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10 October 2011

Fujifilm: Winner, Best Process Plant

Fujifilm Speciality Ink Systems at Broadstairs turned a potential fatal shift in market demand into a dynamic force for improving manufacturing quality

If Charles Darwin was present at this year's Best Factory Awards ceremony, he would be cheering to the rafters when Fujifilm Speciality Ink Systems collects the Best Process Plant award. This Broadstairs factory epitomises Darwin's theory that survival is achieved by those who respond best to change.

The site was merrily producing commercial screen ink products used on CDs, t-shirts and billboard posters as it had done for 40 years when the world changed in 2005, explains Colin Boughton, operations director. "Digital was still in low volumes at that time, but we started to realise that it wouldn't remain a niche area for long. Analogue ink was struggling; digital was the commercial print material of the future."

The plant had to face up to some stark truths about the new medium. With screen ink, Fujifilm supplied large commercial printers with the ink but also pre-press products such as cleaning chemicals and emulsions. Digital did not involve any pre-press work, so all the printer needed was the ink.

That wasn't the only fundamental change. Analogue printing had been dominated by large commercial printers because of the heavy processing involved. The simplicity of digital meant a proliferation in smaller printers.

Faced with the possibility of a sweeping loss of volume and established customers, Fujifilm reacted positively by seeking strategic partnerships with digital printing pioneers. But it was internally where the biggest changes lay.

Digital inks demanded a different level of precision manufacturing. "Producing screen ink is a bit like making high viscosity paint," says Boughton. "The quality requirements are much broader than digital, which has very strict viscosity control." Fujifilm had to go back to the drawing board on quality control.

The site drafted in Yoshi Sata, a Fujifilm quality guru, who focused the team on boosting right first time (RFT), which stood at just 40% for the analogue ink manufacturing process. The site also used Kepner Tregoe, a data-driven problem solving tool, to help it drive up quality.

New mixing machines and barcoding help ensure adherence to tight specifications. "Our previous formulations were on a page of A4 and said things like 'add ingredient slowly by stirring'," reflects Boughton. The prescription is more like a novel now, he says: "It lists the amount of material to use, the RPM for stirring and the number of seconds after which you should turn the stirrer off." Batches are tested rigorously with constant feedback to the teams.

Fujifilm also had to re-educate its key suppliers to stamp out variations in raw materials that could distort digital batches. Suppliers signed up to notification of change agreements, handing Fujifilm another element of manufacturing control.

Five years on and the results have proved spectacular. RFT in digital has soared from 30% to 97%. Digital ink sales contributed £20m towards FujiFilm's £50m turnover last year, despite accounting for just 23% of production output. Fujifilm can now command a premium on digital goods where the complexity of production means competition is light.

Analogue does remain a key market, accounting for more than half of turnover. However, margins are low, competition is high and revenues are in terminal – albeit slow – decline. Fujifilm has vowed to be the "last man standing" in the sector and has boosted analogue RFT from 40% to 78% since 2006.

The leap in quality has been aided by a 5S programme and visual management. The shopfloor is divided into cells around boards displaying RFT data for daily debriefs. But the continuous improvement has been largely organic according to Boughton – evolving to support the RFT improvements.

Waste reduction has been a key focus for this factory. Gary Burgess, now lead facilitator for lean development, was seconded to a waste management role in 2006; since then, landfill has fallen from 53% to 10%. Waste materials are shredded and reprocessed, re-emerging as animal bedding and even car bumpers.

The decision to empower Burgess to drive the changes is indicative of the FujiFilm way: "Every employee is an expert in their own square yard," says Boughton.

And there will soon be more square yards to fill as Fujifilm adds a new 1,800 sq m manufacturing facility to Broadstairs.

The evolution of this species seems assured. The Best Process Plant prize is well deserved.

Max Gosney

Fujifilm Speciality Ink Systems Ltd

Do you have any comments about this article?

I have no doubt that this prestigeous award was much sort after by other companies within the FujiFilm group and so it is even more pleasing that a UK company has actually secured the award. Long may the success of 'FujiFilm Speciality Ink Systems' continue. Congratulations!!

- Bill Hancock, 10/10/2011

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