Changing everything

9 min read

In 10 years, honing expert Delapena has actually travelled many decades to arrive at the success it is today, in terms of its current machine tool technology, in-house working practices and service offerings. Andrew Allcock tells the story (extended article)

Contents and links:

  1. Main article as published in Machinery July 2016 but with additional content

  2. Brainstorming and global prices – how news ideas are born and the benefits of a global price

  3. Where’s the demand for honing?

Main article

Most people walking past Delapena’s MACH 2016 exhibition stand this April will have had little idea of the 10-year journey the company has been on, following group chairman David Arthur’s purchase of the operation. But today, with a full line of programmable honing machines, plus growing related services and recent business partnerships that sees the company sitting on a seven-figure order book, this established UK machine tool making name is set to double turnover by 2020, although managing director Martin Elliott is confident that even that will be exceeded.

It is all very different from 2006. “Dickensian” is the word Arthur uses to describe the Cheltenham-based company at that time. With a significant part of his working life spent involved with honing in South Africa and then the USA, he initially arrived in 2005 as a consultant for Delapena’s previous owner, an established honing industry player, but found himself offered the company.

Established in 1927, at its height Delapena (01242 516341) employed 400-or-so people producing in excess of 300 honing machines annually, along with associated tools, at its Cheltenham base, delivering them worldwide. A global brand, there are over 7,000 Delapena machines operating worldwide to the company’s knowledge (some dating to before WWII), although ‘unknown’ installations are regularly turning up, adding to that figure.


But, having moved from the USA, what Arthur got as his prize on 1 July 2006 was a distressed 44-employee business that had been led by people that didn’t understand the business or engineering, had an outdated and completely mechanical product range, suffered from more than a decade of underinvestment and had working practices and attitudes that would have sat comfortably in the 1970s. In short, a company that was viewed externally as all but failed, with that amplified by its MACH 2006 exhibition no-show just prior to the new owner’s tenure. “Everything had to change,” he states.

So why buy it? What was the attraction? Significant was the existence of a concept programmable machine, in which Arthur saw the promise of opening up the process, freeing users from the need for traditional skills. In fact, it was the industry’s first push-button, all-electronic honing machine, but was far from the finished article. Indeed, it would not break cover as a much modified and developed machine until late 2010, as the E1000S featuring Siemens control unit and drives. This apparent slow start was due to the terms under which the business was acquired, which limited funds available for investment. In addition, driving essential internal change proved challenging. There was a plan that envisaged the company that Delapena is today, but it took much longer to execute than first imagined, says the group chairman.

The focus in those first years was, he says, to “build back confidence with suppliers and customers, and to drive revenue”, while the company also had to confront flooding of the premises in 2007 and then the financial crash of 2008. Yet these events were not without benefit, as they, respectively, underpinned property refurbishment and provided further impetus for much-needed company reorganisation. And Delapena returned to MACH in 2008, part of Arthur’s company image-building effort.

In 2009, he struck a deal with Wendt (India) for the manufacture and assembly of Delapena mechanical machines in that country and for their supply to India only. This was prompted by high import duties, but would grow to something more in the coming years.

But 2010 was a pivotal year: Martin Elliott joined the 23-employee company in January as operations director to drive greater internal change; that ground-breaking E1000S arrived; and the company was about to see the back of its initial purchase conditions, freeing up funds to develop the business further.

The E1000S was followed by the larger E2000S, with the extended E2000S-XL CalibreHone unveiled at MACH 2012, also the year Elliott stepped up to become managing director. At the next MACH show, in 2014, the vertical spindle E3000 and the horizontal EAS3000 were introduced, as was the SpeedHone EAS with force feedback that supports safe hand-held part honing (low quantities; 1,000 rpm max). All include that Siemens control and drive package that takes the ‘black art’ out of setting up and running mechanical honing machines, replacing it with a multi-screen, question-and-answer approach that does not require time-served personnel to drive it. The Siemens system has been refined since 2010, explains Arthur, who says: “The machine you see today is very different.” Indeed, it boasts just 12-20 Q&A screens versus the competition’s 79, he underlines. Siemens technology underpins five of the company’s seven-machine range today (the vertical PowerHone and TubeHone 4200 are more simple and so more conventional), with Siemens’ global serviceability playing to worldwide coverage in the more than 20 countries Delapena is present in. (Delapena builds special machines, too, incidentally.)


