Profiles

Judged on its merits

With innovative thinking and industry-leading technology at the core of its strengths, Merit continues to defy the odds by growing not only in size, but also in the strength of its capabilities

At its heart, Merit is and always has been seen as a dedicated engineering and construction company. Yet, as it is proud to confess, the skills of its people and its unrelenting drive to excel has allowed it to become a provider of an ever-Merit 179 bincreasing range of services to its clientele. These range from design and to to prefabrication and modularization, and from installation and validation of process systems to mechanical and electrical services.

An award-winning business with offices located throughout the UK, Merit’s Managing Director Tony Wells has been in the role since 2002. “Back then, I was actively looking for an existing business that had the potential to be turned into a tier one, clean room design and build entity, capable of taking on more complex, technical turnkey projects, and Merit more than fit the bill,” Tony begins.

Together with an entirely new management team that he brought into the company, Tony and the team welcomed a dramatic growth period with turnover increasing ten-fold to approximately £20 million in the space of six Merityears, taking in work both at home and abroad in Europe, Asia and Australia. Following the financial crisis of 2008, Merit consolidated much of its activity back into the UK, focusing its clean room services on industries such as the healthcare sector, which proved profitable.

“In 2015, we undertook what I would call a complete rethink of our existing business plan in order to determine how we could best position Merit for significant future growth,” Tony explains. “It was at that time that we made a commitment to only be a tier one contractor, working exclusively with project owners. This would give us the added security of payment and the ability to really affect the design of said owner’s projects in a truly positive way.

“We also elected to eliminate two suppliers from our business model, meaning that today we only work directly with imbedded tier three suppliers or handle the supply element ourselves. Our capabilities include self-delivery of complex packages of work such as clean and dry room installation as well as M&E services installation. This has resulted in a significant ramping up of our BIM and offsite manufacturing capabilities. More recently, Merit has begun moving into the realm of CFD analysis, which will mean that we can effectively design buildings digitally, thus making us a fully vertically integrated company, which is something very few other players in our space can claim to be.”

Among its growing list of contracts, Merit can today be found providing new build and refit projects for high-end manufacturing and clean services in the health, pharmaceutical and bio-pharmaceutical sectors. “Here, we are delivering design and layout solutions for clean room and dry room facilities, in a pre-designed and pre-manufactured format, three-quarters of which is created within a factory environment,” Tony details. “This process is somewhat revolutionary within this area of the construction industry, and has allowed us the opportunity to greatly increase Merit’s productivity.”

To support this, the company has made sure to invest capital back into its own infrastructure. “One of the things we have done is increase the capacity of our factory by 40 per cent, and we would like to double our existing capacity again in the short-term,” Tony adds. “As we are now also doing things like fabricating and manufacturing proprietary dryer delivery systems for HVAC duct work, we have also purchased a number of new pieces of equipment, such as a brand-new CNC bender to improve the efficiency of our fabrications. Meanwhile, to support the increase in BIM activities we have purchased a new factory building opposite to our existing facilities, which our team moved into recently and will be used primarily for tending and design operations.”

Merit’s efforts over the years have been recognized by a number of industry bodies in the form of several prestigious awards. Among these have been the North-East Business Awards’ Northumberland, Tyne & Wear Company of the Year, in both 2008 and 2018, and the 2014 CIBSE Building Performance Awards’ Refurbished Project of the Year (value over £5 million) for its work on the HVAC roof infrastructure of Harrod’s flagship Knightsbridge store in London. “Obviously, receiving any award is a fantastic achievement, provides a wonderful morale boost for our people, and helps us to raise the profile of Merit to a broader audience of potential clients, and also allows us to attract new talent into the business,” Tony enthuses, before revealing that the business had also just been shortlisted for the Offsite Awards in the category ‘Best Use of MEP and POD Technology’ – up against some very large contractors.

New business venture
Tony then returned to the topic of his staff and finding the best people. “When it comes to recruiting new members to our team, we are completely open as to whether they are male or female, young or old. Our focus is not so much on what kind of experience they have – although this can of course be taken into consideration – but rather whether they have a can-do attitude, are pro-active when it comes to their work, possess strong intelligence, and show a real passion for innovation. It is those individuals who meet that criteria that have shown themselves to be so integral to our increased productivity and growth. In short, if someone considers themselves to be hardworking, pro-active and keen for a Merit 179 cchallenge, then Merit is definitely the place for them!”

Turning our discussion to some of the more recent projects that Merit has been involved in, there are two that definitely stand out in Tony’s mind. “In a speech made by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson back at the start of 2020, when he was talking up the country’s drive to be at the forefront of new technology and innovation, he made specific mention of gene therapy and the electric vehicle battery market. As fate would dictate, Merit was already responsible for building the UK’s flagship facilities for both of these sectors.

“In the case of the former, Merit was chosen to the deliver the second and third phase expansion of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult (CGTC) manufacturing centre in Stevenage, England. This has proven to be a tremendous opportunity for the company to demonstrate our offsite construction expertise in a bio-pharmaceutical environment, alongside a tremendous client to work for.”

Merit also now finds itself in the midst of providing the fit out for the clean rooms and dry rooms within the UK Battery Industrialization Centre (UKBIC) near Coventry. This flagship facility for bringing battery manufacturing to the UK forms part of the UK Government’s Faraday Battery Challenge, which is designed to ensure that the country leads the world in the global transition to a low carbon economy. “We have been tasked with building all of the technical spaces around the battery manufacturing process, and we currently find ourselves in the midst of the commissioning phase,” Tony says. “As with our work on the CGT Catapult, this is being executed via higher levels of offsite manufacturing and construction, utilizing pre-designed elements that allow us to deliver facilities that would traditionally take one or two years to go from inception to completion, in a matter of months.”

As mentioned in passing above, the focus of the business in the coming three-to-five years is to significantly increase its manufacturing volumes and thus also the number of projects it takes on. One of the ways it hopes to achieve this is through the forthcoming launch of a new business venture, Merit Health. “This will be a business that will be solely focused on our clients within the healthcare space and on providing whole hospital delivery,” Tony proclaims. “We have high expectations for it, and hope that within five years’ time it is turning over around £250 million, which would be a very sustainable, profitable level. Its success will also make a step change improvement in infection control in the hospital arena, delivered through 75 per cent offsite manufacturing. Together with our work in the gene therapy and battery manufacturing spaces, Merit Health will play a critical role in the expansion of the wider Merit operation, and we look forward to meeting our many aims.”

Merit
Services: Offsite construction specialists
www.merit.co.uk

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Positively different

A trusted advisor and partner to its many customers, Smith & McLaurin is best known for the supply of digital-ready label stock, environmentally friendly materials, and its growing influence in the wine and spirits market for pressure-sensitive label (PSL) materials

Smith & McLaurin (SMCL) is not a new name to the world of manufacturing. Indeed, the company can trace its history back more than 170 years, to 1849. Today, it is a leading player in the self-adhesive labels, tickets and tags industry, with an enviable reputation for innovation and customer service. SMCL’s sector-leading expertise, knowledge and resources combine to ensure that its reputation is based on its core values of service, trust and innovation.SM 179 b

Operating from its offices and manufacturing facility at Kilbarchan, Renfrewshire – from which is serves customers across the UK, Europe and further afield – SMCL has enjoyed 16 years of continuous profitable growth under its current ownership. This has positioned it at the head of its field in terms of product innovation, design and development, especially in the thermal, digital, drinks and – latterly – the sustainability sectors.

