By Peter Marsh
The UK is home to many relatively small manufacturers, who focus on tightly constrained sectors that require much technical capability and have an accent on ‘bespoke’ production. It is, for instance, the world’s centre for making Formula 1 racing cars – engineering-intensive vehicles made in tiny volumes and where almost every product is different.
Many of the country’s most successful quoted engineering businesses focus on product niches, or slivers, where the total market is quite small but where customers are spread globally. Examples include Renishaw, Rotork, Spirax Sarco and Spectris – leaders respectively in measuring probes, actuation equipment for oil wells, steam control systems and laboratory instruments.
Britain is a leader in many other slivers, such as high-performance sailing yachts where notable companies include Southampton-based Spirit and Discovery in Ipswich; specialised underwater vehicles produced by businesses such as M-Subs in Plymouth; and ‘artisanal artefacts’ – customised items used as theatre sets or architectural models. Some top names here include Stage One, Plunge Creations, Footprint Scenery and Amalgam.
Where it pays to be niche
As to why the UK has a strong role in such micro industries, David Jackson, James Walker’s finance director, said being in a business where success depends on technical skills rather than costs fits with being based in a country with relatively high
manufacturing expenses. In Britain he said, “it pays to be in a niche field, or in a highly automated, mass-production environment, as otherwise the products will be more efficiently produced elsewhere”.
Another explanation may be rooted in culture. Making things to order and with a lot of attention to the needs of individuals is in line with the thinking of many British engineers, who say they like “tinkering” at a specific technical problem until it is solved, before moving on to the next one, using skills more akin to a project manager than a mass market specialist. This mindset is not exclusive to UK engineering; a similar way of thinking is evident among the elite tailors of Savile Row.
A third factor may be the relative problems in the UK in attracting sufficient capital to build up big businesses with vast number of potential customers. Manufacturers may well find it easier to concentrate on micro-sectors where the limited market pushes down development costs.
SEALING SYSTEMS – JAMES WALKER
Anyone keen to study a company with a diverse range of products geared to specific needs might want to look at James Walker, which sells its specialised sealing systems in 500,000 varieties.
Some 80 per cent of Woking-based James Walker’s 2016/17 revenues of £178m were tailored to fit the requirements of a diverse customer base: makers of machines and other products for use in applications ranging from semiconductors to food. About 80 per cent of its sales go to customers outside the UK; half its 2,000-strong workforce is in Britain, where the company has seven factories, the biggest being in Cockermouth, Cumbria. James Walker is among a range of manufacturers in Britain that are specialists in product niches. These sectors have few competitors. They require prowess in design and service as well as manufacturing and engineering.
Image: James Walker makes specialist machinery for
use in applications ranging from semiconductors to food
LEISURE MARINE – FAIRLINE
Luxury boatmaker Fairline Yachts has announced that it is to commence manufacturing at a new base on Southampton Water, on the south coast of England. Since it was first established, the company has made its vessels at a marina base, also its HQ, in Oundle, Northamptonshire.
It will continue to operate and specialise in the production boats up to 60ft. Boats over 60ft will be built at the new site in Hythe with testing, commissioning and customer handover also taking place there. Fairline is reported to be investing £30m over four years in the new facility, which has large vessel deep water berths and over 200,000sq ft (18,000sq m) of undercover manufacturing space. It is expected that the new plant will initially create up to 200 jobs in the Southampton area. Fairline is expecting to begin boat building in the late summer of 2018.
“Our new site, to be named Fairline Marine Park, will boast state-of-the-art facilities, giving us room to expand and create bigger boats, whilst making the most of the existing boat building skills in the location,” said Russell Currie, managing director of Fairline Yachts.
“By increasing our manufacturing capabilities across both Northampton and Southampton, we are future-proofing Fairline Yachts and retaining our commitment of investing in British boat building.”
HYBRID AIR VEHICLES
In an effort to continue the UK’s impressive historic record in aviation technology, a company in Bedfordshire has sky-high ambitions for a new family of vehicles that is a mix of aircraft and helium balloon.
