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Steelcraft and SAM

Steelcraft shows true mettle to diversify and grow

AN ARCHITECTURAL metalwork specialist is forging ahead into new markets, after receiving investment and technical expertise from a team of manufacturing experts.

Steelcraft Ltd, based in Chester-le-Street, is expanding its product offering and launching a new brand, after securing a five-figure funding grant and support from the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project.

The company, which up until last year specialised solely in the production of metalwork for housing developers such as Bellway and Miller saw its business almost grind to a halt after the closing of construction sites due to social distancing restrictions.

However, having launched its first ecommerce platform, Forjj, just prior to the pandemic, the company was not only able to diversify and sell its products directly to consumers, but also capitalise on the rise in housing restorations during the pandemic, leading to a 900% uplift in online sales during the crisis.

Liam Armstrong, operations manager at Steelcraft Ltd, said: “Forjj had been a work in progress for some time, but it never really received the attention it deserved until the pandemic hit.

“Once we saw our order books dry up during the Covid crisis, we dedicated most of our resources to pushing that side of the business and we couldn’t be happier with how it has improved our business.’’

While the launch of Forjj allowed Steelcraft to pivot during the crisis and carve out new business opportunities, it’s success also resulted in the company running at full capacity, once lockdown measures were eased and the UK embarked upon ‘project build’.

This led to Liam and the team tapping into further support from the SAM Project for grant funding – having already worked in partnership helping the team improve the management of its factory – and exploring how its different avenues of support could help sustainably increase output, while keeping costs at a minimum.

“The team at SAM were absolutely amazing,” he added. “Prior to engaging with them, our factory hadn’t changed in 20 years and we were struggling to see how we could scale up our operations while keeping costs and disruption at an absolute minimum.

“Using simulation software, they were able to create an identical, computerised model of our workshop and working closely with our production manager, identify which machines and processes could be altered and moved to make space for the new machinery and improved workflow.

“We’d never have even thought about using digital twin software to visualise and improve our shop floor and – as a family-business – we could never have accessed something like this without the support of SAM.”

The tube bending machine allowed Steelcraft to not only create jobs and increase output, but also bring the production of its bent metal components in-house, which the company previously had to outsource, leading to increased costs and lead times.

Liam added: “Like many manufacturers, we were hit hard during the pandemic and would never have been able to purchase the new tube bending machine were it not for the 40% funding grant that we received from SAM.

“Not only has it allowed us to create new jobs, it also allowed us to be more competitive. Prior to this, we had to buy in many of our metal components however now that we’ve brought production in-house, we are more cost competitive, and we’ve never been busier.”

Looking to the future, Steelcraft is now on the verge of launching a third brand, the Newcastle Locker Company, which will see the firm produce military-grade lockers for the armed forces and other specialist users.

“If you’d have asked us a year ago where we’d be today, there’s no way we could have envisaged this,” Liam added. “We couldn’t be happier with the direction we’re going in and we can’t thank the team at SAM enough for their support over the past 18 months or so. I couldn’t recommend the project enough.”

Michelle Hambleton, business development manager at the SAM Project, said: “It was a pleasure working with Liam and the team at Steelcraft and we’re delighted to have been able to help them not only explore how new technology such as simulation software could help improve processes, but also access the funding required to take their business to the next level.

“The SAM Project was set up to help the region’s SME manufacturers innovate and grow by exploring the benefits of – and implementing – new technology, and we’d encourage any business interested in scaling up to get in touch and find out how they could benefit.”

Ashgarth Engineering

Investment gives engineering firm the tools to grow

A COUNTY DURHAM precision engineering specialist is proving it has the talent to turn tools into takings, and grow the business.

Ashgarth Engineering, a subcontract precision engineering specialist based in Consett, has reported a 40% increase in turnover over the past year after seeing demand for its services skyrocket.

Ashgarth Engineering has continued to grow, invest in new capital equipment and created skilled jobs despite the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

The company, which supplies high volume precision machined components to customers across the UK, has benefited from a surge in orders from the automotive and medical industries following fresh investment into the business over the past 12 months.

The investment, which included funding from the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project at University of Sunderland, saw the company relocate to a new, larger workshop in February and invest in the machinery required to ramp up output and cater for the increase in demand for its services.

Co-founder and director, Niall Ash, said: “We’ve grown year-on-year since our launch in 2017 and we’re delighted that – despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic – we’ve been able to continue on this upwards trajectory over the past 12 months.

“Central to this has been the move to our new premises in February, which gave us the capacity required to really ramp up production supported by the investment we secured from the SAM Project.

“After engaging with the programme, we were able to secure a five-figure matched funding grant towards a 3 axis vertical machining centre with a 4th Axis attachment. This allowed us to offer an additional process to our current clients and also branch out into new markets, which previously we’d never have been able to cater for.”

