Heavy metal: when repairs and remanufacturing make good business
There's still plenty of engineering work to be done for those willing to find a niche, cultivate a positive attitude, invest in equipment, and - perhaps more importantly - invest in people, as S&YP discovers.
What does it take for a British heavy engineering company to stay in business these days? For Liverpool-based repair and maintenance company Rewinds & J Windsor, it's niche focus, 24-hour service, a commitment to apprenticeships - and a strong penchant for solving other people's problems.
Although the family-owned company grew in large part by working on shipping - and it still does some maritime work - its workshops also now refurbish the generators from wind turbines, machinery from local car factories, food processing equipment, and a host of other electrical, electronic and mechanical gear.
Its business of repairing and remanufacturing has also come back into fashion somewhat. It's a reminder that while today's eco-warriors may have invented mantras such as 'Reduce, Reuse, Repair and Recycle', those ideas are far older, and savvy industrialists had been practising them long before consumerism came along and encouraged us all to buy new wherever possible.
Repairing something requires specialist expertise though - much like manufacturing it in the first place - says Michael Windsor, one of the company's directors. 'In the repair business everyone's looking for a niche market, otherwise you're out there quoting for everything,' he explains. 'In a niche, if you're willing to do the training and make the capital outlay, the margin is higher.'
'It's all new markets,' adds his brother and fellow director, John Windsor. 'The days of the tall chimneys have gone, it's now wind, rail, electric cars... In western countries in particular you've got to go for new technology business.
'What motivates us is our father; he started the business in 1946 with '6/10s and left it to us, and we'll leave it to our sons,' he continues. 'We're responsible for 130 people; it's a family business not a conglomerate.'
Keeping it going has required investment both in equipment and people, according to Michael Windsor. Rewinds has just spent over £100,000 on a new automated spiral welding machine which can handle jobs that the company would previously have lost, but perhaps more importantly it has also continued to take on apprentices, with its current group totaling nine, he says, adding that there's not much point having the equipment if you don't have good people to run it.
'We've had mechanical, electrical and electronic apprentices right through, even in the bad times of the 1980s,' he says. 'At times, they were the only ones on their day-release courses at college who were in employment.'
Apprentices either apply direct or are recruited through organisations such as Skills Solutions or the North West Training Council. Following interviews and aptitude tests, they are trained in a range of disciplines, such as electric motor and rotating equipment repair, mechanical engineering and machining, electronics, panel building, fabrication, batch winding and dynamic balancing.
Having been assigned to a department within one of the electrical, mechanical or electronic workshops, they get a grounding in all aspects of that department to see which particular skill they most enjoy or are particularly good at. For example, an electrical apprentice will cover the dismantling and assembling of motors, winding, coil manufacture and on-site work, as well as covering a range of other rotating equipment - pumps, generators, gearboxes and fans.
Each apprentice will also study with a local college on a day-release basis, aiming for a qualification that suits their abilities; these range from City & Guilds through to ONC and HNC.
This investment in staff has paid off for Rewinds, says Michael Windsor. He admits that the company has inevitably lost quite a few apprentices over the years, once they have finished their apprenticeship, but he says that others have stayed on and have made great contributions to the company. Two of its current managers, one supervisor and three of its sales engineers are ex-apprentices, for example - that's some 30 per cent of its management and sales staff - while another former apprentice recently retired after 45 years service.
The latter - retirement after long service - is increasingly a problem of its own, and it makes recruiting new apprentices even more important, notes Rewinds' engineering manager Mark Lavelle. 'The sad thing is, six or seven years down the line, I'm going to lose a third of my workforce to retirement,' he says, adding, 'It's hard to get good apprentices. We've not had any women apprentices either, though they're more common in big organisations. It's the colleges - they're not pushing them through.'
It would be easier and better for everyone if more manufacturers trained apprentices, instead of many taking the short-sighted and selfish approach of simply poaching them, admits Michael Windsor. The present British government's new-found enthusiasm for apprenticeships is therefore a step in the right direction, he says, though he adds a caveat: 'We don't know if the government's interest in apprentices is just because of youth unemployment or if it's a true thing of going for apprentices. It's be nice if it did take off.'
One of the benefits of training your own apprentices is you can inculcate them with the organisational culture that you want, says John Windsor. In Rewinds case, that means turning jobs around fast, not least because if you can't then the customer may as well send it abroad instead of buying local.
'It's all about setting a culture - don't underestimate the power of culture,' he says. 'We have a culture of high response rates. It comes in part from working on shipping, where you have to beat the tide - it is very expensive to have a ship tied up [because a repair was late]. Then when Ford and Jaguar moved into the area, they liked that idea - turn it around fast.
'When people serve an apprenticeship with us, they learn that culture - people follow the flow. It comes from the top, really. If the people on the shopfloor know that the managers and owners are really interested in the company, it flows through.'
Customers say that the company's fast turnaround is a big advantage. 'Rewinds has a part of ours which has a 50 day-plus lead time from the manufacturer, that's 50 days plus shipping, so it's easily 60 days. Their turnaround is a week and they're only a third the price,' says Marc Powell, an engineer at nearby Jaguar Land Rover.
He adds: 'These are the back-street garages of industry, the ones you'd go to with an old car where if they can't get the part, they make one.'