Drained power base gets a fresh charge

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The Independent Online
A TRIP round Tanfield Lea tells the tale of its three managements: old Ever Ready, Hanson and Ralston Purina. The size - 900,000 square feet - comes from the visionaries of the Sixties. That a third of the space is let is a Hanson legacy. One of the tenants is an accountancy firm.

The factory is packed with 30-year-old machinery, although some of it still works well enough. An example is the 45-ton furnace, where zinc ingots are melted down as the first stage of the battery-making process. The molten metal is cooled by a waterfall, then runs as a silver river to a stamping machine. Calots, or blanks the size of an overweight florin, are punched out, and the spare metal is returned to the furnace.

Now the furnace is operating at 70 per cent capacity; before Ralston took over, it was 30 per cent. Most of the calots are sent off to battery factories in France, Spain and Czechoslovakia. The rest continue their journey round Tanfield Lea. Some calots were exported under Hanson, says John McIndoe, works director, but real expansion was limited by the Hanson rule-book. 'To break into a market, we would have to have taken lower profitability. We were not prepared to do that.' Capital invested under Hanson was expected to pay for itself in two to three years. 'Ralston Purina don't look at it that way,' McIndoe says. He has just ordered a pounds 900,000 stamping machine that will triple the production rate.

Under-investment became a way of life under Hanson. 'Eventually you adapted your philosophy to Hanson's,' he says. 'You knew what would be allowed, so you ended up not applying for any more.'

In the mid-Eighties, McIndoe decided to borrow from the management textbooks in an attempt to bolster falling morale. He created teams throughout the factory, each responsible for its own production area. Les Walsh, team leader in the zinc factory, says the system helped but could not counter the uncertainty caused by regular rounds of redundancies. 'They were constantly looking at costs,' he says.

The dirty bit of battery-making is the mixing plant. Here, in a giant chemistry set, manganese ore brought in from Mexico or Ghana is ground down to act as the electrolyte. It is mixed with ammonium chloride, zinc chloride and soot, and the result is a black powder. The process is remotely controlled by computer; an electronic display shows how the brew is coming together.

The computer, which cost pounds 140,000, was installed two years ago, under the Hanson regime. It replaced an electromagnetic relay device which came with the factory. It was ordered, according to the team leadeEr, Colin Armstrong, 'because the previous system had become verTHER write errory unreliable. We were having to make spare parts here for it.'

Under Ralston, a system of preventive maintenance has been installed. There wasn't one before because, McIndoe says, 'you don't have planned maintenance if you are watching your costs too carefully'.

Ralston Purina has brought a touch of America in the form of exhortational signs. 'Do things right - 85/0.5,' one of them says. This, McIndoe explains, is an encouragement to increase efficiency to 85 per cent (from 76 per cent now) and to halve scrap levels to 0.5 per cent.

Almost everything in the factory has been recently painted. 'Housekeeping becomes a low priority when you are watching your costs,' he says.

In the next section, rolls of brown paper are being coated with a paste made to a secret formula. The Americans were impressed by it, and Tanfield Lea's separator paper, used to line the battery, is now exported all over the world. The department is now working on three shifts instead of one.

Further on, zinc calots are being stamped with great force into a hollow tube - the casing of a U2-sized battery. The casings jostle each other on a carousel, before moving off. Batteries for the British market, Silver Seal, are labelled here, though the labels come from Japan. 'No British manufacturer can make them - I'm looking for one who can,' McIndoe says.

There is a smart canteen decorated with a woodland mural. It was built under Hanson. 'There are certain things you just did without justifying them,' McIndoe says. There is a graph on the wall of the canteen showing progress towards 85/0.5. Meetings are held here every month to talk about ways of increasing efficiency. Everyone got a free meal when 76 per cent efficiency was reached; McIndoe has said he will abolish clocking-on at 80 per cent.

Downstairs, the batteries come together on the pounds 4m line Hanson built. It needs three people to operate it. The outer casing descends from above on a conveyor belt. The separator paper is pushed in, so is the bottom washer. Then it is filled with chemical mix and a carbon rod is plunged down the centre (the rod comes from the Far East; it used to be made in Wolverhampton). A bitumen seal is poured on top, followed by a plastic one and finally a plastic top.

Each battery is tested automatically, then left for five days to settle, and tested again. Finally the batteries bound for Germany pass through a new pounds 100,000 machine that gives them the Ucar branding; there is nothing on the label saying where they are made.

(Photograph omitted)