“SMCL design, develop and manufacture paper and filmic materials for a range of customers (convertors, printers and packers) that go on to comprise the packaging for some of the world’s best known brands across a multitude of sectors. We work with our suppliers, customers and our customers’ customer to deliver innovative solutions that ensure best-in-class performance and functionality,” explains Sales Director, John Radford. “Our coating capabilities, combined with the flexibility in our range of face materials, adhesives and liners, allows us to source and develop new products that will help our customers to increase their sales revenue with value added solutions. Our wide range of water based acrylic and hotmelt adhesives allows us to specify the correct solution, whilst our thermal coating technology is unique in the industry and allows us to maintain our leading position in offering thermally coated solutions.”

One particular area of success for the company has been its supply of digital ready label stock, which utilizes environmentally friendly materials. “Initially we developed, in conjunction with HP, a range of materials for their Web stream digital presses,” John continues. “These presses use a toner based system with electrostatic inks which needed a primer to ensure their inks adhered to the face material. Through development with HP we were able to apply a coating to ensure any PSL construction would be able to run through these presses. Latterly we have developed a range of inkjet grades for use in any water based inkjet press by again working closely with the various hardware manufacturers and material suppliers. This latest development has given us the market leading position for this type of digital media. We also have the option to combine these constructions with both FSC certified materials.”

Problem solvers
Sustainability, therefore, is clearly an important issue that SMCL takes seriously. “At SMCL, we are driven by all aspects of product sustainability – reuse, recycle and reduction – aiming to offer innovative solutions in partnership with our customers,” John states. “An example of this is the development of our Purity Wash range, which offers a choice of cold and hot water wash off adhesives. With regards to hot water adhesive technology, we are proud to have the first adhesive approved for this process that allows the clean recycling of PET in the bottle return process. We also have approved two cold water adhesives for both paper and film that allow for the clean removal of label stock from any plastic container. This technology can be combined with both FSC certified recycled and Post-Consumer Waste face materials.

“Alongside our Purity Wash adhesive collection we are also developing a range of paper based materials that will not only replace single use plastics, but will also take plastic coatings out of paper. Packaging is an area we are keenly exploring with our customers and with our developing Eco Pack range we are looking to provide paper based solutions with heatseal and moisture barrier coatings. We are also focused on sustainably sourced materials and recycled content. SMCL can now offer 100 per cent post-consumer waste face stock with wet strength properties for the drinks industry, in combination with any adhesive technology and paper or filmic liner.”

As one would expect from a company that can boast of such a long history, SMCL’s production process has been tried and tested over a number of years, with many completely new product development projects becoming the commercial norm. From its laboratory at Kilbarchan, the company’s in-house technical team have, over many years, developed products from new thermal technology and market leading products for toner and inkjet digital markets, to the current unique Purity Wash range of adhesives aimed at improving sustainability. SMCL’s technical team has over 80 years of combined experience within its field, which it is understandably always keen to offer its customers. Meanwhile, it has an extensive schedule of ‘Discovery’ meetings with suppliers to ensure that its product range remains at the leading edge of innovation, while all new products that it sources and develops are made available to key customers to give them a competitive advantage.

“Our focus as a business is very much on finding solutions to our customer’s problems,” John opines. “We believe this can be achieved by developing strong partnerships throughout the innovation process working with suppliers, machine Sm 179 cmanufacturers, brand owners and customers in collaboration. This enables us to fully understand the challenges faced, and develop long-term relationships across our customer base and – as importantly – within our supply chain.”

Innovation partner
The core values of the business – these being service, trust and innovation – remain as true today as ever, enabling it to meet the ever-increasing challenges that today’s market presents. Ensuring that these values shine through in all the work that SMCL undertakes are its employees. “The biggest asset of any business are the people and we are no exception,” John confirms. “We are very fortunate to have a loyal, highly skilled team at Kilbarchan, who combined have a tremendous amount of knowledge of the industry and of our coating processes, which we delight in sharing with our customers. Our culture is one of involvement in all areas of the business, and for all of our teams to encourage engagement with customers and suppliers alike. The fact we have various members of staff who have been with the company in excess of 30-to-40 years is testament to this philosophy.”

No greater challenge to face the company – arguably in its entire history – has been the onset and continuation of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, SMCL made sure from the get-go to introduce measures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its team, while also being able to maintain the full manufacturing, technical and commercial support that its customers require. It was also fortunate in that it did not experience any significant delays within its supply chain, and remained able to offer continuity of supply, and therefore its ability to meet all order requirements in their entirety.

Needless to say, the effects of Covid-19 continue to be felt across all industries, and SMCL’s is no different, with further challenges yet to be faced as consumer purchasing habits continue to evolve. However, as John says, these unprecedented times also present an opportunity to highlight key themes, such as the need to improve the sustainability of packaging as a whole. “The solutions needed within the packaging and label industry to remove single-use plastic, I am convinced, will lead to new volumes for the industry, which I am confident SMCL will be well positioned to take advantage of.

“Looking ahead, I see SMCL’s core business remaining within the PSL arena, while we also look at how we can further diversify our offering in the packaging sector. In line with current initiatives, we aim to be a key innovation partner in the development of sustainable label and packaging solutions, whilst reinforcing a strong reputation for specialty products, enabling the business to continue its record of continuous growth,” John concludes.

Smith & McLaurin
Products: Self-adhesive label, ticket and tag materials
www.smcl.co.uk

Metal magicians

Now able to offer expertise in detail part design, prototype, tool build and high volume mass production, PTM Corporation has been producing metal stampings since 1972

Looking at PTM Corporation as it stands today, it is hard to envision its beginnings as a small shop in Mount Clemens, Michigan, and the singular efforts of its late founder Charles Russell. Now turning over $55m a year and employing around PTM 179 b300 associates, Charles’ daughters own the business, with Donna Kuhr taking the role of President and CEO. Under Donna’s direction and with the team she has built, PTM continues to invest and expand, always with the overall aim to create magic with metal.

Donna credits her father’s work ethic and philosophy of ‘never saying no to a customer’ as a cornerstone of PTM’s success. “We have always concentrated on helping customers address their challenges, and as we continue to do this successfully over the years, it built our reputation and people learned to trust us. So, we became known as problem solvers for our customers, and that remains our philosophy today,” she said.

PTM serves the big automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) including General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Honda and Toyota, and many Tier 1 suppliers as well as newer entrants to the market such as Tesla and Rivian. PTM also provides tooling for aerospace, and works with the agricultural, construction, medical and military sectors, too. “The mobility market is changing very rapidly, which has been quite exciting to be a part of,” added Donna. “It is a nice mixture, with no one customer covering more than 12 per cent of our business. Our Corporationcustomer diversification is another key ingredient for our success.”