Hybrid Air Vehicles has been helped by a £100m contract from the US Defense Department that enabled it to build prototypes. By combining the two air transportation concepts it reckons its machines will be able to carry large loads from place to place without a need for the normal airport infrastructure.
The vehicles will be able to stay airborne for weeks at a time to do jobs in such as military surveillance and search and rescue. With 80 employees, the company is backed by £37m in funding and has its eye on a stockmarket listing, probably on London‘s Aim market for small businesses. Hybrid says full production will start in 2020. After this it hopes gradually to build up manufacturing to about 12 a year.
Each vehicle is more than 90m in length – 20m longer than an Airbus A380. The company has a large supply chain -comprising some 1,000 companies, 80 per cent of them in the UK .
MICRO NUCLEAR REACTORS – TOKAMAK ENERGY
Trying to replicate the conditions in the interior of the Sun – while remaining at a terrestrial level – sounds like an engineering challenge too far.
But it is one that David Kingham says is practicable and likely, he says, to lead to a new family of products: room-sized fusion reactors to create a new source of green energy. Under Kingham’s vision, factories around the world could be making the reactors in the 2030s for perhaps $1bn each.
Kingham is vice-chairman and co-founder of Tokamak Energy, a 45-strong company headquartered near Oxford. The machines it is developing are referred to as ‘squashed up’ tokamaks. These prototypes are miniature versions of the large vessels built in a few government laboratories around the world to create power using nuclear fusion, the process that powers the Sun.
One of the leading centres for the research is the Joint European Torus at Culham, close to Tokamak Energy’s headquarters and from which many of its ideas have been derived. The design of the tokamaks involves combining deuterium and tritium – isotopes of hydrogen – under high pressures and at up to 100 million degrees Celsius. To generate the heat requires a current of 20 million amps.
Working machines will require novel magnets plus ways to feed the exotic isotopes to the equipment. Tokamak Energy has received investments of £22m so far; much more will be needed to complete the programme.
“It’s a high-risk project but nothing about the engineering makes it impossible,” said Kingham.
ROBOTIC HANDLING EQUIPMENT – CLANSMAN DYNAMICS
At Clansman Dynamics, a Glasgow-based leader in making large robotic handlers for industries such as forging, the concept of a ‘standard product’ is barely recognised. Virtually every machine is tailored to suit specific purchasers.
Clansman’s giant machines sell for £100,000 to £900,000. Some 90 percent of the company’s output – running at about £10m a year – is exported; the European Union and China are among its biggest markets.
The company – which was started in 1994 – has expanded strongly in recent years. It has 46 employees, up from 30 in 2009 when the company became wholly owned by its employees. Dick Philbrick, one of the founders, is now the chairman of a trust that owns the majority of the shares on behalf of workers, who also own shares individually.
Philbrick explained that the structure fits with the special requirements of Clansman. Manufacturing handlers of the type the company specialises in require more than the normal liaison with customers to ensure their needs are catered for; to cope with unforeseen changes in design that occur late in a project, for instance.
“We often need a fitter or a software engineer to jump on a plane and to be away until the [customer’s] problem is solved. Clansman has that spirit and we believe that employee ownership is an important part of it.”
SUPER JET ENGINES – REACTION ENGINES
“A Kitty Hawk moment for the 21st century”
Reaction Engines Ltd has started construction of a new UK test site in Westcott, Buckinghamshire, to test critical subsystems. It intends to test a fully integrated engine core in 2020.
In September 2017 Reaction Engines Inc., its U.S. subsidiary, announced that it had received a contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to conduct high-temperature airflow testing in the United States of a Reaction Engines precooler test article called HTX. The precooler heat exchanger is a key component of the company’s revolutionary SABRE air-breathing rocket engine and has the potential to enable other precooled propulsion systems. The primary HTX test objective is to validate precooler performance under the high-temperatu
re airflow conditions expected during high-speed flights up to Mach 5.