But back to the pivotal year 2010. Elliott brought to the 23-employee company his 20 years’ experience gained at a local automotive supplier, allowing modern six sigma lean practices and systematic approaches to be applied to Delapena’s activities. Over the next two years, a dozen or so of his work colleagues arrived. He explains: “In an automotive company, you are driven to put [continuous improvement] processes in by customers who audit you. The team I brought in have grown up with those automotive processes that weren’t here, and that is the big change, bringing those processes in. And because I didn’t need to train them, they were good to go.”

He was given a free hand to improve things within the company, says Arthur, who adds: “There was no control over drawings, over manufacturing, over anything; he had a clean sheet of paper. Multi-skilling was another issue where resistance to change needed challenging – today, we have people that can operate three, four or five machines.”

That last one was a situation Elliott had been faced with in his previous role. “It’s a cultural change and requires a way of doing things that isn’t too confrontational; working with those that are willing to change, while bringing along others that may less so. But some of the people had been here 30 years, so had a dated mindset – that’s my machine; that’s my job.”

Recalls Elliott: “When I arrived here, I called a management meeting during which we listed 15 aspirations, which we still have today. We did a SWOT analysis, which we do every year, with the next due this month. From that we create a master plan, draw up KPIs [key performance indicators], while everyone in the office, and some on the shopfloor, has five key objectives to achieve every three months. It’s more about shared objectives, cross-functional teams. We don’t have demarcation; if a job needs doing, we just get it done.

“Now all that strategy is great on paper, but where most people fail is because they look at it once a year; we have monthly review meetings. We have a sales’ roadmap and an operations’ roadmap.”

And as testament to the tight operational ship that 38-employee Delapena now is, external professional confirmation has been received. Elliott again: “We have just had our ISO9001 quality systems audited and were told by the auditor that he doesn’t see systems such as ours in many other companies, even bigger ones. An updated version of ISO9001 has just been released and he said that we don’t have to prepare for it, we are already there. He was very complimentary. We have also just gained an aerospace extension to ISO9001, too.”

Investment in machine tools from XYZ Machine Tools (01823 674200), backed by tooling from WNT (0114 249 6249), has been made along the way, with five XYZ machines now installed and a sixth on the shopping list. Such investment underpinned the return of outsourced activities – component machining, fabrication and the manufacture of honing tools (a recently established special tools manufacturing unit is expected to see huge automotive sector-driven growth). In-house tool blacking and in-house development and production of super-abrasive (diamond) honing sticks, as well as the boosting of in-house design engineering capability, have been other initiatives to bring down the firm’s break-even point – only electrical panels are now bought. Updated computer hardware and software have been other actions, as has been the creation of a honing tool design manual to capture company knowledge for wider use – an early idea of Arthur’s but which has accelerated since 2010.

In addition to operations, Elliott has played a leadership role in pulling all elements of the company’s activities together, highlights the chairman, and has been key in placing people in their most appropriate roles – not necessarily those they held initially. Elliott again: “I gave a presentation when first I came here. People call my idea ‘Martin’s bus’. You need a driver who knows where he is going. You then need to get the right people on the bus and the wrong ones off. Most people stop there, but what I did after that is put the right people in the appropriate seats on the bus. So, for example, a person in sales is now running our in-house subcontract business, because that is where his skills lie and what he enjoys. In another case, a customer service guy actually had very good IT skills and is now in charge of our website and associated e-commerce.” Regular appraisals, ownership of roadmap elements and personal development plans are all other supporting people-facing tools.