The products that PTM creates for this blue-chip customer list can be described in the simplest terms as ‘metal stampings’ and the group has literally produced billions of these over the years. From small clips and fasteners to car roofs and mower decks. PTM’s products also include the most complex assemblies, and its services and facilities mean that it is able to design, prototype, build and then produce the parts in-house, providing a one-stop source for cost-saving solutions.

“Customers can come to us even when they are not sure exactly what they want, and we assist with product design for them – all with the mind-set of ultimately production. That outlook means that we are always thinking about production, repeatability and longevity, all of these aspects are very important to our clients – they know when they are working with PTM, they get repeatability and quality baked in!”

From speaking to Donna, it is very apparent that always being able to meet and surpass the expectations of its customers is of paramount importance to PTM and this requires a willingness to invest in new technology. The most recent example of this is a large investment of nearly $2m into the Group’s Michigan manufacturing facility, which will enhance PTM’s ability to manufacture at lower production volumes. Donna gave some more details about this new avenue of operation and the reasoning behind it: “A lot of automotive OEMs are teaming up with new electric or hybrid vehicle companies, who are creating new models that should hit the market in the next few years. The volumes they are making are not going to be high, as they are putting their toes in the water to test the market and see what consumers are going to buy. With around 15,000 – 40,000 vehicles a year, this isn’t large scale production volume, so our prototype and production teams have been working together on cost models, particularly with one OEM, to find the sweet spot where it makes financial sense for us to do low volume vehicles. It means we can work on many types of vehicles, at lower volumes, still make a profit and still be competitive with customers and ultimately for consumers.

“As a result of our analysis we have invested in a flexible assembly cell that carries out various activities, including spot welding, hemming and adhesives. We have the capability to build multiple platforms simultaneously in our assembly cell and still be profitable, supply good quality and quickly change over from one product line to another.” Further reinforcing the new direction towards low volume, PTM has also invested in five new presses, as well as new laser technology, which will assist the company in areas such as blanks and finished products.

Code of Honor
Furnished with the latest equipment, the manufacturing and production facilities at PTM are impressive, but even the most state-of-the-art technology needs an excellent team of staff behind it in order to achieve success, and people and culture are a topic close to Donna’s heart. Certified by the WBENC Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, PTM prides itself not just on the diversity of its workforce, but also the family atmosphere that it works hard to create and maintain. “I started in the business out of high school and I wanted to learn from everybody – I didn’t care about race, religion or background – if you had something to do with metal manufacturing then I wanted to learn it!” said Donna.PTM 179 c

“I continue with that same philosophy with our people, and several years ago we said it doesn’t matter how large our organization gets, we want to have a culture that always feels like a family business – we don’t want people to feel like a number. We set up a task force and over six months we created our ‘Code of Honor’ – a vision and a mission that we wanted to live by, not just a nicely framed bit of paper.

“Abiding by our Code of Honor helps to create our culture – and for example Code item number one is ‘deliver exceptional performance and peace of mind to our customers’. That is why we come to work and so that must be number one and our team understands and lives by that principle. That has been our associate’s principle in all we do, and all associates need to understand and live by that principle.”

Furthermore, PTM’s reputation for excellence extends to its status as an employer of choice, which is a benefit in a tough employment market. “So many times, in interviews, I have people say that ‘it used to be a great company, but then it got sold out and it lost that special touch.’ We don’t want to lose that family feel and we need to be attractive to prospective employees as well.”

Another essential part of this approach is having a diverse workforce, and Donna believes that having a wide range of great people on staff helps the company to learn and grow, all with one uniting factor: “We all love metal and we all love the challenge of solving customers’ problems,” she confirmed. “That is what makes it a great culture to work in as we all love what we do, and we are all very passionate when it comes to helping our customers and each other internally.”

PTM was looking forward to the challenge of a record breaking 2020, and then the Covid-19 pandemic struck and the whole world was put into turmoil. “Our executive team, which comprises of my husband, our CFO and our Director of HR got together in March and discussed if we were going to need to shut down. April was a terrible month although we did make shipments and we were open on a limited basis, and what became our daily oxygen was checking if anyone had cancelled an order – and nobody did,” noted Donna.

“Production did get pushed back, but nobody cancelled orders. Right now, production is about 70 per cent of where we were prior to Covid-19, and it has been ramping up ever since May and June. July was a great month and we will be back to our normal levels by the end of the third quarter.”

Donna also highlighted that PTM had gained work through the pandemic, and she explained that this was due to the activities of the automotive industry in 2019. “For various reasons, a lot of prototypes were put on hold last year, so 2020 was supposed to be excellent for prototypes, advanced research and developing future vehicles. We thought that maybe those programs would be cancelled, but in fact we have won a lot more work, and with our prototypes we are on track to have a record breaking year – while we may not hit our original budget we are going to do very well.”

One problem Donna is dealing with now are kinks in the supply chain and getting the supply base back up to speed. One way that PTM is addressing this challenge is through investment into a new E Coat painting line. “We want to own and manage the E Coat painting side, rather than being dependent on a supplier who can say yes, no or maybe!” said Donna. “Right now, in Detroit, E Coating is a commodity that is putting a strain on metal suppliers as there is so much demand for it and not enough supply. We definitely want to own and control that aspect of production.”

In addition to the E Coat line, PTM is investing in more new equipment, updating and adding to its range of presses, as well as upgrading its business plan in order to optimize most areas of the business including engineering, estimating, sales, quality, and the HR side with training and development. “We want to make our company even stronger and we believe 2021, 2022 and 2023 could be record breaking years based upon the economics and our customers’ needs for the next three years,” Donna concluded.

PTM Corporation
Products: Metal stampings
www.ptmcorporation.com

Superior interiors

Harnessing the power of smart design and positive customer service, Rieke Office Interiors creates, manufactures, and installs turnkey commercial furniture solutions, from custom office cubicles to panel extenders that protect against Covid-19

In business now for 26 years, Rieke President and Owner Melissa Kehl describes her company as an organization of ‘culture experts for office furniture’. What started out as a retailer of used office furniture soon became a furniture Rieke 179 brefurbishment operation, before blossoming into the designer, manufacturer, and innovative ‘one-stop-shop’ that Rieke is known as today.

“We’re constantly adding new services,” Melissa states. “Since we started we’ve added flooring and full design services, custom office furniture manufacturing, accessories, wall treatments, lighting, ceilings, walls, floors, and all the furniture in between. We offer everything a customer could need – even construction management, which means we can move walls or add bathrooms as well. We have our own trucks, we do our own installations, so once you work with us, you don’t need to talk to anybody else. We want to build lifetime customers, so we try our best to make the whole process seamless.”

Design flair
From corporate offices to retail stores to manufacturing sites, Rieke serves customers across all industries. Benefitting from extensive millwork and laminate facilities onsite, the firm is capable of delivering highly bespoke reception stations, conference rooms, private offices, and a variety of alternative fittings. For Melissa, some of Rieke’s most successful and rewarding projects have been those that allow the company to showcase its flair for design.

“Some of the newer developments we’ve worked on have included a number of design elements. Coloring, flooring, furniture – we love blending it all together,” Melissa declares. “We recently completed a beautiful project for Echo, one of our big customers. As well as the design, we did some construction management and saved them as much money as we could along the way. We built them a beautiful curved reception station and even helped a contractor select additional items. Echo is a manufacturer itself and it was a really fun project to work on. They were so excited with us in the end that they held a big open house and invited us and some of their other customers. They spent the evening ranting and raving about how great we were, so that was certainly enjoyable for us, and more importantly, goes to show how happy they were with the finished product.”

