Pop culture13 April 2020

AG Barr’s factory in Milton Keynes, UK, has worked with consultancy firm MCP to provide shopfloor staff with basic maintenance skills. Enter the ECO warriors

For seven years, the massive AG Barr plant in Milton Keynes has been home to production of some of the UK’s best-known soft drinks, including Rubicon and Tizer. The site is forecast to produce some 28 million cases of product in 2020, and keeping the factory’s five lines (one can, one plastic bottle and three Tetra Pak cartons) running is a 24-hour job. Good maintenance practice is therefore vital.

With a site-wide target for 64.5% OEE (overall equipment effectiveness), which is a measure of how well a manufacturing operation is utilised compared to its full potential during the periods when it is scheduled to run, maintaining the plant’s assets is the job of a team of dedicated engineering staff. However, they had found themselves becoming inundated with small, mundane tasks that meant larger, more critical jobs had to wait. Working with consultancy firm MCP, AG Barr has combatted this issue by providing its shopfloor staff with basic maintenance skills, enabling them to undertake tasks ranging from lubrication to belt and chain maintenance. These have been christened engineer competence operators – or ECO warriors.

"We want to give our operators more responsibility, and free up the engineering team to allow them to do the bigger project work. We see the ECO warriors as first aiders - they're the first responders who will do the basic steps, before an engineer can get involved if necessary," Dale Biggs (pictured), upstream production manager at AG Barr Milton Keynes

At the time that the author visited the factory, nine operators were undergoing the week-long MCP-run course. “The programme is really important,” said MCP’s Tony Winnard, who was delivering the course. “If a process stops, it can be 30 or 45 minutes before an engineer gets there. Whereas these people now have the knowledge to identify the problem and can have it back up and running in 20 minutes. It's saving as much as half an hour, which is valuable. After all, production time is profit time.”

The group consisted of staff from across production, with all levels of seniority represented. This, said Biggs, is important. “We could have just sent everyone from the canning line to do the training in one group, but we thought that by mixing the groups the guys can learn from each other,” he explained. “It's good team-building as well for the different areas to get to know each other.

“[Of those who’ve undergone the training] you have line operators, the guys who work on the various production lines. There are process operators, which are responsible for making the product – everything from weighing out to quality testing, before it's released to line – and then there are the goods-in operators and FLT drivers. The progression plan that we put in place sees people move up through the business. We've had five goods-in guys take on this responsibility of doing courses like this and move on to the lines themselves. The course started that journey. A lot of them have a warehouse background and have never done an engineering job like this before. Naturally, they will have had limited exposure to the more technical aspects of working in a factory.”

Currently, about 50% of the production staff are certified ECO-warriors, with the aim for 100% to be trained in the next two years. The factory primarily recruits from within, preferring to reward those who have shown commitment to development. Biggs himself started at the factory five years ago, and has been promoted, by his count, six times to reach the position he is in today. “I'm now in a position where I'm responsible for 30-odd people,” he said. “Those people know that I’ve worked my way through the ranks, and have experienced all of their roles. Who better to manage those people than someone who's been there and done it?”

The course itself is a whistle-stop tour of all the basic maintenance tasks someone working on the shopfloor may need to know about. It is a mixture of theory-based classroom learning and hands-on, practical sessions, culminating in a 90-minute exam on the Friday afternoon. With such a diverse group of learners, the experience differs wildly. “Some of the guys have never seen a spanner before, never mind having a more technical set of skills,” said Winnard. “On the other hand, some are a little bit more experienced and will be able to relate pretty much to what they've done in the past.”

Upon completing the course, each student will receive their equivalent of a New York cop’s badge and gun: a fully-loaded toolkit, and their own dedicated locker space on the shopfloor. “This shows that we respect – and trust – what they are doing,” added Biggs.

AG Barr has been working with MCP to develop training plans for the past four years. The AMIS (Asset Maintenance Improvement Strategy) Journey was developed by MCP to measure manufacturing sites, such as AG Barr, against a worldwide benchmark of peer group companies. The site was first assessed in November 2016, and an improvement plan was developed. Subsequent assessments in 2017 and 2018 found that the site hadn’t just taken MCP’s recommendations to heart, but had exceeded them, reaching ‘World Class Performance’ status in just two years (many other companies take up to five years to reach this stage).

The outcomes of the AMIS Journey at Milton Keynes speak for themselves:
- 4–5% OEE increase last 12 months
- >98% assets captured on CMMS system
- 100% preventative maintenance schedule completion rate
- >30 continuous improvement work requests raised per month
- Lean techniques have been applied to maintenance activities

The success of AG Barr’s maintenance strategy is clear to see – and the army of ECO-warriors now on the shopfloor will ensure this success continues in the years to come.

Meet the students

The author spoke to two of the operators taking part in the course:

Simon Lintott, assistant team leader - process/upstream –
“This is my first engineering course. I've tinkered at home with my motorbike and things, but this is something that interests me. I was a chef for 18 years, so coming here was a bit of a change of pace. I'm not a huge theory fan or classroom person, but once we move on to the practical, I'm in my element.

“I hope that by doing the course it'll give me a little bit more understanding of how the plant and each of my areas work. I like to take ownership of my area and anything I can fix I'd rather do it. As an ATL I'd like to be able to know exactly how everything works in my area. And I think this will give me a good stepping stone to get there.”

Collette Brown, technical operator - M3 PET production Line – “It's really interesting; it helps you think about more than what you're actually doing on the lines and giving you a wider range of skills. If there's anything we're unsure of we're encouraged to ask questions. It also helps doing it in little groups. There are questions that you might not think of that others will ask.”

Chris Beck

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