Over the past year, this continued investment has directly led to the creation of three jobs – taking the company’s headcount to nine – and will see the company continue to invest in its team over the coming months.

“We’ve taken on two new skilled machinists on the shop floor as well as a sales specialist to help with business development and if all goes well, we’ll be recruiting for another two roles over the coming months,” Niall added.

“While the past 12 months has undoubtedly thrown up challenges, we’re delighted to be re-emerging from the crisis on such a strong footing and we can’t thank the team at SAM – as well as Business Durham which introduced us to the initiative – enough for their support.

“Although our business growth has been organic over the past four years, we would never have been able to scale at this rate of pace had it not been for funding schemes such as this and I’d urge any business going for growth to see how they could benefit.”

The Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project is a £10.9 million business support programme led by the University of Sunderland and backed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) supporting the implementation of product and process development and the introduction of technology within the SME manufacturing base in the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NE LEP) area.

Ken Teears, project manager at the SAM Project, said: “It’s fantastic to see innovative, forward-thinking businesses such as Ashgarth Engineering continuing to invest in new technologies and creating highly skilled jobs in the region.

“SAM Project’s objective is to support  the region’s SME manufacturers to increase productivity, automation, diversification and resilience through our fully funded technical support and large grant fund. Ashgarth Engineering are a great example of a ‘SAM SME’ that is  scaling up their operations following our support. We urge other manufacturers to do the same. We’re delighted to have supported Ashgarth on its journey and would like to wish them the best of luck for the future.”

Shooting Target

Target manufacturer has new markets in its crosshairs

A BRITISH soldier is proving to be a sharpshooter in business as well as the bunker, after taking his battlefield skills into the boardroom.

Northumberland-based Tactical Shooting Solutions was set up by a British soldier with almost two decades’ service, after he identified a gap in the market for UK-manufactured, military-grade shooting targets.

Three years on, the family-run company is now exporting its products to customers across Europe and the USA and has outlined bold ambitions to further expand its global footprint, with the launch of a ‘revolutionary’ new product.

Working alongside the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project at the University of Sunderland, Tactical Shooting Solutions has developed a new range of heat-sensored shooting targets, specifically designed for snipers and marksmen to train at night.

Launching early next year, the company believes the product range will be a ‘first-of-its-kind’ not only for the military, but also consumer markets such as pest control, and will help position it as a ‘leader in the next-generation of target technology’.

The company’s founder said: “Having served in the British military for the best part of two decades, I knew the market well and had often felt that it was one that hadn’t really moved with the times and had failed to innovate, especially in comparison to other industries, so I decided to develop something which I thought was more suited to the needs of military personnel.

“Initially, we started off producing targets, but as soon as we secured orders and customers began to realise the quality of our products, we sharp began to receive enquiries for other shooting solutions and today produce a wide range of items from targets, to gun cases and bags.”

Prior to the launch of Tactical Shooting Solutions, the shooting target market was dominated by manufacturers in the USA and reshoring production to the UK was something he was keen to explore.

“UK manufacturing is esteemed the world-over due to its exceptional standards and its commitment to innovation,” he said. “Not only has this helped us secure contracts, but it has also helped sustain jobs in the supply chain and tap into some of the brightest brains in the industry to take our products to the next level.”

Having already developed a market-leading product with no prior experience of running a business, the company’s founder began thinking of new ways they could increase their market share and devised the idea of producing a target that would allow military personnel – especially snipers and marksman – train at night.

This led to him being introduced to Richard Eynon, the Industry 4.0 and Electronics Specialist at the SAM Project, a £10.9 million business support programme led by the University of Sunderland and backed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) which helps SME manufacturers innovate and grow.

Richard, alongside experts from the University of Sunderland, worked closely with the firm to explore the electrical requirements that would be needed to develop heated targets, as well as identifying UK factories capable of developing the technology at scale.

He said: “Over the years, I’ve witnessed first-hand how difficult it is for military infantry such as marksmen and snipers to practice at night and have been drawing up ideas for some time to develop something that could fill the gap.

“We knew it had to be heat-powered, however we didn’t have any idea how to make it happen. Thankfully, we were introduced to the team at SAM and – with their technical expertise and funding – were able to not only design a product that was viable, but also establish a sustainable UK supply chain to bring the product to market.

“As a small, family business, the ability to tap into such free, specialist support has been amazing. We would never have been able to tap into such technical expertise had it not been for the SAM Project and we can’t thank them enough for their support.”

Richard Eynon of the SAM Project added: “It was great working with the team at Tactical Shooting Solutions and helping them design, source and implement the bespoke heater pads required to bring this game-changing technology to market.

“The SAM Project was set up to help unlock innovation among the North East’s SME manufacturing community and Tactical Shooting Solutions is a perfect example of how such collaborative working can help make the region’s manufacturers more competitive and increase productivity.”