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CT revamps drives factory to ensure social distancing

23 April, 2020

The Welsh drives-maker Nidec Control Techniques has reopened its main factory in Newtown after a three-week shutdown during which time the site was reconfigured to comply with social distancing rules. CT president Tony Pickering reports that the plant is now back to around 90% of its pre-shutdown production capacity.

The Newtown plant closed on 20 March and the workforce was sent home. Over a three-week period, a multi-disciplinary team of about 40 people revamped the layout of the factory to implement social distancing. “The 2m rule is difficult to implement in a factory,” Pickering points out. “People are working side-by-side.”

Markings on the floor now indicate 2m separation, with only one person allowed to work in each marked area. A one-way system has been implemented for the site’s walkways and corridors, complete with “mini-roundabouts”, to keep people apart.
Where social distancing cannot easily be observed, screens have been installed. Across the site, 24 hand sanitiser stations have been installed.

Break areas have been segregated and meeting rooms opened up to allow socially-distanced refreshment breaks. All of the break areas have cleaning stations.

Production restarted in the Newtown plant on 14 April and there are now about 270 people working in the production area, compared to around 350 before the shutdown. They have all had to go through an induction process, “as if they hadn’t worked for us before,” Pickering reports.

CT has appointed “virus stewards” to ensure that the 2m separation is maintained. Pickering reports that everyone is observing social distancing, “until they go to the smoking area”. A team of “virus busters” is performing extra cleaning tasks.

To accommodate the changed working conditions, which have reduced productivity, the company has moved to a three-shift operation. One attraction of this is that it allows employees with children to work twilight shifts.

Control Techniques has furloughed its r&d and support personnel on 80% of their full salaries. The total number of people employed across CT’s Newtown sites is around 550, with many now working from home or on furlough.

Pickering reports that CT experienced no significant drop in demand for its products during March, and he expects the first quarter results to exceed the budget. Because of the three-week closure, there are a lot of back-orders to be fulfilled.

In fact, CT has won some new business as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak – for example, supplying drives for booster fans for field hospitals in New York. “It feels like we’re doing our bit,” says Pickering.

In the UK, demand is still “reasonably good”, reports CT’s regional director for the UK and Ireland, Gareth Jones. The new working conditions have “cemented” teams, with sales staff at CT’s Telford site helping with dispatch activities, for example.

Control Techniques is using "virus stewards" to check that 2m distancing is being observed in its revamped Newtown plant

Sales engineers are still visiting customers, Jones adds. “If we abandoned them, they’d never forgive us.”

In preparation for Brexit, Control Techniques had built up a lot of finished stock which is helping it to fulfil orders now. Priority is being given to supplying and supporting customers in “essential” industries. For example, a UK food manufacturer recently had a drive failure. A replacement was despatched immediately and arrived the following day.

Pickering reports that Control Techniques has not experienced any significant supply-chain problems because it has good stocks of most components. But one potential problem could be the cost of airfreighting components from the Far East. With flights being limited, costs have rocketed.

Control Techniques has been using the time generated by the factory closure to train its employees and has filled 865 training seats in the past month, according to Pickering. “it’s a unique opportunity to do things you haven’t been able to do before,” he adds. For example, the company has been analysing its repairs activities and implementing Web-based sales appointments.

Pickering expects that Control Techniques will work differently in future based on the experience it has gained during the epidemic. For example, he expects to embrace flexible working – something the company hasn’t done before. He says that many of the 200-300 people working from home have been more productive than when they were working in the office. “In future, flexible working will be part of the new normal,” he says.

Control Techniques is looking to recruit up to 50 people as it brings some sub-contracting operations previously done in China in-house to Newtown. It has already recruited nine people in the past couple of months.

CT is planning to start production of a new generation of its Commander drives in Wales later this year.

Control Techniques’ plant in Shenzen, China, is back up and running after being closed for two months. The site, which produces drives mainly for the Chinese market, had to build two dormitories almost overnight to house migrant workers.

Markings on the floor ensure that personnel maintain safe distances between each other

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