Digital Reconstruction to Face the Future


Architectural wall cladding specialist Spanwall is embarking on a complete restructuring of its production operations, led by Manufacturing Director, David Clark.

Founded in 1967, Spanwall’s architectural wall claddings feature on iconic buildings around the world, from Titanic Belfast to Riyadh Metro. The company’s products are specified by architects and designers working on behalf of clients including Google, Apple, Audi and British Airways. and are esteemed for their precision engineering and their ability to create performance products that deliver the aesthetic of the future.

The company was acquired by Cordovan Capital Management in March 2021 and David Clark was recruited back into the company in September ’21 to lead the manufacturing and digital transformation process. David began his career with Spanwall in the late ‘90s and then moved to McGrath Group for 9 years and on to McAvoy Group for a decade. He returns to Spanwall with a great deal of experience in building and construction product manufacturing.

“Over the years, the business has changed massively, with periods of expansion and contraction that have been accommodated by reactive changes on the construction floor. Coming in for the outside, I could see, just by looking inside the unit, an urgent need to reorganise and bring the operations into line with the latest digital technology,” David said.

“Essentially, machinery had been added over the years, but we needed to explore ways of improving the flow of product and processes in, through and out – it was simply not efficient. Added to that, manufacturing documentation and information was still paper-based. Each part coming in was given a unique ID but then the system transferred to paper. A project could have 50 parts, all with individual paper copies moving around every corner of the plant. Tracing the movement of a part on its journey through production actually created an image that resembled a spider’s web!


Factory floor layouts

“From my first week into the job I could see we had to restructure the factory and become more efficient in how we work end to end. Twinned with layout changes, we needed to rethink the process to manage products into, through and out of the business and to develop an information system to enhance and improve both efficiency and knowledge sharing.”

To assist in developing a forward strategy, the company commissioned Pinnacle Growth Group to conduct a ‘Current State Review’ and outline potential next steps. “The report was sobering,” admitted David. “It provided a very forthright review of the current status, the business risks associated and then provided reasoned recommendations with suggested achievement dates. It was a very useful exercise.”

“We worked together within the company to agree on a vision of the future factory layout, to be achieved in phased stages. First, we had to decide what machines we needed and where they should go in the factory layout. We have reorganised internally within the constraints of some pieces of equipment being fixed to the floor and we have two new pieces of machinery in the process of being installed.


Manufacturing Execution System

It was crucial to the restructuring programme to modernise information systems within the factory operations and David has instigated a complete shift away from paper-based to digital information with the implementation of a Manufacturing Execution System, or MES.

Using information capture, open accessibility and information analysis, the MES will connect data to provide deeper insight into production and drive process improvements. It will provide a real-time view of operations, facilitate information exchange and communication, and will report on Key Performance indicators to analyse operator and business performance.

“From a starting point of relying totally on a paper in a very rudimentary system, the move to the MES will transform operations,” continued David. “It will replace paper with a visual dashboard showing how production is proceeding in real-time and effectively form a very strong digital backbone to improve manufacturing operations.

“We aim to introduce screens on the floor that all operators will be able to log into with a QR code, access and see the information they need and log out when their part of the operations process is completed. Effectively, we will know where each production part is in the factory, what stage of the process it is at, when it will move to the next stage and when the process is complete.

“The system can also identify errors and bottlenecks, analyse cycle times, improve forecasting and provide accurate, achievable lead times to customers. In effect, the MES will make all our operations transparent, more accurate and more efficient for our business and our customers.”


Digital Construction Development

Digital construction is not exactly new, for example, programmes like AutoCAD and BIM systems have long been widely utilised in all aspects of the construction industry. In essence, it is ‘the use and application of digital tools to improve the process of delivering and operating the built environment’. What is new is the pace at which digital construction methods and processes are emerging and developing.

“When I first worked for Spanwall, over 20 years ago, I was using 3D modelling programmes and doing what would now be called BIM. The tools are in the business, but they have not been developed and changing how and how much these tools are used is an integral part of the restructuring programme.

“Spanwall has an unrivalled reputation for producing bespoke products for iconic and difficult projects but we want to be able to apply the same credentials to our standard products and that is where digital construction tools come to the fore. We need to draw smarter at an early stage and drive standardisation into the manufacturing process.

“Potentially the most important area to focus on will be closer collaboration with clients and, through that, integrating their digital work into our system.  Virtually every client, architect and designer that we interact with on a project will have their own BIM processes to draw buildings and components. However, as manufacturers, we haven’t yet created a streamlined workflow from our customers to harness efficiencies. Clearly, there is a broken link and a lot of duplicated effort. We want to change that, generating efficiencies and learning through collaboration.

“Spanwall has been very successful over its 50 years, but it hasn’t really shouted loud about its achievements and capabilities. Now, under new ownership, we’re facing up to an automatic challenge to the status quo on many levels of the business. The vision for Spanwall’s future will take the company to another level. It’s a challenge I am relishing.