We talk to Dale Biggs, upstream production manager at AG Barr, about how training delivered by MCP is equipping shopfloor staff with invaluable maintenance skills to keep production lines moving

A.G. Barr, most famous for its soft drink IRN-BRU opened its state of the art facility in Milton Keynes in 2013.  The site employes around 126 employees, many of which are now benefitting from “ECO-warrior” training delivered by MCP.

The facility comprises one can line, 3 Tetra Pak lines, and one PET bottling line, and just like in any plant, production uptime is key to profitability. With straightforward line maintenance tasks diverting the engineering teams’ attention away from the more complex projects, Dale Biggs, upstream production manager, wanted to find a way of equipping line operators with the skills to carry out the jobs themselves.

AG Barr has now been working with training and consultancy company MCP for two years to deliver the ECO-warrior (Engineer Competence Operator) training. Officially named ‘Technical Operator Training’, the course is designed to help the operators learn and develop maintenance skills to help them carry out high-frequency, low-risk tasks, such as inspection, lubrication, alignment of drives and basic fault-finding.

On the day of my visit, pre-pandemic, there were nine trainees on the one week course, made up of operators from different production lines. The participants were a mix of assistant team leaders, process operators and can line operators. Tony Winnard, from MCP, is the course leader.

He said: “If a process stops, it can be 30-45 minutes before an engineer arrives, whereas the ECO-warriors could diagnose the problem and have the line back up and running in 20 minutes, for example.”

The course provides a comprehensive overview of many subjects crucial to effective maintenance, starting with health & safety, and covering areas such as hand tools, belt drives, bearings and seals, to name but a few. It is a blend of theory-based learning and practical hands-on sessions.

The course participants I spoke to were all very positive about the experience. An operator from the PET line said: “The course is really interesting, and has given me a wider range of knowledge of the line. It is easy to follow, and there are plenty of opportunities to ask questions.”

Another participant, a forklift truck driver, said: “There’s lots to take in and learn, and the course leader is really helpful – he’s prepared to stay late/come in early if we need help with anything.”

Another attendee, an assistant team leader, said: “Once I have completed the course it will give me more of an understanding of the plant and how each area within it works. It will allow me to take ownership of my area…”

Biggs says there is a team-building feel to the courses: “By mixing the groups, participants get to share experiences and learn from one another.”

The course culminates in a 1.5 hour written exam with a pass mark of 60%.

Currently, about 50% of the production staff are ECO-warrior certified, with the goal of increasing that number to 100% over the next two years. Successful candidates are rewarded with a toolbag filled with the tools they will need to carry out the maintenance tasks they have been trained to do (and a dedicated locker in which to store it!). Anyone who doesn’t pass the exam first time is given a refresher course and the opportunity to take it again.

OEE and machine availability is crucial at AG Barr, as breakdowns not only lead to production downtime, but also the potential for wasted product. According to Biggs, the course has been beneficial in improving plant uptime, and alleviating the pressure on the engineers. He said:

“There are three engineers on each shift, and because it is quite a big plant, there will be times when they will be very busy. The ECO-warriors operate as ‘first responders’ by either preparing the area to make the engineer’s life easier or by fixing what they can themselves, which takes some of the workload off the engineers.” By carrying out this work, the ECO- warriors are learning all the time, gaining more knowledge of the maintenance requirements of the lines and building up a useful skillset.

The ECO-warrior training forms part of AG Barr’s wider Asset Maintenance Improvement System (AMIS) journey. The Milton Keynes site was first assessed by MCP using the AMIS Assessment in November 2016 and an improvement plan agreed. Following subsequent AMIS Assessments in 2017 and again in 2018, the site has achieved ‘World-Class Performance’ within a two-year period, often this may take up to 5 years!

Some of the outcomes are impressive:

• 4-5% OEE increase in 12 months
• 100% Preventative Maintenance Schedule Completion Rate
• Lean techniques have been applied to maintenance activities

With a site-wide OEE target of 64.5% and a projection of 28 million cases leaving the site in 2020, it is easy to see how maintenance improvements are crucial to the smooth running of the plant. And the newly-qualified ECO-warriors are playing a key role in keeping production moving.