DEVELOPMENT agency One NorthEast used cutting-edge laser technology to help improve production at a County Durham manufacturing firm.

Engineers from the North- East Productivity Alliance (NEPA) used a technologicallyadvanced scanner to support 3M in Newton Aycliffe, in improving its manufacturing process.

NEPA is a regional business improvement initiative, which is financially supported by One NorthEast, the Learning and Skills Council and the European Union.

It helps manufacturing companies drive down lead times, reduce waste and stock and improve productivity to stay competitive.

Managers at 3M, which manufactures respirators for worker safety at its Aycliffe site, called in NEPA's Digital Factory specialists, to help them with inspecting tooling parts that were causing added waste in the manufacturing of gas and vapour respirator filters.

Inspecting tooling parts would usually take two weeks and be a costly exercise, but the NEPA team were able to solve the problem in two days.

Sajid Abdullah, lead consultant at the Digital Factory, demonstrated the laser scanner, which provides a graphical comparison of the scanned item, automatically performing inspection, tool validation, wear analysis, object alignment, and 2D and 3D dimensional analysis.

Mr Abdullah said: "By producing 3D point cloud data of the components, we were able to measure the components in every dimension, without limitations of specific locations as associated with 2D."

Fraser Shearer, 3M senior manufacturing technologist, said: "Traditional inspection methods take a long time and are very costly. However, using the latest digital technologies available from NEPA's Digital Factory, including their laser scanner, we achieved 3D measurements in two days without any factory down-time.

"The laser scanner provided precise 3D measurements of parts directly onto a computer system for inspection, tool validation and 2D and 3D analysis. Without NEPA's invaluable help, it would have taken a consultancy two weeks of work at a high cost."

As well as assisting 3M with the use of a laser scanner to compare sets of tooling parts for problem diagnostics, the NEPA team has been assisting 3M with implementing Japanese lean manufacturing techniques to improve business processes.

Mr Shearer said: "3M involved NEPA to complement our existing business improvement programs.

"Globally, 3M is implementing lean manufacturing, including the plant in Newton Aycliffe, where we were also ideally placed to take advantage of the NEPA programme."

Dr Colin Herron, One NorthEast's manufacturing and productivity manager, said: "3M Aycliffe is going from strength to strength and adopting NEPA principles complements existing business improvement practices."