THE wartime threat of the Lutwaffe was the spur that led to the creation of one of Darwen's most successful companies. In conditions of total secrecy, ICI opened a factory at Orchard Mill in 1940 to manufacture canopies for the Spitfire fighter plane that was destined to win the Battle of Britain.

That was one of the first applications of the acrylic sheet that is now the global brand name of Perspex.

Today, under the relatively new name of Lucite International, the factory is still at the forefront of plastics technology.

Acrylic sheet manufactured in Darwen is the base material for half the baths produced in Europe and Perspex remains a world leader for advertising signs.

Site director Clive Makin is the man in charge of operations in Darwen that involve 300 staff at its Duckworth Street complex and a further 55 at Walker Park, Guide, which is the base for its logistics partnership with Bibby Distribution.

"We have the biggest single acrylic sheet facility in Europe," he said, with a hint of corporate pride that was evident throughout our conversation. "We are the European distribution centre for sheet acrylic and 80 per cent of our production goes overseas."

Clive's boss, Paul Henderson - who has the grand-sounding title of vice-president Europe, Africa and Middle East - flew in from Brussels to join the interview. He too is proud of Darwen's achievements since ICI Acrylics was bought out by venture capitalists in 1999.

"They have turned it round from being a marginal site to a highly profitable one in terms of our worldwide business," he said.

Lucite International has invested heavily in Darwen which Clive believes has been a major factor in productivity increasing by 400 per cent since the mid-1990s. But he also credits the workforce for its contribution to the plant's success.

"We encourage staff involvement at all levels of the business," he explained. "There is a genuine commitment to problem-solving which creates a very healthy working environment.

"Every month staff are told how the company is doing. They are very knowledgeable about the business which can be very challenging for the management team."

ICI dramatically expanded its acrylics operation in 1992 when it bought Du Pont of America to create the world's biggest manufacturer with 25 per cent of the global market.

As part of a massive restructuring of its business, ICI sold its acrylics arm to Charterhouse Development Venture Capital who first named it Ineos Acrylics and then Lucite International.

Today, it is very much a global operation with a total of 2,000 staff working from 16 manufacturing sites in the UK, America, France, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, South Africa, Taiwan and Thailand.

Darwen manufactures two key products: Perspex, which is used for advertising, signage, point-of-sale materials and architectural projects; and Lucite which forms the basis of baths, shower trays, wash basins and kitchen sinks.

Innovation features strongly throughout the company and Darwen has been responsible for a technological breakthrough for the advertising industry. Its research and development team came up with the idea for illuminating Perspex signs with tiny state-of-the-art embedded LEDs.

The ultra-slim advertising panels are being applied to buses in major cities such as Hong Kong, London and New York.

Warehousing and distribution for Darwen is carried out at Walker Park by Bibby Distribution and is shortly to be extended in the company's continuing drive for improved customer service.

"We didn't think we were offering our Perspex customers the degree of service that was required," explained Paul Henderson. "We have already opened a distribution centre in Chelmsford and the second will operate out of Walker Park in May. It will allow us to offer our customers a 24-hour service, seven days a week."

Clive is convinced that coming out of the umbrella of the ICI empire has been good for both the business and its employees.

"We have been allowed to invest and grow the business," he added. "We have a highly structured approach - we find that if you do it right you get better solutions. We have had a lot of success doing it that way."