Over the years, Rieke’s manufacturing strength has been built on a careful balance between automation and handcraftsmanship. As the business has grown, Melissa has added CNC machines and edgebanders to increase production speeds and improve efficiency, but the company has been careful not to abandon manual production completely.

“We definitely still perform a lot of manual processes,” Melissa comments. “We don’t stock inventory products; we only build for the job at hand. We go to the machine show every other year to make sure we’re up to speed with the latest technology, but we’re definitely not into artificial intelligence or robots. What we do is a little bit more of an art. We are a custom manufacturer - we’re not just running a line, where you create the same thing over and over again. Still, we are always asking our manufacturing team for suggestions on how to make their lives easier, and if technology can help then we will acquire those tools. We’ve purchased equipment like a contour edgebander, but sometimes it can be as simple as something like a conveyor belt to help simplify a process.”

As far as product innovation is concerned, Rieke has an experienced product development team tasked with solving its customers’ problems and challenging the business to explore new boundaries. However, this structured approach is not the only way the company devises the future. Sometimes, Melissa explains, inspiration can be more spontaneous.

“Earlier this year we were doing great until, all of a sudden, Covid-19 hit and the faucets just shut off. It was crazy,” Melissa remarks. “We had no orders, none. People were cancelling and refusing to let you in their buildings, so we had to shut down manufacturing for three weeks because we didn’t have enough business coming in. It was then that our CFO came up with an idea for a new safety shield. We all met up immediately - our designers, our engineer, our production manager, myself - and in one week we launched the product. From concept to pricing to prototype - the naming, the marketing, and the website was all done in seven days. From concept to launch, it was an amazing experience. We had orders on our very first day and it allowed me to bring back all of our manufacturing employees. It has saved our company in this downturn.”

Meaningful connections
Named SafeSpace™ Rx, the new product line comprises of specially designed protective shields, panels, and panel risers that are helping to transform workplaces into safe environments for returning employees.

“We started with shields for private offices, then workstations, then conference rooms, and soon enough, gyms and salons wanted to use them between treadmills and chairs,” Melissa reports. “Some customers without our product are only open at about 50 percent of their capacity, but we allow businesses to have every chair or table in use because they can have a divider in-between them. Panel risers can be used to grow office workstations and the same concept can be employed at restaurant booths and between slot machines in casinos. Thanks to our custom capabilities, we’ve been able to produce shields for curved units and oddly shaped offices. A customer can present us with a blank piece of paper, draw a sketch of what they would like, and we will be able to put something together.”

One added benefit of Rieke’s SafeSpace™ range is that the product line has introduced the company to new customers. Around 30 per cent of SafeSpace™ purchases have been made by brand-new clients and Melissa is pleased about the extra exposure it has afforded the firm.Rieke 179 c

“Customers who had never even heard of us before have been buying SafeSpace™ products,” she reveals. “Overall, we’re down on sales across the year, but to be able to connect with so many brand-new customers is pretty amazing and puts us in a great position for the future. Now these companies know who we are, we will be right at the front of the line when they next require an office renovation.”

A relationships-based firm at its core, Rieke values meaningful connections with its customers, vendors, and employees. Though the Coronavirus pandemic has made this difficult of late, Melissa is pleased to see customers returning to the company’s showroom where they can view products first-hand and experience the environment in which they are manufactured.

As we move into the second half of 2020, Melissa expects to see a continuing demand for SafeSpace™ products as well as Rieke’s space planning and office rearrangement services. The company is also currently working on getting children safely back to school. “Our shielding products are going to be around for a very long time because even after Covid we’ll be entering into the regular flu season. Office safety is going to be the new cultural norm,” she predicts.

Empowering culture
Over the next three to five years, Rieke hopes to bring construction services and architectural capabilities in-house, as well as working in partnership with its customers to build environments that match a company’s culture. Optimistic about the firm’s future, Melissa argues that Rieke will remain on a positive trajectory as long as it continues to value the contributions of its workforce.

“Concentrating on people is really important, and making sure you have the right people in the right positions is vital,” Melissa asserts. “Some companies just expect their employees to do their job, but we like to open up a meaningful dialogue. We’re constantly trying to cultivate an empowering culture. I think people on the front line have great ideas and if you listen, your company can go pretty far.”

Rieke Office Interiors
Products: Custom office furniture designer and manufacturer
www.rieke.com

The power of partnership

A family-owned plastics supplier renowned for its flexible and dependable nature, Oadby Plastics is the valued partner to some of Europe’s leading manufacturers

Over the 51 years that Oadby has been supplying specialised plastic products, the business has built strong, long-standing relationships with major firms across a variety of sectors, including the construction, food processing, automotive, and leisure industries. Despite celebrating its half century last year, Oadby is showing no signs of slowing down with age. What then is the key to the company’s longevity and continued success? Managing Director Mark Rojahn argues that Oadby’s lasting appeal is deeply rooted in its reputation for quality and reliability.Oadby 179 b

“The foremost factor is that we are a family-owned business and are always willing to go that extra mile, which sets us apart from the competition,” Mark says. “Our high-quality products are well established in the market and in many cases, are exclusively supplied by Oadby. Of course, customers require competitive prices, but it’s also evident they need to trust their supplier and feel assured the product they receive will be of the same quality time after time.

“We pride ourselves on being able to adapt to the market’s requirements. Industry demands just-in-time deliveries, as it generally doesn’t want to hold materials for future contracts. Many years ago, we decided that we would become a genuine supplier of industrial plastics by investing in materials that people want and stocking them in vast quantities; currently over 3000 tonnes. Orders are supplied when customers need them; they usually prefer not to have to worry about long lead-times. Something we’re often told by our clients is that we’re easy to deal with; we regard this comment as the ultimate compliment,” said Mark.

Oadby’s journey began in 1969 when Alan Driver, the company’s founder, started to supply wear-resistant plastic linings to the National Coal Board and, a few years later, diversifying into conveyor components and associated machine parts. By 1984, when the contracts from the coal industry began to dry up, the business needed to change direction. The focus was now firmly on distribution and the machining of plastics to the construction and food processing sectors. Oadby found success in supplying Polyethylene, Polypropylene and PVC products to companies looking at replacements for traditional materials such as metals and wood. Engineering and Display plastics were soon added to the Oadby range and before long, the company was vastly increasing its own machining capacity by the strategic acquisition of long-term customer ABG Rubber and Plastics.

“In 2004, we realised that one single facility wasn’t going to allow us to expand our distribution business effectively,” Mark states, “so we opened a West Midlands branch. This was then followed by branches in the North-West, South-West and the South-East. The regionalisation of our operation has further developed our local knowledge, and acquiring customers like Anglia Plastics in 2009 and Direct Plastics in 2017 has also been greatly beneficial by adding new services to our group. Anglia Plastics are renowned for the fabrication of plastics, whilst Direct Plastics are very strong in e-commerce which was not Oadby’s main focus.

