Higar (01425 617511) threw open its doors to an assembled audience of, in the main, aerospace companies during July, managing director Russell Hicks being keen to underline the company's manufacturing credentials, systems, manufacturing processes and environment.
The 50-employee company, located in New Milton, Hants, had a number of its technology suppliers on hand to help convey some of the details and improvements it has made in such areas as machine tools (DMG – 01582 570661), cutting tools (Cromwell Group – 0116 288 8444 and Sandvik Coromant – 0121 504 5400), coolants (Houghton – 0161 874 5000), CMM (Quality Control Technology – 0115 946 9111), plus also a local college (The Bournemouth & Poole College), where two of the company's apprentices are undergoing training and education, together with a representative from Higar customer Red Bull Racing.
"Higar is about redefining standards and customer expectations," Mr Hicks opens. "We are trying to give customers more than they expect, and push the boundaries of technology, delivery and performance, using some of the latest advanced technology – in the last 12 months, we have invested about 10 per cent of turnover back into capital investment, fairly significant for a company of this size."
Above all, he adds, were honesty and integrity: within the company, and with customers and suppliers. "We are trying to get away from delivery and quality issues, which should be a given. We are achieving 100 per cent on-time delivery and [defects] better than 2,000 ppm with some of our scheduled business customers. We are striving to maintain that and to bring all our customers up to this level, but it is not something we can do alone; customers need to give us good information."
The company is now focusing on "getting cost out of products; reducing risk in products and CNC programming, and also reducing weight, particularly in aerospace parts", the managing director underlines, adding that the company can work with customers at the design concept stage, offering manufacturability advice.
Higar is predominantly an aerospace focused sub-contractor, with over 85 per cent of its business falling in this area, taking in military, civil and aftermarket, in that order. Other sectors serviced take in oil and gas, motorsport and commercial. Turnover growth since 9/11 has been 25 per cent/year, although this year will be different, due to the credit crunch. But he emphasises the company's financial strength by adding that last year Higar returned a best-ever 15 per cent EBIT (earning before interest and tax) – "not many people get into double digits, and this is why we've been able to invest so heavily."
Image:Higar's latest investment has been instrumental in supporting its ambitions
Mr Hicks stresses that the company is operating at world class levels and exampled a recent military order win for Harrier Pegasus engine component manufacture. "We ended up competing against nobody, because there wasn't another company that had the technical capability and the confidence to take that project on. Our customer has told us that it is the most complex product they have ever manufactured." And the company is able to handle large contracts, up to £3-4 million, he emphasises.
That said, at the other end of the spectrum is its after-market operation, making small batches and one-offs in a reactive manner. This particular business element has been grown since 11 September 2009 and now represents about one-third of the company's business. Mr Hicks adds that this is very similar to motorsport sector demands and that he sees motorsport business growing in the future. Indeed, the company has employed people from the sector to bring with them relevant experience and expertise.
Exotic materials are common to aerospace and motorsport, Mr Hicks observes, and he underlines the company's hard metal machining expertise – "We cut 10 tonnes of Inconel and 2 tonnes of titanium last year." Indeed, Higar has established a machining cell to focus on this type of work, which will be key going forward, it is added.
Supporting its success are systems, processes and procedures, of course. At the high level, any part can be tracked and its status known; there is a rigorous new product introduction process, a continuous improvement ethos of some 10 years standing and the company is also currently on the SC21 path (aerospace supply chain business improvement initiative). The company's recently appointed operations manager Matthew Lee has focused on business process development, as he explains.
Health and safety is a core consideration, the company's people being its most important asset, he offers. So, the various elements, a designated lead, an evacuation procedure, safety exits and signage, safety clothing (footwear, glasses, etc), clear shopfloor marking of designated walkways, and strict compliance with required safety equipment for the relevant areas, have all been introduced.
Image:The Rolls-Royce Pegasus engine powers the Harrier
DEVELOPING REAL LEADERS
On the shopfloor, there were team leaders, but while they were called that, they weren't necessarily performing the role effectively, Mr Lee explains. They have now been developed, so that they can fulfil the role properly.
Next, measures were defined to help teams and team members measure their performance. And, while informal positive praise is already given, the company is now in the process of designing a system to formally recognise where performance has been good.
But the new shopfloor culture change wasn't a top-down approach, it is emphasised: employees themselves came up with the structure and job roles, these being developed with the company mission statement in mind.
Moving to further detail, Mr Lee highlights that every day there's a 9 o'clock 'board walk' undertaken by team leaders and management. A job-by-job/machine-by-machine discussion follows, with any issues raised and action put in train to resolve these "there and then". Every Friday there is a "deep dive" meeting between team leaders and management, relating to quality.
Resource planning sees holiday charts, plus skills matrices, indicate where problems may occur; but there is cross- functional training in place to eliminate any single points of failure. Other visual management aids include WIP lanes, while there's an aspiration to be able to display job location and progress information on a single piece of A3 for the whole shop (an MRP system sits above this, of course).
It is also highlighted that engineering has seen significant change. "We now have a well defined structure, with accountability clear and processes are owned. The aim is 'right-first-time' – getting planning, fixtures and tooling right, and injecting pace and energy into process innovation to continually improve."
And helping the company improve are its technology partners, who were present on the day. Sandvik Coromant and DMG have supported Higar's advances in Inconel machining, including its ability to machine it unmanned, unattended over night. Sandvik Coromant saved the company £12,000/year and added 293 hours' capacity, in one Inconel machining example, and DMG is now the company's preferred machine tool partner, with a 5-axis DMG DMU 70 eVo the most recent investment at the company.
Cromwell Group is Higar's single-source tool supplier, with tools distributed on-site via a tool vending system. Over-ordering and machine downtime have been eliminated. Houghton now manages the company's coolant needs, providing a regular on-site visit service. This has eliminated absence of routine checks, smell/bacteria issues, short sump life, and a more-you-use-the-more-the-supplier-benefits situation. Usage and spend have been halved.
In the inspection room, Quality Control Technology has retrofitted its Inspect 3D software to four machines and delivered two Quantum HG machines. The investment gives greater capacity and also common software across all CMMs.
First published in Machinery September 2009