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Unipart's productivity rewarded with a multi-million pound contract supplying Ford in China, reports Maisha Frost for the Express.

The new seven-year deal will produce components (rails) enabling fuel to be injected at high pressure into the automotive giant’s car engines providing cleaner, more efficient motoring.

Forty new jobs will be created thanks to the win at Unipart’s Powertrain Applications plant in Coventry that currently employs 380.

Production is forecast to rise by 50 per cent at the site which exports almost all its output to customers in mainland Europe and China.

The clincher in the Ford contract was the competitive combination of performance and pricing, achieved through the improved productivity.

The key advance was in removing 15 per cent from the original design costs while maintaining product quality, explains Unipart chairman and group chief executive John Neill.

The productivity innovations applied the technology available at Unipart’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME), a live ‘faculty on the factory floor’ joint venture with Coventry University, to the business’s own operational model, the Unipart Way.

This, based on efficient or 'lean' manufacturing, individually accountable teams and group problem solving aimed at continuous improvement, is one Neill has pioneered.

In 1987 he led a management buyout of a company that was once part of the troubled state-owned British Leyland conglomerate.

It remains the sole, independent survivor from that time and testimony to how a root-and-branch workplace transformation can succeed.

Today the group employs over 7,000 across 40 UK sites and 15 overseas ones, diversified in logistics, services, consultancy as well as manufacturing. 

Sectors range from rail and automotive to mobile communications and retail, while customers include some of Britain’s most prestigious – Sainbury’s, Vodafone, Aston Martin and Jaguar Land Rover.

“Customers’ needs change over time as they respond to their markets,” says Neill.

“Our organisation must be just as adaptable and we are because of the Unipart Way. Twenty years ago we did not offer consultancy. As more companies heard about our model and its benefits they came to us for help. HM Revenue & Customs did this and saved the taxpayer £440 million, now our consultancy arm has long-term relationships with companies like National Grid.”

In a recent joint venture with Rolls-Royce, Unipart created MetLase, a technology and cutting process with accuracy levels comparable to those in the aerospace industry.

Finished products are delivered in days rather than weeks or months, saving time and costs without sacrificing product quality.

“While others also make fuel rails, ours are to a very high level of precision engineering and quality,” he says.

“The product itself is not new, but our process is. Creating new digital components is core to that. For example in-house apps keep teams informed and able to take decisions quickly, saving enormous amounts of time and making jobs much easier.

“This is how we have achieved considerable reductions in cycle times and delivery, major factors in winning this contract.

“There are parallels with how the British teams succeeded in the Olympics, a mix of long-term planning, great coaching and involving expertise from different fields.

“We knew what needed to be done, what the metrics of world-class performance involved, had targets and set our sights on those, not on playing catch-up.” 

"It was employed when improvements were being made to lightweight materials for automotive exhaust systems," adds Neill. "MetLase's engineers and technology enabled a 41 per cent reduction."

Last year profits in the UK were up six per cent to £27.5 million and revenue by over 10 per cent, with the Unipart Way central to everything the company does.

Neill observes: "When we developed the model, brands did not have the power and influence they now have, even now they are rarely applied to a process, but that is what we have done. Our approach, summed up by 'learn in the morning, do in the afternoon' and 'gate to great', single us out and are fundamental to our competitiveness.

"When you are in global markets this becomes even more significant. China certainly is an important one for us as it's the largest for new car sales, 21 million sold and 25 million units being produced."

So far any consequences of Brexit have yet to be felt by Unipart. But the fuel rail deal, the insights gained from the processes developed and use of technology open up new opportunities to go after other car manufacturers and beyond.

"Healthcare, construction and utilities," declares Neill, "these are the next targets."

* www.unipart.com