This internal focus took about two to three years, with the last three years or so seeing Elliott bring his ‘bus’ approach to bear on distributors. Says Arthur: “Today we have an excellent workforce; top notch. And people are very interested to come and work for us today,” while Elliot says: “It was very pleasing at this year’s MACH exhibition that every one of them [European distributors] bar one came – we have eight European distributors. That’s never been known before.” And he adds that customers similarly sought the company out; again a turning of the tide.

So it was that MACH 2016 was the showcase for a completely re-engineered product range, plus the company’s expanded operations. These include: its subcontract honing division started in 2014; Delapena’s association with Engis Corporation, since last year, that sees the US company act as Delapena’s distributor in 13 territories, while the Cheltenham-based firm acts for Engis in the UK and Europe for honing machine tool and related tooling sales (Engis produces high volume machines); the offering, beginning in 2014, of both CUMI grinding wheels and grinding machines (surface, cylindrical, notch, rotary) in the UK and Europe through its recently established grinding division – a planned result of its India connection now come good; and its established industrial oils operation. A further division is envisaged during the second half of 2016.


All this, alongside related training and commissioning, is described as Delapena being able to offer the “complete package”. Says Arthur: “We encapsulate this in a phrase: ‘improving finish in the bore or on the shaft’. We are a partner to our customers, not just a supplier. We supply engineering solutions, not me-too products.”

And with its breadth, adds Elliott, there isn’t a company undertaking honing or grinding that Delapena shouldn’t be able to sell something to – it currently boasts 3,000 active customer sites in the UK, with 100 new ones added last year – double the target, in fact.

Looking to the future, the buzzword ‘Industry 4.0’ is now in Delapena’s vocabulary. With its machines already having remote connectivity, the target now is machine status/condition feedback via sensors to support, for example, preventative maintenance, with initial moves in this direction starting this month [July] via a cross-functional brainstorm meeting.

So, after 10 years of effort, the next 10 and beyond look set to be prosperous and exciting times for this established but previously tired machine tool brand.

And though not large today, “we expect to be a major player globally,” Arthur says, confirming that prognosis.

A requirement for an additional 20 more people over the next two to three years, plus a move to larger premises, as well as attendance this year at six international exhibitions versus the one every two years previously, all serve to underline that this is no hollow ambition.


Box item 1

Brainstorming and global prices

What does cross-functional brainstorming actually deliver for Delapena? One specific example is its website and where, within its online shop (established in 2012), you can find highly visible pricing for machines and consumables. Says Elliott: “We got a cross-functional team together to develop the online shop. When asked ‘what do you like about an online shop?’, our lady in accounts told us that she liked to see a price. Well, if you went onto Amazon and didn’t see a price, you’d probably move onto another website. We are the only [honing] company that puts all our machine and tooling prices on the internet. And there’s only one price around the world [to avoid distributors selling outside their territories and so diluting customer service, a negative]. We believe that if you like the price and what you see, you’ll make the phone call. So cross-functional teams see ‘silly’ ideas thrown out there that engineers wouldn’t think of.

“I was also influenced by my experience when buying machine tools. XYZ Machine Tools were the only company that was honest and said it’s going to be about this much. Others wanted me to visit, but I didn’t have time for that.”

Box item 2

The demand for honing

Honing is not a diminishing market, Elliott says, pointing to not just the honing of metal but ceramics and glasses as areas that offer fertile ground. In addition, honing can displace internal grinding by providing a far more competitive process. For example, in one example concerning a ceramic part, internal grinding took four hours while Delapena honed the part in 20 minutes. With internal grinding, you get push-off and set-up for each part is time consuming. With honing, a part is dropped into a fixture, requires no clocking up, so it takes just seconds to load new parts; the honing process is a balanced cutting process, as it has opposing forces versus single-line-of-contact internal grinding; and honing can remove material more quickly, because of diamond tooling and balanced forces.

There are new applications coming, for example refurbishing hydraulic cylinders by honing bores that have been chrome sprayed to put material back on, or the requirement to hone automotive turbo spindles that revolve at 300,000 rpm and which require oil-retaining valleys. But the huge growth in UK automotive engine production will fuel demand for machines, tools and tool servicing/management services in general.