“In 2016 our most ambitious decision was to move our head office in Leicester to a new 160,000sq/ft., purpose-built facility. This has allowed us to dramatically increase our capacity. With so many different branches and acquisitions, the extra space was key to making sure our group got the daily supply of materials it needed,” said Mark.

Bespoke machining
Bolstered by a dedicated 45,000 square-foot machining facility, Oadby boasts some of the industry’s leading capabilities. A supplier of finished CNC machine parts since 1997, the company has continually invested in state-of-the-art equipment and technology for the last 23 years.

“We’ve seen bespoke machining as a very sustainable area of our business,” Mark reports. “We have CNC routers, mills and lathes, with updated technologies being regularly introduced. We are constantly making sure we’ve got the latest equipment to produce the parts our customers need. Not only do we focus on technology, but also on the size capabilities of our machines. We are able to machine finished parts up to six metres by three metres, offering a big advantage to us and a huge help to our customers,” he added.

After the 50th anniversary celebrations of 2019, Oadby entered 2020 brimming with confidence. Like all businesses, the Covid-19 pandemic took the company by surprise, but as the industry became steeped in uncertainty, comOadby’s close network of trusted manufacturing partners provided reassurance.

“During March of this year, we were at a point of limbo where we didn’t know what was going to happen once the lockdown was announced,” Mark reveals. “Some of our European manufacturing partners explained their capacity was over-subscribed due to the need for clear material and recommended we act to make sure we were prepared for the certain demand.”

Mark continued: “We decided to increase our stocks tenfold during March and it certainly paid off. Even though product became depleted extremely quickly as demand was so high, our favorable terms with our manufacturers gave us the ability to keep supplying our customers. Our deliveries have recently topped 100 tonnes each and every week. To date, we’ve sold over 1000 tons of clear material that has been used for visors (PPE), food retailers, doctors and more recently, non-food retailers, pubs, restaurants, and hairdressers, to name a few. In fact, all businesses require these materials as they plan to reopen, and we are proud that we can be at the forefront of this supply.”

While the clear plastics sector remains busy for Oadby, sales in the firm’s traditional markets are around 30 per cent lower than usual. However, as the UK eases its way out of lockdown, Mark confirms that business is already picking up. In Oadby 179 cJune, the company assisted with the production of a moveable floor system for Tameside Wellness Centre’s new multi-activity swimming pool in Manchester. Clad using 20mm thick, chemical-resistant, non-slip polypropylene panels, the pool floor can be raised and lowered to different depths, this is hugely advantageous for children, disability swim sessions, aqua-fit aerobics, and adult lane swimming.

“There is no doubt that during this crisis we have seen a large reduction in our traditional markets; the construction, automotive and leisure sectors are being heavily affected by Covid-19, but we are experiencing an increasing amount of activity from certain customers and the Tameside swimming pool is a great example of the sort of things we are producing,” Mark comments. “We have done over 30 of these facilities now.

“More recently,” he adds, “we have been working on producing road management signs for the Government and many of these are focused on getting more cyclists on the road rather than cars, particularly in London. We are being asked to make many thousands to help manage these cycle lanes. Examples like this show how we continue to operate successfully as industry continues to re-start, albeit slowly.”

Versatility and resilience
For Mark, the key to Oadby’s future lies in the company’s workforce. As a family business that prides itself on transparency and an ‘open-door policy’ that actively encourages employees to communicate with directors and owners, Oadby continues to empower its staff members to take ownership of the company’s culture.

“It’s important to thank our teams for all their hard work, they are the lifeblood of our business,” Mark declares. “We always want Oadby to provide a progressive and secure career for all. Starting from day one we work really hard to help staff develop, our aim is always to retain and support our colleagues to allow for a successful and progressive career within the Oadby group.”

As a business with ISO 14001 status, environmental sustainability will be a guiding factor in the coming years for Oadby. Alongside utilising solar panels at three of its sites, the company is increasing the amount of recycled plastics it uses, and by 2021, it is also working towards using only recyclable packaging materials. Explaining that the business is a survivor of many difficult recessions, Mark believes the firm’s versatility and resilience will be vital in continuing its growth.

“The benefit of dealing with so many industries is that, no matter how bad the economy is, there will always be certain sectors that stay strong,” Mark asserts. “With that in mind, the next five years will see us continue to expand the business, increasing our product range and improving our branch network. We are turning over approximately £45 million a year, and by 2026, we predict that to be close to £70 million.”

Oadby Plastics
Products and Services: Plastics supplier
www.oadbyplastics.co.uk

Accelerated excellence

The world’s fastest digital manufacturing source for rapid prototypes and on-demand production parts, Protolabs enables its customers to accelerate speed to market and strategically manage demand volatility across an entire product life cycle

When successful entrepreneur Larry Lukis established Protolabs in 1999, he did so with the aim of radically reducing the time challenges associated with obtaining injection moulded plastic prototype parts. “Larry’s solution, which has since become a world leading digital model, was to digitalize the traditional design and manufacturing process Klaasstarting with prototyping,” explains Protolabs Vice President and Europe’s Managing Director, Bjoern Klaas. “This involved Protolabs 179 bprogramming over a million lines of code and developing complex software so the front end of the manufacturing process could be streamlined. When he launched, what was then, the Protomold Company out of a garage in the small town of Long Lake, Minnesota, it resulted in plastic parts that could be produced in a fraction of the time it had ever taken before.”

Since its inception, Protolabs has gone from strength-to-strength, becoming the world’s fastest digital manufacturing source for custom prototypes and low-volume production parts. Priding itself on continual research and development, on serving its markets through further digitalizing of its manufacturing processes, Protolabsand on ensuring its vision is adopted across the board, the company – which has facilities across the world – works with literally thousands of customers across a range of sectors including automotive, aerospace, medical, electronics and heavy industry.

“We use advanced 3D printing, CNC machining and injection moulding technologies to produce parts within days,” Bjoern continues “The result is an unprecedented speed-to-market value for product designers and engineers worldwide. As an e-commerce business, our simple-to-use automated quoting system receives 3D CAD uploads direct from the customer, before quickly reviewing and emailing an interactive quote with real time pricing and design analysis. Our proprietary software then translates the CAD models into instructions for our high-speed manufacturing equipment. The result is parts that are shipped in as little as one day.

“Our service is anchored by three flagship services: 3D printing (additive manufacturing), CNC machining and Injection Moulding. Additive manufacturing employs advanced 3D printing technologies that can create extremely accurate prototypes with complex geometries. Additive parts are built by stereolithography, selective laser sintering, Multi Jet Fusion, PolyJet and direct metal laser sintering processes, and in a range a plastics and metals. For CNC, we use 3-axis milling, 5-axis indexed milling, and turning to machine engineering-grade plastic and metal prototypes and functional end-use parts in quantities of less than 200. Our injection moulding is used for quick-turn prototyping, bridge tooling and low-volume production of up to 10,000+ parts. More than 100 thermoplastics, and thermoset polymers (including liquid silicone rubber) are offered.”

