In 1997, the Management Today/Cranfield School of Management Best Factory awards for the first time bestowed an accolade of excellence jointly on two factories. Co-winner Caradon Mira's Cheltenham factory, described elsewhere in this compendium, has worked hard to achieve excellence in areas as diverse as cellular manufacturing, kanban-based scheduling, and vendor management. At first glance, then, a small factory that shipped its first deliveries as recently as 1993, and which has only two customers, seems an improbable joint winner. Not so. Bertrand Faure Seating's achievements may be more recent, and concentrated more tightly on particular aspects of the company's mission, but the factory is every bit as worthy an exemplar of manufacturing excellence.
It is located in Oxfordshire's Stanford in the Vale - an unlikely location for a factory, admittedly, and one which is reached along leafy country lanes. But the location, it turns out, plays a critical part in the factory's success: Honda's Swindon car assembly plant is 17 miles away, and Rover's Cowley plant is 22 miles in the opposite direction. The factory's mission, as the UK subsidiary of French-owned global car seat manufacturer Bertrand Faure, is to supply both- and on a Just in Time basis.
Every 34 minutes the factory despatches 30 cars' worth of front and rear seats to Rover and Honda, loaded onto trucks in matched seat sets in the order in which they will be required. 'When the seats leave here, the cars that they are going to be fitted to are already going down Honda's assembly line,' says managing director Brian Rogers. The cost of failure is high - literally. Bertrand Faure is charged [pounds]1,000 by its customers for each minute's delay on the assembly lines should the seats not arrive on time. A fatal road accident caused a 10-minute halt a few months ago; a sudden snowstorm brought about another delay of 14 minutes last winter: apart from that, the factory's record is unblemished.
Bertrand Faure's presence at Stanford in the Vale originally stems from the recommendation of Honda's Japanese seat supplier, which has strong technical links with the French parent company, and apparently holds its manufacturing prowess in some esteem. Justly so, it seems - for the manufacture of car seats is a process of greater complexity that one would at first credit.
Two sub-assemblies, one built from metal and plastic, one largely fabric-based, have to be assembled together under exacting quality standards: the integrity of the seat plays a large part in ensuring the safety of the occupant in the event of an accident. Aesthetics and comfort are also important. Rover's quality scoring system, 'QZ', awards the factory 28 demerits for every sewing thread that has not been cut off a car seat cover; another 28 demerits follow the discovery of a wrinkle. If the operatives at the end of the assembly line can't steam-iron and press the seat to a state of perfection, it is sent back for rectification.
Then there's the question of storage. Quite apart from any quality or financial implications of Just in Time manufacturing, seats are bulky items, and prone to damage. Once assembled, common sense dictates that they should be incorporated into the vehicle for which they are intended as quickly as possible. After assembly, therefore, the seats go into a computer-driven, 9,000 cubic metre, 750 pallet-space automated seat retrieval unit, in which each pallet holds a complete seat set for a particular vehicle. It is, in effect, an automated warehouse that acts both as a capacity buffer and as an intelligent vehicle loading system.
And in any case, stresses manufacturing manager Roger Lewis, the luxury of stockholding is simply not possible, even if space permitted it. The factory makes 74 different seat variants for 560 possible models of the Rover 600, Honda Accord and Honda Civic. Given the required service levels, forecasting demand is best left to the customer - leaving Bertrand Faure to cope with meeting those demands, as flexibly as it can. …