Manufacturing is no longer a dirty word

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HEAVY industries such as ship-building or steel mills and their decline is what many people think of when it comes to Scottish manufacturing.

But Scotland, including the Borders, still has an important – and often thriving – manufacturing sector to its economy; a fact underlined by a best-practice visit to Kelso-based electronics firm, Plexus, by Scottish Enterprise’s Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service (SMAS) last week.

The event was themed around leadership, in particular how a strong leadership culture has helped embed ‘lean manufacturing’ and a wider continuous improvement structure at Plexus.

It brought together more than 20 people from the Borders manufacturing sector eager to learn from the company’s excellence in this area.

Manufacturing is still an important sector to the Borders economy. Textiles has a significant presence with companies such as Lyle & Scott, Holland & Sherry and Lochcarron.

Then there are clusters of high-value manufacturing such as Plexus, Mainetti and Border Precision. In the Borders area, SMAS has carried out 24 projects adding more than £1.8million of value-added productivity to the local area.

If all of SMAS’ 60 manufacturing reviews in the Borders area had converted to projects, this would potentially have added around £4.5million of value-added productivity.

Plexus operates in a high value, mid-to-low volume, higher complexity market place with a complex supply chain. The company has a keen focus on customer relationships and drives continuous improvement through lean manufacturing and Six Sigma.

Lean manufacturing is a business strategy where a company maximises those operations which give the customer value from the customer’s point of view.

Six Sigma is a business management strategy originally developed by Motorola in the United States in 1986, which seeks to improve the quality of process outputs by identifying and removing the causes of defects (errors) and minimises variability in manufacturing and business processes.

Jerome Finlayson is the lead practitioner for SMAS and was pleased with the turnout for last week’s Plexus event.

“The main purpose of the day was to promote some of the good practice existing in the Scottish manufacturing sector,” he told TheSouthern afterwards.

“It was an opportunity for businesses in the local area to network and establish a whole range of new contacts. There has been general decline of the mass volume manufacturing sector in Scotland in the last few decades, but manufacturing has evolved to produce much higher levels of complexity and service and support to products – basically less volume, but more complexity and value.

“When it comes to electronics, there are only two companies the size of Plexus in Scotland operating at this scale and Plexus is one of them.

“But also here in the Borders you have a strong food and drink industry, textiles, precision engineering, forestry and timber-related products – all manufacturing industries.”

Explaining the theory behind lean manufacturing, Mr Finlayson said it was something Plexus did exceptionally well.

“Lean manufacturing puts customer value at the heart of a company’s business strategy. It asks companies to look at improving customer value and how they maximise that value as seen from the customer’s point of view.

“And how they minimse what is of no value to the customer.

“Plexus is an excellent example in Scotland of how this is done.”

Willie Mackinnon, a senior operations director at Plexus, says the company’s sites in the Borders are technically very capable, focusing primarily on building highly complex products for the medical, communications and industrial markets.

“They are an integral part of our broader European growth strategy and complement our existing design centre in Livingston as well as our recently announced design centre in Darmstadt in Germany,” he explained.

“Hosting the best practice events in conjunction with SMAS enables Plexus to share our global expertise in Lean Sigma with other Scottish companies and with a view to improving the general competitiveness of manufacturing in Scotland.”

Wayne Ballantyne, managing director of Border Precision, added: “Since working with the SMAS team over the last year or so, we have already seen major improvements across the factory such as better workplace organisation, greater employee buy-in and the development of an improvement strategy which has aligned our thinking and given purpose to our improvement plans.

“Education and training has been key to this transition and SMAS has played a key role in helping us achieve this. We are totally committed to lean manufacturing and as we continue to deliver our long term plan to reach our growth ambitions, we aim to become our customer’s supplier of choice.”