In Europe, the company currently has manufacturing facilities in Telford, in the UK, and in Eschenlohe and Feldkirchen in Germany, as well as sales and customer support offices in France, Italy and Sweden. “In the UK, we are building a bespoke £5 million, 50,000 square foot extension to our Telford facility, due for completion in late 2020,” Bjoern states. “It will house at least 50 additional CNC machines and a further 20 additional injection moulding presses. It will help us meet growing demand from clients for ‘speed to market’. We are ideally set-up to meet this requirement, with a combination of our design and analysis team, bespoke production software and – once the expansion is complete – around 300 CNC milling, CNC turning and plastic injection moulding sampling and production machines at our disposal.”

In Germany, the company has also begun work on a 15-million-euro investment that will increase its 3D printing capability by 50 per cent to meet the growing demand for this technology. The building will be a new 54,000square foot production facility in Putzbrunn, near Munich, that will give customers even greater access to Protolabs’ automated manufacturing processes and quality systems. Construction of the new building began in May, with the initial shell scheduled to be completed by the end of December this year and the fit-out and machinery due to be installed in several stages starting in May 2021. Up to 25 further machines and state-of-the-art equipment will be added to the existing technology, whilst a CNC machining center - with a 5-axis milling machine - will be installed to support the finishing of 3D printed parts for high-end applications. Automated finishing, colouring and painting systems will also be part of the expansion, along with additional 3D printing technologies in the future.

“With this investment, we will be able to move all departments from the current building in Feldkirchen, near Munich, to Putzbrunn, and combine our 3DP metal and plastics business in one location,” Bjoern adds. “Just as importantly, with a larger production area and 50 per cent more capacity, we’ll be able to deliver even more projects in as little as one day. With optimized work processes and additional employees, the new location will support our activities across Europe, especially our ability to produce certified medical devices under ISO 13485.”Protolabs 179 c

In recent months, Protolabs has found itself heavily involved in the fight against Covid-19. “Our 3D Printing, CNC machining and Injection Moulding services are well-suited to the needs of the medical supply chain, and the novel coronavirus created an urgency around the supply of medical equipment needed in response to the pandemic,” Bjoern explains. “We are known within the industry for our speed, so the medical supply chain has turned to us for support during this crisis. In fact, we were able to offer priority quick-turn, free-of-charge, in support of projects in the fight against the virus.”

Examples of the company’s efforts during the pandemic include the supply of 100 3D printed ‘Dave’ valves (which fit close to the oxygen supply) and 100 3D printed ‘Charlotte’ valves (a link-component that connects to a mask itself) for life-saving emergency ventilator masks to Italian engineers Isinnova. These valves effectively turn ‘Easybreath’ snorkeling equipment into ventilator masks for Covid-19 patients. Protolabs has also supported Michelin in the supply of 10,000 sterilizable and reusable face shields to two of France’s largest university hospitals. The shields, made entirely of polycarbonate, were initially manufactured in just a day using the Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing process. Manufacturing was then switched as quickly as possible to injection moulding in order to produce 20,000 polycarbonate parts in just a few days. Thanks to the complementary nature of 3D printing and injection moulding, digital project monitoring tools and Protolabs’ production capacity, all 20,000 parts required to assemble the visors were manufactured and shipped in 11 days.

Technological innovations
Another development saw the company create a dedicated 20-strong team to work with Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains in the production of a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) system that delivers oxygen into the lungs of Covid-19 patients without the need for an invasive ventilator. Two parts this team developed are for the bracket that holds the device next to the bed, and a third part is for the production of a cap that prevents any air escaping from the machine. Initial sample parts, made in nylon 30 per cent glass fiber and Acetal co-polymer respectively, were sent out for inspection, followed by run rates of 1100 parts per day until 10,000 of each component were manufactured. The final devices and equipment were sent to hospitals across the UK to help frontline staff provide the best possible care for Covid-19 patients.

Outside of the remarkable above-mentioned efforts, new product launches and technological innovations have continued to be a by-product of Protolabs’ activities, as Bjoern goes on to state. “Recent advances include material launches for 3D printing. These include True Silicone, a remarkable material made from 100 per cent pure silicone that is used for multiple applications in both industry and healthcare; Cobalt Chrome, a biocompatible superalloy that is known for its strength to weight ratio, hardness and smooth surface; TPU01, a highly processable thermoplastic polyurethane that further accelerates the already fast processing times of our MJF machines; and Polypropylene, one of the most versatile materials around, now available for additive manufacturing.

“With CNC machining, we recently launched our Big Block service, where we can mill from aluminum 6082 blocks of up to 559mm x 356mm x 95mm and still ship the parts in as little as one day. Meanwhile, with injection moulding, recent launches include: Family Tooling, where a family of parts – roughly the same size and made from the same material – can all be made from the same tool, and Supplied Inserts, which is a service that means customers do not have to commit their own resources to supply threaded brass inserts for each IM order because we stock them. We have also begun guaranteeing specific dimensional tolerances for each type of stocked plastic injection moulding resin – again, making life easier for our customers.”

Despite what Bjoern describes as an overall consolidation of industrial production across the globe, he is positive that optimism is beginning to shine through as European economies open up at different paces and the wheels of productivity start to turn. “We are well positioned to support our customers as they innovate and reactivate their own markets,” he proclaims. “We are also excited as we feel that the positives that we have experienced in recent years could potentially be eclipsed by those experienced in the years ahead.

“The rapid advancement of information technology has disrupted the business landscape, but we will see even more possibilities opening up. The three central themes of connectivity, intelligence and flexible automation will change the way all of us work and live. I’m confident of this prediction, because that change is already being seen.

“Here at Protolabs we have developed data-sharing processes and integrated additive and subtractive processes – traditionally at opposite ends of the manufacturing process – to transform the production model. Our use of advanced 3D printing, CNC machining and injection Moulding technologies to produce custom-designed parts and prototypes in days means we have been able to reduce costs and manufacturing lead times to levels which open up global markets to a huge range of new, pioneering innovators.

“Demand for this will only grow and, in the years to come, I can imagine a scenario where parts are made even faster than they are today, in materials we haven’t even tested yet. The desire for more rapid product development, lighter parts and more complex designs will have stretched the imagination of even our most creative designers and engineers, and Protolabs will be right there at the forefront.”

Protolabs
Products: Custom prototypes and on-demand production parts
www.protolabs.co.uk

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A technical tribe

Operating as a technical distribution specialist importing raw materials from exclusive suppliers around the world, Lake Chemicals & Minerals prides itself on offering best-in-class value in the supply of chemicals and ingredients

Today, Lake Chemicals & Minerals (Lake) is operated by a team of 50 professionals who are dedicated to discovering speciality products and processes that create technical and commercial value for customers and suppliers "We understand the needs of our customers and strive to uncover the solutions that provide ultimate customer value. Forging long lasting relationships with customers and suppliers is a top priority,” confirmed Company Founder and Managing Director Dr Steven Cartlidge. infrastructure that includes a warehouse, manufacturing facilities, laboratories and its ‘base camp’ or hub. Over the past 17 years Lake has achieved some impressive milestones, gathering an incredible depth of knowledge Lake 179 bin areas including antioxidants and plasticisers in polymer and coating chemistry, fire retardant chemistry, and anti-corrosion – overall, the company now operates across the life sciences, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, engineering and industrial markets. “We have also attained some significant achievements with our suppliers, attracting and bringing on board some of the best technical companies in the world, ranging from ICL Halox, Vanderbilt, Cortec and Hallstar to companies in life sciences such as Rousselot, DSM, Symrise and Lipoid. For us to be able to demonstrate to these global companies that we can bring value to them is a major accomplishment.”

