Building for the future

With the news that Vesta has abandoned its plans to build a wind turbine factory in the UK and then Cobham announcing that it is transferring a £13bn air tanker contract from the UK to Spain you’d be forgiven for thinking that the much talked about rebalancing of the UK economy was just that – talk.

In a series of articles in the run up to this year’s electronica in November CIE will be talking to a range of UK based, if not always UK owned, businesses that have decided to invest in their UK operations or are growing their business despite the tough economic conditions.

Earlier this year HUBER+SUHNER(UK) completed a significant investment programme at its Bicester manufacturing facility that involved, in part, the re-modelling of its RF cable assembly facility. The company is considered an industry and technology leader in electrical and optical interconnectivity and is able to offer a mix of radio frequency, fibre-optic and low frequency technologies that are used across the communications, transportation, industrial and military sectors.

When I spoke with its UK General Manager, John Biggs, he explained that the investment in production capability was needed in order to “cope with the growing demand the company was seeing from all of our strategic markets.”

According to Biggs, “We needed to remodel our production areas to ensure we continued to respond to customer demands as well as industry trends”.

HUBER+SUHNER’s remodelled RF cable assembly capability now covers flexible, hand-formable and semi-rigid assemblies and much of the recent investment has gone into updating assembly equipment and in a new test suite. The latest test systems, for example, will allow the company to test assemblies up to 500VAC/DC and up to 26.5GHz and to undertake PIM testing to 1.880GHz.

Explaining the investment Biggs says that it came in response to customers requesting that their finished products were produced and tested to more exacting standards on even shorter timescales and “our new RF cable assembly facility allows us to fully meet these customer expectations.”

A semi-automatic semi-rigid cable forming machine means that customers now have fast access to high precision semi-rigid RF coaxial cable assemblies in three planes. These are not only lower in cost than traditional “hand-formed” assemblies, but are also more accurate with tight tolerances that are exactly repeatable whether in quantities of ones, tens or thousands – vital as a result of the varied customer base with which the company deals.

Not a classic connector company

But as well as investing in its manufacturing and test capabilities HUBER+SUHNER has also just completed the expansion of its on-site customer reception and training centre. A state of the art facility it has been designed to demonstrate to existing and potential customers the full capability on offer at HUBER+SUHNER in the UK. These extend from component supply, to cable assembly and test, sub-assembly box build and on up to higher level integration.

The investment follows a strong performance in 2011. According to Biggs, “In the UK last year we saw growth of over 30 per cent on the previous year.”

He does concede that that performance was flattered to some extent by a major project – London Underground’s Victoria Line upgrade programme.

“That was a big project for us. We worked closely with Bombardier on that – possibly the last significant UK-based rail upgrade project for some time – and it contributed over £6m to our revenues last year. Despite that though, both our other key sectors other than transportation put in a good performance – that is communications and industrial.”

The company’s growth is being driven by a decision taken over five years ago to re-position the business.

“We’re no longer your classic connector company,” explains Biggs. “We took the decision that we needed to move up the value chain providing customers with a higher degree of valued added services and solutions.”

Apart from components the company now offers supply chain and project management services as well as design-engineering skills.

“The investment we’ve made at our Bicester plant means that in the case of our RF technologies we can leverage solutions not just components. It’s meant that our working relationship with our customers has changed and taken us to a new level. We are now involved in projects at a very detailed level. That does, however, put considerable pressure and demands on the business. We needed to invest in the plant here if we were to align the business successfully.

“The capital investment you can see around us has followed significant investment in both people and our image in the marketplace. The new customer centre has already proved its worth highlighting the capabilities we are now able to offer out of Bicester.”

Lean principles

The fact that the company is now so much more than simply a component supplier means that it has positioned itself well and protected itself from the economic problems confronting the UK and the wider European economy.

“In addition to the capital expenditure, we have also begun to implement an on-going programme of “lean principles” throughout the business. This will greatly improve efficiencies, the skills of our people and their development to ensure we continue to be a first class local alternative to offshore competitors where quality and service are key drivers.

