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Lean and green
Summer 2007
Published:  29 July, 2007

Datum already has £2.5m worth of orders for the next two quarters

When Simon and Sandy Bliss set up timber frame company Datum, they decided to break the manufacturing mould. Keren Fallwell reports

On the first day of business at timber frame manufacturer Datum, everyone sat down and played Lego. It wasn't that they didn't have any real houses to build – in fact an order for houses in Northampton was sitting on the books – but directors Simon and Sandy Bliss wanted to start as they meant to go on and this was the first lesson in lean manufacturing.

“We needed to make two big houses for the project in Northampton but we wanted to get the approach right first,” said Bliss.

Having decided they did not want to be “another timber frame manufacturer in terms of process, approach and product”, they invited Manufacturing Excellence to their Stockton premises and established a philosophy that drives every aspect of the business, from car sharing on the journey to work, to producing timber frame buildings.

“It demonstrated that this was the way we were currently building timber frame but if you organise your thoughts, your processes, your approach, this is how much easier – and profitable – it can be,” said Bliss.

That ethos has rewarded the company with a £1m turnover in the first year, £2.5m worth of orders in the next two quarters, and a list of clients that include self-builders through to the likes of Bellway. Another notch of success was winning the Best North-east Manufacturer title in last year's Best New Business Awards.

While both had started their working lives in the media in London, Sandy went on to academia and Simon joined Robertson Timberkit and sat on the UK Timber Frame Association's marketing committee. Buoyed by the burgeoning market for timber frame but frustrated by what they see as a “one size fits all” approach in the timber frame sector, the couple decided to establish their own business, opening their doors on July 1 last year.

Simon and Sandy Bliss: lean manufacturing's a way of life
“We knew there was a better way of interacting with the customer and a better way of doing business, a better way of procuring and developing timber frame,” said Bliss.

Having identified a lack of customer consideration in the timber frame industry, the couple wanted to make their business more client-focused. “What we like to communicate is that we'll look after you and listen, do all the soft stuff but combine that with hard facts. A good timber frame experience is the result of good service and understanding what the customer needs,” said Bliss. “It's fundamental marketing.”

And meeting customer needs means being flexible. In one developer's office in the north-east, staff had been adjusting their schedules to meet the convenience of the timber frame supplier who was flying in from other parts of Britain. “They were having to tailor their business life to facilitate someone in the supply chain,” said Bliss. “I promised that if they called me I could be there in an hour at their convenience.”

When Simon and Sandy set up Datum, they originally planned to cover the area up to the Borders but soon realised they could develop a sustainable business reaching to Northumberland and east of the Pennines. With 6,000 new builds completed in the region each year – and at present just 10% of those are timber frame – the business is sustainable both in terms of the market, and the environment. Having most projects within just an hour's drive means less travelling time and using local labour.

Orders on the books now include 25 detached luxury houses, a block of five-storey flats in Sunderland and a 100-bed hotel. In just a year Datum has enjoyed impressive demand but becoming a national supplier is not part of the business plan.

“We're never going to be big, nor do we want to,” said Sandy, “but we're passionate about wanting to be a prominent regional player and known for our innovation.”

Possessed by the notion that there's always an easier way to do things, when it came to the product Simon identified modular design as a more efficient means of designing, manufacturing and erecting the company's open panel timber frame system and so all projects are designed and optimised on a standard 600mm grid. The approach has brought efficiencies throughout the process. Using Mitek software, Datum's design capacity has trebled because rather than creating bespoke drawings for each project, standard models are used as part of a bespoke solution.

One of Datum's designs
“We chose software that we knew covered structure, roof, floors and integrates the lot. That enables us to bring in the roof design and the floor design so that the whole structure can be modelled and approved by the client,” said Bliss.

“Even our window and door suppliers we chose through CAD friendliness so they can import their drawings into our structures and make sure they fit,” he added.

In the manufacturing it means Datum now buys in pre-cut materials, which has reduced waste from 8% to 2%, negating the need for the planned wood-burning stove. The pre-cut stock, which has made the business more assembly rather than process based, is stored in lengths so the workshop staff can pick and assemble as though they were in a car plant.

The timber studs are lined with Bitroc fibreboard which, again, was chosen in line with Datum's environmental

principles and lean management, and its emphasis on value rather than cost. While more expensive than OSB, the on-site savings make it more cost-effective.

“It has good environmental credentials because it's just wood pulp and newspaper so there are no phenolic glues,” said Bliss. “And from a build point of view it's very simple – it's light, there are no splinters and we don't have to cover it with breather membrane.” This strips out three processes – applying the breather membrane, applying the tape and stapling the member onto the panel.

The choice of spandrel panels follows the same line. “Fireproof spandrel panels traditionally are a double-staggered board which is taped on site. We're looking at a cement-based particleboard which is £15 a sheet instead of £4, but it's one board, one cut, one staple, job done,” he said.

Out in the yard there are more examples of efficiency. In one corner, there are the components of a four-bedroomed detached house, which was put together in a morning, while, in carefully choreographed movements, a forklift loads another project onto a lorry so it is unloaded onsite in the build order. And the haulage company is across the road from Datum, reducing movement of empty trailers.

Over the next few months, as well as fulfilling £2.5m of orders, Simon and Sandy Bliss will also be spreading the word about lean manufacturing. Working with Bellway on one project, Datum managed to cut the programme from 16 weeks on site to 10, it has set up a skype phone with its truss and joist manufacturer to save costs, and by illustrating its efficiency to Two Castles Housing Association, it has won a contract for 170 units.

“It's us as an industry waking up and being part of a catalyst of change in the construction industry,” said Bliss. “For too long it's been 'they want that then, we want to sell it in this format' and not working it out and coming together on it.”

In a meeting recently someone asked if lean manufacturing was some sort of cult. It's not that, say Simon and Sandy Bliss, but it is becoming a way of life.