SABRE engines are capable of Mach 5.4 in air-breathing mode, and Mach 25 in rocket mode for space flight; by contrast, Jet engines are only capable of powering a vehicle up to Mach 3, three times the speed of sound.
Reaction Engines has secured over £50m in public funding, including £42m from the UK Space Agency and the balance from ESA. BAE Systems owns a 20% investment in the company.
It described this year’s developments as a crucial step on the way towards a SABRE-powered flight test vehicle, which will be “a veritable Kitty Hawk moment for the 21st century”.
Adrian Went muses on the “peculiar disadvantages of being close to a monopoly”. Griffon Hoverwork – the company of which he is managing director – is one of a tiny group of manufacturers that make hovercraft. Supported by an air cushion, hovercraft can function on land and sea. During talks with the Indian government – which had wanted to buy 60 Griffon machines for use in river areas – administrators had insisted that they evaluate competing bids to ensure value for money.
Griffon Hoverwork craft show their versatility Eventually – when the government realised no other company could offer equivalent products – the discussions broke down. This cost the company a lot of money, Went recalled.
Griffon – with a staff of 70 and based in Southampton – is likely this year to have sales of about £7m, much less than the £35m recorded in 2013. “This is a cyclical business with a lumpy order pattern,” said Went.
“We see sales picking up due to the many inherent advantages of the machines.” The main purchasers for the machines are government agencies. Applications are in fields such as military campaigns, controlling sea/land borders to check for illegal immigrants and rescuing people in regions hit by floods or hurricanes. Individual products require much intricate engineering, with batch sizes for orders often being as low as one or two.
Amalgam – beyond Morph
Britain is a world leader in the niche of “artisanal artefacts” industry – intricate items made to one-off designs for sectors from theatres and theme parks to architecture and manufacturing. One of the best-known companies is Bristol-based Amalgam, which started out in 1984 in making scale models of buildings for architects.
After this, said Mike Harvey, director, the company showed “a willingness to take on pretty much any challenge in the broad field of bespoke making”. The company’s core role, he added, is to “problem solve, develop ideas and produce bespoke solutions”.
Customers have included the Dyson appliance company, animation specialist Aardman and BBC TV. To make its products, Amalgam has become adept at quick-turnaround design and fabrication using tools such as CNC machining, 3D printing, computerised design and vacuum and resin casting.
It has built up expertise in a variety of metals, composites and plastics. “As a company we come from a ‘making’ background,” said Harvey. “Alll our design is driven from a practical viewpoint – we will always consider the practicalities of producing the item as a primary consideration rather than an afterthought.” With 35 staff, Amalgam is looking for bigger premises, said Harvey, as it is “bursting out of the doors”.
BOLA MANUFACTURING BOWLS LIKE A PRO
What do you do if you are world-class with a bat and you need some practice against the hostile bowling of a fired-up Aussie, in preparation for an Ashes Test match? The world’s leading cricket authorities believe the answer may be found tucked away in a small street off Bristol’s city centre.
Bola Manufacturing Ltd’s latest machine, the TrueMan, features an animated LED outline image of a bowler running up to the crease, putting his arm back and then delivering a ball.
Mark Alleyne, the MCC’s head coach, has welcomed Bola’s TrueMan and its LED screen for the important visual cues the image gives the batsman. And it’s not just about fast bowling; the machines can make a ball spin and pitch off the ground as viciously as any in the world.
It truly provides a realistic experience. Bola Manufacturing’s premises in Bristol may be modest but it’s the world leader in the design, manufacture and delivery of bowling machines. Founded in 1982 by current MD Nye Williams’ father, it now makes 450-500 units a year of its main model, the Professional bowling machine; a “couple of hundred” Junior machines, which are intended for lighter use; and has recently supplied 20 TrueMan machines, its latest model, to the ECB (English Cricket Board), for County grounds. By Ruari McCallion.