A fantastic example of a resilient company surviving and beginning to grow again after some very challenging times...
The Natural Fibre Company was acquired in late 2019 by Colin Spencer Halsey and Graham Higgins, who spent most of the following year turning the business around and preparing for its next phase…transformation.
However, their plans had to be delayed for over a year when the COVID-19 pandemic caused global chaos in March 2020. “We ground to a halt, and all we could do was hold our current position and survive,” said Operations Director and Co-Owner, Colin.
As the effects of the pandemic began to ease earlier this year, once again the business was hit with new and unforeseen challenges. Unusual weather patterns, combined with a lack of available skilled shearers, meant the supply of wool was significantly reduced when compared to normal levels. This lost the business a further three months of trade and found them significantly behind their projected target.
Despite these issues, and with specialist help from SWMAS, the business worked hard to optimise their internal production processes, with a real focus on reducing the lead time from raw material to finished goods.
Positive Steps Taken...
SWMAS used a Value Stream Mapping approach to help the business identify potential improvements. To follow up on this, training in Lean manufacturing tools and techniques was provided to help them streamline processes and improve productivity. This led to a significant reduction in lead time - from over seven weeks to under six.
The positive impact on customers has been immediate. The Natural Fibre Company is receiving a steady flow of praise about the reduced response times, resulting in high levels of repeat business and many new sales opportunities.
The business also maximised the ‘quieter’ times during the pandemic to concentrate on new product development and new processing capabilities in the mill. This saw the business trial a range of more unusual fibre combinations, including the hair from Huskies! Strategically, the business can now capitalise on this and position itself as more of a ‘development house’ to gain a competitive edge in the marketplace.
As Colin confirms: “We are not a volume-based business and cannot compete in this area. But we can use our strengths of agility, adaptiveness, responsiveness, and innovation to gain competitive advantage, and focus on capability and customisation rather than volume.”
As the business sees a continued uplift in orders and production volumes the future looks positive, but there is still a long journey ahead.
The Natural Fibre Company now plan to focus on the first stages of the production process and have identified a need to address ways to optimise process repeatability whilst dealing with the natural variability of their raw materials.
SWMAS has already supported them in this area by training the team on process variability tools (such as the Fishbone Approach), and root cause problem-solving techniques. Their internal team has also gained a lot of value from SWMAS’ Manufacturing Resilience webinar series, which was launched at the beginning of lockdown.
In addition, SWMAS has linked the business to other improvement programmes in Cornwall, such as Acceleration through Innovation 2. As a result, The Natural Fibre Company is now receiving support with advanced testing and materials analysis to help them continue their quest for new product and process developments.
At the same time as leveraging its unique capabilities and skills, the business also wants to further enhance its sustainability ethos.
As a UK company who source and process materials locally, The Natural Fibre Company are also researching innovative, value-adding solutions for their waste streams to help reduce the carbon footprint of the textiles sector. SWMAS look forward to supporting them again when they participate in the ‘Make it Net Zero’ programme. This funded support will help the business understand effective ways of lowering carbon emissions within a manufacturing environment, as well as enabling them to calculate their own carbon footprint.
Paul Gilbert , Manufacturing Specialist