“But it’s not just about throwing money at the shop floor,” he suggests. “We needed to make customers aware of the kind of capabilities we could offer them.”

For many of HUBER + SUHNER’s customers small volumes and fast turnaround are priorities.

“In the communications market you are dealing with customers who expect you to respond to a request within 24 hours. In terms of our RF customers you’re looking at lead times of between two and four weeks. It means that we leverage off the broader group’s capabilities. For example here at Bicester and at our other operation in Derby we’ll put together prototypes for customers and then they will be taken into production at our facilities in Mexico, China, Poland or Tunisia.”

The new added-value services that Biggs talks of have certainly paid dividends, as he explains.

“We’re able to take the pain away from customers, if you like. They can come to us with a requirement or a problem and we are able to take total responsibility for it. We invested in new project managers and engineers who are able to offer a much broader and deeper range of services. For example, a communications customer can now use HUBER + SUHNER for not only components but for help with surveys, planning management, carrying out and managing installations – we’ve made the whole process a lot smoother and easier.”

The investment in skills has been over the past five years and the company has extended and deepened its skills base.

“We’ve invested in having and maintaining a local capability and have kept the business lean.”

Future challenges

While the company has certainly positioned itself to cope with the current economic conditions Biggs doesn’t for one moment underplay the challenges companies like HUBER + SUHNER face in the years ahead.

“I think like most businessmen at the moment none of us have any idea as to where we’ll be in three to four years in terms of where the market is going. I think though that we have positioned ourselves well in order to weather whatever is thrown at us and I’m quietly confident.”

Beyond the company’s traditional markets of communications, industrial and transportation the defence and medical markets are growing in importance.

“Last year defence accounted for around 12 per cent of our turnover here in the UK. Despite government cutbacks we are seeing demand for ground radars to cope with the threat of IEDs (improvised explosive devices, also known as a roadside bombs) and while that is currently only an assembly project we are having conversations about extending our involvement.”

The other market that is showing growth is medical.

“The medical space highlights the success we’re having in extending our capabilities and making sure customers know what we can do for them. In the medical space we were involved in a joint venture to develop tools to treat tumours using a non-intrusive microwave technology. It’s worked well and we have hopes that we will now be involved in developing the generator unit for the tool. The customer relationship has worked well and moved us into new areas.”

For Biggs the market’s perception of the company as just a connectors business is and has to change.

The new training centre is certainly impressive as throughout displays and images demonstrate the depth and range of the markets and services the company is now able to supply.

“Perceptions take time to change but we are certainly ‘chipping’ away at the market. Our sales force now talks about our capabilities and not just our products.”

Those capabilities certainly prove their worth when it comes to the rail industry. Notorious for the end product being totally different from the original design HUBER + SUHNER is able to work through all the design challenges and provide the necessary prototypes before the customer signs off and production is moved into one of the company’s low-cost manufacturing locations.

A good example has been HUBER + SUHNER’s working relationship with NOMAD. NOMAD specialises in Wi-Fi technologies and was the first company in the UK to trial WiFi on board trains and to stream live video to and from moving carriages. The company has experience in the worldwide market with over 20 projects across Europe, the US, Middle East & Asia.

“We came up with a concept that met their requirements. The original product design encompassing the antenna, cable assemblies etc. didn’t work and we said that we’d take a look at it. We wanted to reduce the size of the initial product and that meant we had to extend our involvement in terms of the electromechanical elements into the electronics of the device. It meant redesigning the PCB board and that involved working with a host of third parties.

“Increasingly customers are looking to us to help them with the design stage and that reliance is growing. We are able to design a cost effective solution that is then repeatable when it comes to manufacturing. The rail industry is a good example of what we can achieve by working more closely with our customers and what is true of the rail industry is true of every other sector in which we are involved. If by working with us at the design stage they are able to win future projects than that business should flow back to us.”

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