Strategic triangle
Steven emphasised the paramount importance of supplier relationships to Lake and the high priority it places on representing its suppliers fairly in the marketplace. “It is absolutely critical for the credibility of our business that we treat our suppliers with the utmost respect and remain aligned to their needs,” he stated. “We will always provide them with the resources needed to promote their brand and their capability in the marketplace, as without our suppliers we would not exist.

“But of course, a supplier is of no use without a customer, and the strategic triangle of the supplier, the customer and Lake, is the business model for success,” he continued. “When you look at the ultimate customer value, it is made from the sum of the value that the supplier brings and the value that Lake brings. Very often our suppliers are excellent in four out of five areas that are incredibly important for the customer to be successful, and Lake will always look for those gaps in ultimate customer value that we can fulfil together with our supplier. It is that combination and our continual quest to meet customer needs that is very special in our company.”

Fundamentally, Lake gets paid for selling a product or raw material, but the company’s offering extends much wider than this, drawing on what Steven calls its ‘internal network of university of life experiences’. “Operating a distribution business, being able to fulfil delivery on time, in full, is critically important, but we do far more than that. We solve formulation problems for customers on a daily basis and provide a technical consultancy service as well as regulatory and manufacturing expertise,” he said. “We have equity investments in manufacturing facilities in both India and China for raw material manufacture, particularly in the area of CMO contract manufacturing in the advanced intermediates market. In 2013, we acquired the Ubichem Pharmaceutical business, and that brought about what I would call ‘confectioning of products’ for customers. Since that time, we have been building on that capability and we are actively investing in tailored manufacturing solutions for customers, particularly in the food and nutrition industry.

“We have also recently invested in GMP manufacturing facilities to enable finishing of raw materials and products for the pharmaceutical industry. We don’t profess at this stage of our life to be experts in manufacturing, however we do recognise that the UK will enjoy a manufacturing boom post-Brexit, and we definitely want to be part of that scene. We have the technical knowhow and capability to create manufacturing value for our customers and that is of significant importance for the company.”

Clearly offering outstanding science and technology services to its customer base, and exemplary relationships with its suppliers, another major differentiator for Lake is its approach to people. “We wanted an expansive people culture from the very conception of Lake, and we would never have been able to achieve the growth that we have without empowering every employee in the company, and I mean every employee, whatever their position,” asserts Steven. “People are our key asset, and our belief from the very beginning has been that we want a scalable culture, as we could not afford to completely reinvent the company every time we achieved a key financial milestone. People have to grow with us.”

The working environment is based on four pillars that have been developed over the years: Growth Mindset, Freedom within a Framework (Autonomy), Team Player and Driven to Succeed. “I just cannot emphasise enough how important this is, to have a very strong culture within the company where everybody is on that same train along the same track, working together in order to create a one plus one equals 11 synergy,” Steven added.Lake 179 c

“Every employee is encouraged to continue to train and learn, and obviously there have to be financial rewards that are aligned to the strategy and the financial goals of the company, but this is all part of making sure that every single person can contribute.”

Describing the company as a ‘meritocracy’ with a very flat organisational structure, Steven was keen to share the fact that everybody, whatever their background, knowhow and capability, can rise to the top within the company. “On day one, no matter where they start in the organisation, every employee is instructed in the concept of autonomy, and taught that by applying a growth mindset and learning the tribal knowledge about our company, they can exceed their own expectations. We go through a very structured training programme and have a great ethos in mentoring and coaching,” said Steven. Lake even employs a business life coach specifically to work independently with employees in order to get the best out of the organisation. “If I can use a rugby analogy, we employ people that act as a scrum captain of their teams, making sure everyone has the knowledge, information, competence and resource that they need in order to fulfil the projects that they are working on.”

Thanks to this extraordinary approach to encouraging employee development, Lake’s prospective staff must start with a love of the scientific and technical world, a growth mindset and a thirst for knowledge, and also understand that this organisation is unlike any other that they have worked for previously. “Some people don’t understand the unique nature of our company and are always looking for ‘the catch’ - why would we invest so much in them, when they have only just started here? Our investment in staff does begin on the first day they arrive, and that means we have to be confident that they will be able to perform within our culture before we will hire them, as otherwise it is a total waste of everybody’s time.”

Lake’s methodology may sound unusual, but as Steven pointed out, the business has created an environment where employees with high levels of technical ability are allowed to express themselves and this is overlaid with an overall drive to be best-in-class. “This gives Lake an ecosystem that is unlike any other company, certainly very different from any other distribution company,” he said. “We combine entrepreneurial capabilities with the ability to deliver tailored solutions to customers, whether that is in terms of research and development and the intellectual property that comes from that, or the fulfilment of a product. We are very knowledgeable in the entire new product development process from the initial stage gate of the idea all the way through to the fulfilment of the product, even including the marketing needed to launch the product. Providing that range of abilities means we end up satisfying the differing needs of our customers, and that is fundamentally unlike any business model that we know in the market today.”

Unique business model
Having referenced its NPD capabilities, Steven continued with some details about a new product that is due to be launched in August, called EnviroRinse™. Developed with a customer, and used in industrial washers for precision machined parts, EnviroRinse™ offers instantaneous corrosion protection, a massive improvement to operator experience, is environmentally friendly and is odour free. Aimed at the automotive industry and the OEM industries, with Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers, Steven noted that this product will address a fundamental issue within industry – corrosion. “We are very excited about this product, it has gone through extensive testing within UK manufacturing and we are ready to launch this at the Made in the Midlands Virtual Exhibition that is taking place over ten days in August,” he said.

This new product illustrates Lake’s dedication to promoting innovative solutions, and this area is going to become even more important to Lake, as the company gears up to launch Lake Innovation Services, which will offer NPD services to customers and suppliers, utilising the thought leadership expertise that Lake has accrued. “We identify the future paths that technologies will take in the different industries that we are working in,” added Steven. “At the end of 2020 we will move into a new facility that will be our base camp - including a number of labs that will allow us to carry out that NPD.”

Having worked hard over the past 18 years to create solid foundations and establish the procedures, processes, quality management systems, and technologies required to be successful, Lake is now embarking on the next phase of its evolution. “We have achieved a £20m turnover, and we believe that in the next ten years we will be able to double that by employing our unique business model,” Steven asserted. “But what I never forget is that it is impossible to create a sustainable business without the help of many people along the way. I have mentioned our suppliers, employees, and customers and I genuinley want to thank these people for the endless, tireless effort that they put in to making Lake a success. When you are building a business from scratch you cannot do it on your own and recognising that is incredibly important for any organisation.”

