As the UK’s national measurement institute, the world-leading measurement experts at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), based in Teddington, South West London, work alongside manufacturers to identify opportunities to become more productive, responsive, sustainable and efficient, regardless of the size of the company or even the product.

Increased understanding of measurement not only unlocks better efficiencies and productivity but is also key for instilling confidence. In turn, this can be invaluable for manufacturing businesses as, once trust in the product is lost, it can be extremely hard to regain.

Confidence is in itself an extremely human characteristic. Understanding how human behaviours can impact on the supply chain, and drawing together multiple skills and disciplines from a network can ensure that there is real conviction in the end product. NPL has worked together with a range of companies to help to get the ‘human element’ of measurement in manufacturing right. Here are some examples of where implementing a behavioural change in staff, or drawing on a wider community of measurement expertise, has helped these companies to go further.

Securing a culture of measurement for a competitive advantage

Chelmsford-based Currock Engineering specialise in using state-of-the-art CAD, CAM and CNC manufacturing technology to offer precision engineering solutions for the aerospace industry. The company prides itself on the support it gives its customers throughout the production process and, with the end application of Currock’s work in the aerospace market, it is crucial that the company can rely on its people to ensure that standards are consistently met. When a plane breaks down, you cannot simply pull into a layby and wait for recovery; there is so much more to lose.

In order to deliver the highest level of manufacturing to clients and ensure there is no room for error, Currock turned to NPL’s measurement training experts to help achieve the AS9100C accreditation. This standard highlights the effective control of information across the manufacturing process within the aerospace sector and has been more recently adapted to form the newer AS9100:2016. Information transfer, such as the correct labelling of parts, is controlled and dictated by human activity on the shopfloor – this means, for companies like Currock Engineering, employee behaviour is key.

Currock engaged with NPL as part of the Sharing in Growth programme, a four-year training and transformation programme for growing companies, funded by UK government and industry. Applying their expertise in manufacturing methods to help improve the efficiency of procedures on the shopfloor, NPL worked in conjunction with Sharing in Growth to develop a bespoke training package for Currock employees.

To help implement a cultural change, the collaborative team investigated ways to engage and empower the workforce to not only own, but to also be accountable for ensuring compliance. Using NPL’s measurement expertise, the team first identified areas for improvement and then, through a series of theoretical workshops and practical sessions, introduced staged methods to establish ingrained working practices.

Such methods involved incorporating briefings to communicate the importance of the processes to staff, and to highlight the significance of maintaining standards for Currock Engineering as a business – helping to give context to ensure that new behaviours were adopted.

To implement the cultural change on a day-to-day basis, daily job checks at workstations were implemented with a list of 10 items that needed to be checked for each day’s activity. The items covered areas of focus, including whether the team has the right materials to hand; the matching of lot numbers between parts; appropriate resetting of machines for a new batch of work; and ensuring the right people had approved the right elements, and that the stamps are in place as proof of process.

The team also acted to make the advice readily available to Currock employees with practical tools, such as a Top 10 poster, so that a reminder of the process is always within reach. With these resources in place, the team empowered the workforce to own the checks – ensuring that compliance would continue to run through the heart of the process on the shop floor.

This project created the foundations to set Currock on the path to achieving the AS9100C accreditation. They passed the audit with flying colours, impressing the auditor with their efforts to better inform their staff and proactively fixed any potential problems. As an additional benefit, NPL’s training package also helped improve morale among the shop floor team, enabling them to confidently answer all of the questions posed by the auditor.

Meeting the requirements of these standards has helped the company to fulfil the requirements of customers and create a competitive advantage in the field of aerospace engineering.

Providing confidence for customers using bespoke measurement techniques

Cimpol, a family-run SME manufacturer based in Huddersfield, specialises in thermoplastic coating and lamination, and invented a new system to coat flexible substrates with a very thin polymer layer, bringing intriguing new capabilities to the packaging industry.

In order to bring such an innovation to market, the company wanted to ensure it could meet the highly accurate standards needed for this type of product and also create a consistent performance for their clients. To do this, however, independent assessment and verification was key. This required the adequate evaluation of both the thickness and evenness of the new coating, but at only an order of one micron thick. The coating is also made of a soft material with a very flexible aluminium foil backing, making it challenging to achieve accurate readings.

Creating a consistent and reliable product was not only important for sales, but the company’s future growth strategy too. In order to encourage confidence in investors to fund its growth, Cimpol needed to provide reassurance in the reliability of the product as well as its position in the market moving forward. Given the unusual nature of the product, Cimpol needed a bespoke measurement solution that could give the company and investors the confidence to take it further.

As such, Cimpol’s directors, brothers Saf and Tariq Hulou, turned to NPL’s Manufacturer Measurement Network (MMN). This network works to help SME manufacturers identify appropriate validation methods within their business and help to ensure more efficient and consistent manufacturing processes, and in turn also safer products.

To help Cimpol validate their product and turnaround the data they needed in a rapid 4-6 weeks, the team from NPL used a number of different methods to measure the coating and ensure the one micron thick layer remained within an acceptable degree of confidence, even at such an accurate, small scale level. The resulting data on the reliability of their product also went on to help Cimpol to engage with their potential market and find suitable customers for the coating technology – securing the future trajectory for their business. They have since secured a deal with Uflex Limited, an Indian multinational flexible packaging company, to develop and refine their technology for multiple cost-effective and environmentally-friendly applications.

This particular project has enabled Cimpol to market a robust, industrial coating technique with capabilities in a wide range of potential markets, including pharmaceutical and food packaging, to consumer goods and printed electronics. SMEs need to prove reliability and consistency before any new process is adopted by companies with large production volumes and strict quality control. These small companies often will not have the R&D spend or metrology support available to do this themselves. By providing these capabilities as well as the verification of the data generated by the processes, the NPL MMN has helped SMEs like Cimpol be competitive overseas, enabling entry to these markets.