By Callum Bentley

The scope and diversity of worldwide manufacturing and innovation company, Milliken Company, is staggering. The company employs almost 7,000 associates across 39 manufacturing facilities whose job it is to work to “create entirely new customer experiences, build for the future and create products that do the world good”, according to operations director at Milliken Performance Solutions and Milliken European Airbag Products, Graham Swann.

Since the company was founded in 1865, it has employed more than 100 PhDs, accumulated more than 2,000 U.S. patents and over 5,000 patents worldwide on its forever-growing product and innovation base.

Part of this global success is a 150-year old mill built in the heart of Lancashire in England during the industrial revolution. The textile plant, known as Wellington Mill, has come a long way since its inception. No longer are the traditional cotton processing methods used, instead they have been replaced by modern technology such as laser part profile cutting. Today, the plant produces safety critical airbag fabric for automotive vehicles.

Besides the technological advances Milliken European Airbag Products has implemented into its processes, the way that the company and its employees work on a day-to-day basis, both with machinery and with each other, has catapulted the organisation to new production heights.

In November last year, Milliken European Airbag Products was awarded World Class Manufacturer of the Year at The Manufacturer of the Year Awards in Birmingham. GE Aviation Wales was awarded Manufacturer of the Year, however, the World Class Manufacturer title is seen by anyone in the lean and continual improvement world as the prize worth winning.

Mr Swann said it was in the company’s DNA to always strive for continuous improvement, something that had helped Milliken become the global success story it is today.

“It is in Milliken & Company’s DNA to improve, and whether it is applying deep science, unique insights or innovative designs to processes and products, the company strives to be the best,” he said.

“Our goal in manufacturing is not simply maintaining high operational performance levels but continuously improving them. By striving for zero off quality and zero losses we stretch conventional thinking and reach standards that have not been met before.”

With such a large workforce and varying product range, the ability to apply lean practices to maintain a level of world class manufacturing is never going to be an easy feat. Mr Swann says by keeping a direct focus on the continuous improvement of Wellington Mill, while staying true to the overall company ethos, his plant can maintain the highest standard of world class manufacturing possible.

“At the Wellington Mill, sustaining world class overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), operational excellence, maximising output, running 24/7, and effective visual management enable us to be competitive in the global automotive airbag market,” he said.

“However, it has been the investment, engagement and trust in our 130 associates that has enabled our business to truly flourish – accepting continual change and totally embracing modern lean methodologies across our whole enterprise.

“Our passionate and enthusiastic associates work in cross functional teams to aid their understanding of products, processes and customer requirements. We believe we have 130 continuous improvement engineers that help us achieve our goals.”

Despite the accolades and tremendous year the company experienced in 2013, Mr Swann said what they do on a day-today basis is no different from what any other company looking to get the most from its efficiency, waste reduction and staff engagement can do.

He said this belief is one of the many reasons why the company is frequently opening its doors for visitors looking to take their own company or organisation to the next level of productivity.

“We believe that world class levels can be achieved by any company in any sector, which is why we offer to share our experience gained over many years to interested companies through our consultancy, Performance Solutions by Milliken,” he said. “It starts with the desire (and in some cases, need) to improve. This may be higher OEE levels, reduced off quality levels or even cost reduction demands from the customer. A small success is replicated from one machine to another, or one process to another, leading to expansion of best practice. Disengaged associates see the benefits of the improvements as more often than not it makes their job easier. The Wellington Mill has become the UK model site for Performance Solutions by Milliken, and represents one of the best examples of Milliken’s operational excellence.”

But it seems as though no matter how rewarding it is to see your output grow or your team entirely grasp lean practices and methodology to continually push the company forward into new production and efficiency territories, to have the company’s name read out in front of almost 1000 UK manufacturers in a packed Birmingham convention centre will always be the cherry on top.

“Over the past two years, Milliken’s airbag business at the Wellington Mill has competed for a number of awards with the view of testing itself externally against the best businesses in the UK and to drive its continuous improvement program,” Swann said.

“Winning the 2013 World Class Manufacturing award was, without doubt, the pinnacle of this process and would not have been possible without an educated and engaged workforce, robust processes and a desire to improve.

“The award reinforces the work that we have been doing and demonstrates that the business has achieved world class status after a rigorous submission and assessment process. Everyone within the business is delighted to have been recognised in this way.”