Lake Chemicals & Minerals
Services: A technical distribution specialist
www.lakecm.co.uk

A material world

Having evolved from a part-time business in Halifax into a leading upholstery fabric expert turning over $30m a year, Mobus Fabrics is now focusing its attention on improving efficiencies, building the brand and becoming a benchmark for excellence

Originally buying yarns from Italy and India, and undertaking the weaving in the UK using local suppliers, upholstery manufacturer Mobus Fabrics experienced significant success in the first seven years of its existence. Then in 2001 four UK Mobus 179 bdyeing suppliers ceased trading, and with that turn of events Mobus reassessed its options and decided to look at buying finished goods from China.

“In 2003 Mobus launched its first collection from China and grew slowly in the first few years,” said Lee Paxman, Sales Director, as he takes up the story. “In 2008 Mobus invested in a China-based Fire Retardant (FR) finishing plant - Mobus Sian - which was established to offer a credible Fire-Retardant finish to sell to Chinese furniture factories importing furniture into the UK.”

That establishment of close links with China proved pivotal to Mobus, and today it operates with two sourcing teams based there, as well as a sales team and the FR finishing plant. “We regard all parts of our operation as different asset centers, where each team has responsibility and has the opportunity to grow,” Lee commented. “Our primary sourcing team has been with us since we started working in China. They are a wonderful group and we are all good friends. Like the rest of our suppliers, we consider them as partners who are equally responsible for our success,” noted Lee.

The Chinese Finishing Plant was very successful indeed and 2015 saw Mobus invest in a new plant in the country to offer better quality finishing, a greater variety of finishes and increased capacity. In fact, such has been the success of Mobus’ Chinese venture that its growth in cross trade direct from China was acknowledged in 2017 with a Queen’s Award for International Trade, which also recognized the company’s growth in exports from the UK.

This success was swiftly followed by a management buyout in 2018. “This gave all directors an equal share in the company, and Fabricsallowed the company founder Mike Presley to retire but stay on with a reduced shareholding as non-exec director and still have some involvement in the company he created,” added Lee.

The flurry of activity that started for Mobus in 2003 finally culminated in January 2020 with the relocation of its head office from Elland to Brighouse. “We received the keys on the 3rd Jan 2020,” noted Lee, before going on to highlight just how significant this move was. “We have changed our processes so that all inbound stock arrives at our site (we used to have direct deliveries to UK FR finishers). We now batch plan the finishing and work on a stock system rather than a just-in-time supply base. This is already improving service levels and giving much greater processing and working efficiencies.

“We have created stock classifications for every product; each classification uses different stock routings to reduce handling and improve efficiencies. We have also changed the outbound processes so that we consolidate more shipments, reduce packaging and shipping costs.”

Thanks to this astonishing growth journey, today Mobus is able to offer a wide range of fabrics specifically designed and engineered for the UK upholstery market. “We offer all fabrics with the UK Fire Retardant (FR) finish, which we can supply from the UK or from the finishing plant in China. All fabric is tested and certified to ensure full compliance with full traceability and due diligence,” noted Lee. “We invest with our key partners in new designs, create our own color lines and work with UK retailers to offer bespoke ranges.”

Mobus prides itself on working closely with customers and retailers within the product development cycle, as in Lee’s words: “It always helps us focus on styles we are missing in our collection, and helps us identify emerging colors which have become increasingly important to consumers.”

This product development capability also keeps Mobus up-to-date with important trends, and an area to watch is fabrics with a more environmentally-friendly pedigree. “Recently we have developed a new type of finish with our chemicals and finishers, which is a greener alternative to the old Deca-brominated FR systems,” Lee revealed. “This new chemical will launch at the end of 2020 on the Mobus Eden, which is a new 100 per cent recycled polyester velvet. But I don’t want to give too much away now!”

The launch of the Eco range also coincides with the rollout of an enhanced social media presence and advanced website that is currently in development, as well as images of a new distribution center, testing laboratory and development center, all of which will help to promote the future direction of Mobus Fabrics.

“Eventually we plan to move all our collection onto the Green-FR finish and drive forward with other eco-friendly products,” Lee continued. “We will also invest in the development and testing teams to improve our quality and due diligence even further.

“We have recently consolidated our Chinese operation so all our purchasing, QC and sales teams come together under one company. This consolidation will give us a platform to expand our Asian market presence further. It will also give a Mobus 179 cfoundation to open up other export markets around the world, many of which we are still actively seeking distributors for.”

Having such close ties to China has created a multitude of opportunities for success for Mobus, however, it also meant that effects of the Coronavirus pandemic hit the business earlier than many in the UK, and the challenges that followed required the business to pull out all the stops to meet orders and keep performing up to customers’ expectations. “The outbreak for Mobus started at the end of January, when we were made aware of the pandemic and the subsequent China lockdown. The lockdown extended the Chinese New Year holidays by another four weeks, leading to huge stock shortfall on many top selling collections.

“The China lockdown then coincided with our move and put our sales team under huge pressure. At that stage, some of our customers were unaware of the severity of the issues and felt the problem was ours to resolve as we were buying from China. As the severity of the outbreak hit the UK media and impact to supply chains was more clearly understood, customers became a little more understanding. We were working 12 to 16 hour days to support our customers, re-work priority lists, allocate stocks and support our suppliers with weaving and dyeing plans,” Lee highlighted.

“We then hit a period of calm between China re-opening and Europe going into lockdown. In that period, we shipped 19 containers of fabric (circa 600,000m) but sadly, as it started arriving, the UK went into lockdown. We also had a huge order book with our suppliers who had invested heavily, but we had to stop all future shipments leaving China.”

Team spirit
Understandably, the impact on the business of these circumstances has been huge: “Like most people, our outlook swung under lockdown from really negative to positive and back again,” Lee admitted. “As a board of directors, we had a conference call every day at 10am and collectively picked our way through the issues. We had a skeleton warehouse team to unload the containers and complete the move to our new site. We moved our head office and while working from home we prepared a full stock plan, categorized stocks and set up the warehouse routings and procedures.

“The cash flow impact on the industry has been a real challenge. However, with the support of HSBC and commitments from suppliers and customers, we have managed. We have pushed all our customers for payments so we could keep making payments to our suppliers - the flow of funds at such a time was critical to keep the supply chain alive and ready for the hopeful bounce back.”

Thankfully, Lee was able to report that since the return to work at the end of May, sales have steadily grown and are definitely moving in the right direction. “We offered open cancelations to all our customers and rather than fighting cancelations we understood the full supply chain had to realign and reset. We also gave bulk processing commitments to our UK finishers so they had the confidence to reopen and take staff back off furlough. This helped restart production for the sector and keep our stock plan ahead of demand. We hope to post a break-even year and if the bounce back continues we hope to even post a small profit.”

From speaking to Lee, the contribution that the staff made to Mobus’ efforts to maintain its standards throughout this time cannot be underestimated and he declared that ‘the people are what make Mobus the company it is.’ Going forward, he hopes to add more people to the team, which still features eight of the original ten members that joined in 2009. “The culture of Mobus is fun, but hard working, with a strong emphasis on the team and we collectively look out for each other and our partners,” Lee added. “We have a high staff retention rate in all areas of the business, from directors to warehouse, and I would really like to thank our team for their hard work, as well as our partners both up and down the supply chain and the support services. Mobus is on an incredible journey and its success is down to the people we work with.”

Mobus Fabrics
Products: One of Europe’s leading upholstery fabric manufacturers
www.mobus.co.uk

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