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Best Factory Awards 2013
Best Factory Awards Gala Lunch Date: 27/09/2013

20 September 2012


Leadership and superb engineering skills are turning a traditional healthcare business into a model of efficient, modern manufacturing

Winner: 2012 Judges' Special Award
Highly Commended: 2012 Best Process Plant

For 40 years, Vernacare of Bolton has specialised in the design and manufacture of products to manage human waste disposal. It sounds prosaic – until you realise these products are vital in keeping life-threatening infections like MRSA and clostridium difficile at bay. Concerns about infection have sent sales of its single-use, maceratable system rocketing and it is now in use in the majority of all UK hospitals and more than 40 countries worldwide. Only Vernacare provides a complete service package: manufacturing the entire system, training, sluice-room design, engineering support and service, and sourcing and supplying complementary infection control products.

Despite its clear market leadership, in 2005 Vernacare recognised it needed to face up to major issues to keep ahead. Firstly, with growing healthcare cost constraints, price was becoming even more important. Secondly, this long-established business needed a radical overhaul to drag it into the lean age. As group chief executive Karen Haslam recalls, "it was tired but the capability was there". And what happened next is the reason why Vernacare wins the Judges' Special Award. It has telescoped a journey of improvement into only a few years. It has taken a manufacturing process that lumbered along on specialised but ageing equipment and turned it inside out and upside down.

Today, its production processes are models of efficiency – with progress due as much to superb engineering skills as to a steady, carefully justified programme of investment.

Probably its soundest move was bringing in expertise from outside to consolidate the team and improve the processes.

Global operations director Derek McIntyre brought leadership and long experience in companies like Motorola to build upon the company's undoubted knowledge of both the technology and the market. Its progress since has been remarkable.

Look at the two product groups that form the basis of its manufacturing: extremely ingenious, high-spec macerators and very simple receptacles made from paper pulp. Which is the cleverer? The former obviously needs advanced design and engineering skills but don't overlook the latter. It may seem easy to pulp a stack of unsold newspapers and then mould it. But doing that in huge volumes on enormous pieces of equipment that keep running despite an intrinsically wet, sticky process – that's truly impressive. And consistent high quality is beyond doubt: a major hospital changed to a cheaper pulped product but quickly came back. In the pressurised world of nursing, reliability is everything. At the same time, Vernacare has driven research forward, producing the world's first detergent-proof products. "We take over-issue newspapers and turn them into something that saves lives," says McIntyre.

Superb engineering skills have brought new life to 30-year old pulp moulding machines with the addition of state-of-the-art automated packing and inspection equipment, automated data collection and process monitoring using smart sensors. Initially the team focused on improving downtime: TPM and condition-based monitoring have raised its OEE figures beyond recognition. Now the emphasis is on reducing the cost base, slashing energy costs through projects like inverter control of motors and optimisation of machine parameters.

Other areas of the business have been similarly overhauled: careful analysis of demand patterns has chopped inventory levels and supplier rationalisation has yielded a massive 18% reduction in one year alone. But the second factor behind Vernacare's win has been the recognition that culture change was as important as process improvement. Today, people don't just, as in the past, "make, make, make". There are seven black belts and seven green belts and the aim is a minimum of yellow-belt status for everyone. Training has kick-started broad based CI projects and a communications programme is involving the workforce in the wider aspects of the business. Vernacare has set a firm, achievable routemap to world-class manufacturing. A casual comment of McIntyre's reveals the drive, commitment and sheer belief that has transformed this plant: "If you are an efficient UK manufacturer you can compete against anyone.

Top 3 Points

  • Massive modernisation in both processes and culture
  • Powerful engineering skills support steady, thoughtful investment programme
  • Leadership and team building set the route map for world-class manufacturing


Vernacare Ltd

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