Only one company can be the cheapest: all the rest rely on innovation,” the president of the Board of Trade, Alan Johnson MP, told an audience at a Mansion House dinner this spring. Recognising that India and China now produce five million graduates annually, many in engineering and technology, the CBI sees innovation and “high value manufacturing” as vital to the UK’s competitive future in a global economy.

The many elements of manufacturing excellence now feature in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ annual Manufacturing Excellence (MX) Awards. Few timber companies have yet entered these well-recognised awards, which cover areas from people effectiveness to financial management, logistics and resource efficiency to customer focus, in addition to product and process innovation.

John Ling, technical development manager of the MX Awards, believes the timber trade should be fully engaged with the drive for innovation. “Timber is a crucial part of the building industry and there’s plenty of scope for innovation, particularly in the area of sustainability. Whichever business sector you are in, we all need the same kinds of systems to achieve excellence. Entering the MX Awards gives companies the ability to benchmark their performance against the best in other industries.”

The proven link between well-trained staff, efficient manufacturing and good business is continuing in engineered wood products. “We have recently appointed our own technical manager and instituted a specialised in-house training programme to make sure our team of designers are at the forefront of their field,” said Palgrave Brown director Tony Walton.

Empowering employees

Empowering people has brought substantial business benefits at timber window manufacturer Allan Brothers. It has been educating staff in business improvement techniques, giving them a greater understanding of how the business functions and encouraging their genuine involvement.

“In a part-classroom, part-factory floor programme, staff learn and deploy techniques such as cause and effect analysis, risk assessments, and production ‘housekeeping’, and undertake mini business improvement projects in their own area of work,” said general manager Duncan Forster. “They also examine and eliminate causes of waste – of time, labour or materials – and create standard operating procedures. This has resulted in 800 improvements in 14 months. We now have two full-time ‘change agents’ to maintain the momentum.

“The result for the company is increased production capacity, reduction in an already low accident rate, and reductions in product re-working. It has enabled the realignment of process flows and has significantly increased our efficiency.”

TRADA believes such innovative approaches should be shared. “The lean manufacturing concept has been implemented very successfully by other industries, particularly pharmaceuticals and the automotive trade. It’s not rocket science: many of the steps are underpinned by common sense,” said marketing manager Rupert Scott. “The timber sector will be equally successful if it can learn from best-practice examples. Expert advice can now be afforded even by small firms through the panoply of regional business development funds available.”

New insight will also be gained through the increasing number of engineers now entering the timber trade, according to Joe Baker, product manager with Michael Weinig UK. “In the past, line or middle managers, or even sales staff, brought manufacturing needs to their directors’ attention,” he said. “But people with engineering training plus a knowledge of the material can see even further ahead to the cost reduction opportunities that new technology represents. This is important in a globally challenging marketplace. To make the most of new technology, timber companies will have to plan their investments further ahead than their current two- to three-year view. They should also take advantage of the CPD offered by machinery suppliers.”

For Jeld-Wen, research and development offers the key to competitive manufacturing: its new European R&D Centre in Sheffield opened earlier this month. “We will benefit from the rapid transition from the theoretical assessment of a new product to its fully certified production as we strive for the very best in global innovation,” explained the centre’s general manager Ian Purkis.

Perhaps the biggest change needed to secure our futures is our attitude towards investment – be that in people, machinery or R&D. Investment need not be a leap of faith if backed by sound knowledge. But knowledge can only come through sharing with and learning from others around us.