are immediately allocated a buddy or mentor depending on their previous experience. They are also given an orange high visibility jacket (all others wear yellow) to identify them to the rest of the staff on shift to monitor and help as required.
All staff are assessed with a skills matrix and appraised in line with Investors in People (IIP) assessment processes and given a clear path of progression to ensure that they have all skills to carry out their job function and progress into management roles where applicable. All training and certifications are managed and stored through an independent web portal with alert system to ensure that all requirements are met.
All production staff are enrolled on an NVQ in PMO (Performing Manufacturing Operations) – 90% have now completed this course. Team leaders are all put through their NVQ Level 2 with the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) with a view to eventually progressing them into a shift supervisor should an opening arise.
Production supervisors are mentored by the head of production. These members of staff receive additional Six Sigma training to help to drive the Kaizen system of lean manufacturing.
We are also developing new roles as the team grows – eg, health and safety liaison officer.
We encourage a strong sense of responsibility, and our strategically placed communications boards reinforce this culture by advising who and where to go for every eventuality. Our operations are colour-coded with red for extrusion and blue for lamination. Everything from production screens, to filing follows this colour-code.
We operate the Kaizen philosophy that everything required should be within 30 seconds of our operators – including buddies and mentors. Therefore, everything has its place in the factory and is clearly labelled so our tools all have pegs and painted visuals showing where they are to be placed. Our Kanban feedback boards serve as a feedback process whereby staff write their suggestions and concerns and nominate a member of the management team to address issues. This system ensures that the whole workforce is involved in developing the next generation of spacer – we currently have at least five new products in development, several of which are patent-pending. Kanban feedback has recently lead to several staff-driven changes helping to improve quality and efficiency.
Our production teams have a buzz about them which can only be achieved by a training and development scheme where everyone knows their function in the team and how they can develop to help achieve the primary target – higher volumes of highest quality spacer bar.